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Predicting Australia's Foreign Policy Future

09 Feb 2017
By Professor Mark Beeson
Australian Soldier Photo Credit: Spc. William Marlow US Army (Wikimedia Commons) Creative Commons

As the government looks at how to frame Australia’s foreign policy for the future, past experience in the international sphere provides a helpful guide. The forthcoming Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade white paper needs to acknowledge the limits of Australia’s middle power status and have a realistic focus on fostering more effective multilateral institutions in both security and economics. 

Australia’s strategic policy, like other aspects of broadly conceived foreign policy, should be based on what is necessary and affordable. This involves being realistic, but not the sort of realism that assumes that conflict is inevitable. More importantly and practically, Australian policymakers need to recognise that it is simply not capable of making a decisive difference to any regional, much less global, conflict should it occur.

Put differently, in the very unlikely event that any of the unaffordable replacement weapons systems that are currently under consideration were actually used in anger, they would not influence the outcome of any conflict involving the major powers. This raises—or should raise—major questions about their rationale and justification.

This is not to suggest that Australia should not have a modest and more affordable defensive capability, or the ability to help some of its immediate neighbours, in the way that it has in the Pacific and Timor. But it ought to mean that ruinously expensive, largely unproductive interventions in far-flung theatres of operation where Australia has no direct national interests are no longer undertaken.

The entirely unproductive and unnecessary involvements in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan demonstrate the merit of this proposition all too clearly. Strategic policy, like other aspects of foreign policy, ought to be preoccupied with security concerns that affect Australia directly and over which it can have some reasonable expectation of making a difference.

This is not a recipe for isolationism. On the contrary, as a good international citizen it is vital that Australia remain involved in attempting to resolve major security threats like terrorism and climate change. The question is how best might a modestly credentialed middle power like Australia achieve this? The answer is through the development of more effective multilateral institutions.

While there are reasons to be sceptical about the impact of the UN and other bodies, this is often because the great powers either ignore them, won’t let them act, or deliberately undermine their efforts. Middle powers have the potential to apply pressure on the great powers to behave cooperatively and responsibly. This can be done most effectively by not uncritically aligning themselves with one great power or another no matter how counterproductive their policies may be.

The folly and wastefulness of existing policy settings is demonstrated in the accelerating arms race in Australia’s region, to which it is one of the largest contributors. Security dilemmas are one of the great paradoxes of strategic policy and one that can never be resolved by ever-greater expenditure on military hardware. Not only are they an appalling waste of money at a time of supposed national stringency, but history also provides a stark reminder of how arms races end.

Australia’s global interests

Australia is especially susceptible to external forces over which it has very little control. Plainly, Australia has an interest in the conflict in Syria and its capacity to fuel international terrorism and/or poison relations between the US and Russia, for example. However, this does not mean that Australia should necessarily get involved in attempting to resolve such conflicts. On the contrary, one of the most important things that any revised foreign policy ought to recognise and act on is the fact that Australia is simply not a global power. Australia’s capacity to influence events and make a difference is regional at best.

There may be something to be said for Australia trying to play a constructive international role and influence debates about key international issues, but this needs to be accompanied by a clear understanding of the limits to our influence and the most appropriate ways it can be exercised.

Few people would now claim that Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq was wise or useful in retrospect; this is especially so since Australia was incapable of making a decisive difference to the outcome of that conflict, or any of the other major wars it has been involved in. Where Australia can make a difference—and arguably ought to—is in the sort of smaller scale regional security challenges previously seen in Timor and the Solomon Islands.

The key point to stress is that policy ought to respond to the specific challenges and context that distinguish different issues and geographical circumstances. Combating climate change, for example—arguably the main threat to Australia’s future prosperity and security—necessitates hitherto unprecedented levels of international cooperation in which Australia can play a constructive role. Indeed, Australia could even play a modest and much-needed leadership role in demonstrating the merits of environmental best practice and international good citizenship.

More generally, however, Australia’s influence will be limited and most effective in its immediate region. The best way to have an influence in this context is to collaborate closely with other, similarly positioned, middle powers in the region. In this regard, Australia has potentially far more in common with the likes of South Korea, Japan and Indonesia than it does with China or the United States for that matter. This was the case before Trump was elected; it is doubly so now. Establishing closer ties and continuing institutionalised relationships with other regional states are potential ways for middle powers to play a role in developing regional responses to regional problems, as well as having some sort of influence on the US and China.

We need to recognise that Australia’s national interest is not served by a slavish and uncritical acquiescence to any other nation’s foreign policies and strategic goals; even America’s will not necessarily align with ours. A more independent, less compliant stance on Australia’s part might have saved the US from embarking on its disastrous invasion of Iraq, too.

If the Trump administration does decide to withdraw from the Asia-Pacific region, or even dramatically recalibrate its relations with China for reasons that make sense to at least some Americans, it would have been the height of folly to have placed all our geopolitical eggs in one basket. 

Grasping economic opportunities

Economic development is largely a consequence of domestic circumstances and policies, but there are some economic issues that foreign policymakers ought to consider. First, the national economic interest of a country like Australia may be contested and unclear as a consequence of transformations in global trade and investment strategies, but it is still likely to be best served through multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization in the long term.

Bilateral trade agreements are sub-optimal in that they absorb significant amounts of scarce diplomatic resources and expertise. Equally importantly, they may not deliver promised benefits anyway. The free trade agreement (FTA) with the US negotiated by the Howard government is a clear example of this: the agreement significantly advantaged the US as the more powerful partner, and was driven by non-economic priorities.

The US-Aus FTA also illustrates the dangers of conflating economic and security issues. Such problems have not disappeared. There may be much to be said for carefully targeted industry policies, but they are less likely to be effective when they are driven by strategic and/or short-term electoral concerns.

The other major point to consider when framing economic policy is that it cannot be done in isolation from a wider regional or even global context. In Australia’s case this means recognising that—absent a not unimaginable economic or strategic crisis—Australia’s economic relationship and reliance on China is likely to intensify over time. The relative economic importance of Australia’s economic relationship with the US must decline as a result.

It would be foolish in the extreme not to recognise this or the possible implications it may have for other aspects of policy—however unpalatable this may be for some members of the policymaking community. Joining the AIIB and RCEP ought never to have been in question given the possible benefits they offer. The regional economy has to be the main focus of Australia’s diplomatic attention, no matter which country happens to be its dominant force. The development of and participation in regional institutions offers the best way of influencing the future development of the region and Australia’s place in it.

This is the second of two edited extracts from Mark Beeson’s submission to the forthcoming foreign policy white paper. The first extract was published on 26 January 2017.

Mark Beeson is professor of political science and international relations at the University of Western Australia. Dr Beeson AIIA Research Chair and was co-editor of the AIIA’s recently published, Navigating the New International Disorder: Australia in World Affairs 2011-2015

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

The AIIA is involved in public consultations for the foreign policy white paper being prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Submissions can be made here