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Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates

06 Aug 2015
reviewer Professor Michael Wesley

Australian foreign policy studies seems to be a field undergoing a mini-decline these days. Looking around our universities and think tanks, it’s not easy to find scholars who badge themselves solely or even primarily as a specialist on Australian foreign policy. And yet, by another measure, our journals are filled with studies on Australian foreign policy issues and each of our universities  offer a range of well-attended courses on Australian foreign policy.

It’s therefore refreshing to open Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates, compiled by three of the very best dedicated scholars of Australian foreign policy and including the work of the leading figures in the field today. This is a book designed for the undergraduate student market and presents an innovative and engaging introduction to the field for budding Australian foreign policy scholars and practitioners of the future.

But it is much more than just a textbook. It is a lively and thought-provoking read for anyone interested in the full range of issues in Australian foreign policy, with many of the essays and exchanges faithfully reflecting real divisions of opinion within Australian society today. The essays in Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates, present thoughtful, well-researched reflections providing different takes on a broad range of issues in Australian foreign policy.

The book’s success and readability reflects the editors’ careful curation of the project: from the design of the issues covered and perspectives taken, to the selection and pairing of authors. The volume is divided into three sections: on the Origins and Organisation of Australian Foreign Policy; Australia and its Region; and the Future of Australian Foreign Policy. Across these three sections are debates – two authors arguing opposed views – on fifteen topics, stretching from theory and foreign policy to the US alliance; from asylum seekers to religion and foreign policy. The editors provide a one-page introductory ‘background’ to each issue in debate, as well as a short summary of each author’s argument.

The authors and editors take special care to make the writing in Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates accessible and interesting. The authors include serving politicians, media commentators, leading academics and former officials.

It’s impossible in a short review to do justice to all of the debates presented, so I will be selective. The debate on terrorism, on the question, “is the threat of terrorism exaggerated?” is cogent, concise and thought-provoking. Daniel Baldino draws implicitly on the securitisation school to argue that Australia’s CT actions have gone too far; in response, David Martin-Jones describes what he calls the “paradox of liberal multicultural pluralism”, committed to diversity but unable to cope with illiberal ideologies that do not play by pluralist rules.

Another highlight is the exchange between Martin Drum and Peter van Onselen over whether foreign policy should respond to media agendas. Drum makes a nuanced and thoughtful argument about the structural inability of the media to reflect the speed or complexity of foreign policy agendas, while van Onselen makes crucial points about the media and democracy in foreign policy-making.

Most gratifying is that neither the editors nor the authors feel they need to contrive points of difference when they do not hold genuinely opposed views. A good example here is Robyn Eckersley’s and Matt McDonald’s exchange on Australia’s climate change diplomacy. Neither is willing to argue that Australia has been a leader on climate change but by looking at different aspects of the question – Eckersley on climate change action and McDonald on diplomacy – they tell different stories which, individually and together, present a rich account of Australian foreign policy on climate change.

Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates, is a most welcome addition to the teaching, discussion and awareness of Australian foreign policy issues. Let’s hope it marks the beginning of a revival of the field in years to come.

Daniel Baldino, Andrew Carr and Anthony J Langlois (eds) Australian Foreign Policy: Controversies and Debates, Oxford University Press, 2015

Michael Wesley is a Professor and Director of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.