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Foreign Policy in the New International Disorder

22 Nov 2016
By Senator the Hon Penny Wong

Foreign policy is always a key portfolio for a party of government, but perhaps even more so at this time. It seems to me that we are in a period in history where foreign policy, its challenges and its dilemmas, will be more important for our country than it has been for some decades.

Incoming Trump Administration

The election of Donald Trump as US president earlier this month is a significant change, not only for America but for the rest of the world.

The size and influence of the US ensures that changes in its leadership or policy direction will impact global affairs.

It will take time for the world, and for Australia, to understand the specific policies that the new president will adopt—as distinct from the campaign rhetoric.

In Australia we need to remember certain principles about how we engage with the US.

The first is that the US alliance remains a critical aspect of Australia’s foreign and defence policy.

We have navigated this alliance over seven decades through many changes of presidencies and prime ministers.

The second principle, certainly for Labor, is that Australia must pursue an independent foreign policy and its own national interest within the alliance framework.

We have our own interests and objectives that we have historically pursued, and will continue to pursue, through our well-established bilateral and multilateral relationships and partnerships in our region.

For Labor, the US alliance has never meant that we reflexively agree with aspect of US policy.

Gough Whitlam did not agree with the US on the Vietnam War and Simon Crean did not agree with the US on the invasion of Iraq.

These Labor positions were subject to vicious attacks by conservatives at the time, but history has vindicated our positions.

In the coming period, we need to consider how best to continue to effect Australia’s foreign policy and global interests within the framework of our alliance with the United States.

The third principle is the fact that we share an alliance doesn’t mean we trade away our values.

Labor’s values include respect for women, racial and religious tolerance, human rights, and economic and social openness and we will assert those values and disagree with leaders of other countries who make statements contrary to those values.

There is, and will continue to be, strong bipartisan support for the alliance.

And the alliance must continue to be defined by shared values and interests with the United States.

The values of democracy, freedom and human rights.

And the common interests of support for a strong alliance network and security system in Asia; an open, global trading system; and a commitment to deal collectively with global threats and challenges.

In terms of the change in Washington, we should, as we always have, engage with the incoming administration on the things that matter to us, including the need for continuing US engagement in Asia and a constructive relationship with China.

US engagement in Asia has been a powerful force for stability, security and prosperity.

Australia should encourage Mr Trump and the new administration to maintain American engagement in the region and in international affairs more broadly.

We also need to work harder in our region ourselves.

The region must be even more of a priority for Australia because the political change in the US means there will be a period of uncertainty until it is clear which of Mr Trump’s campaign pronouncements will be pursued and how they might translate into American foreign policy.

In that context it becomes a greater imperative for Australia to engage with the region—and in doing so, we will be well served by our own pivot to Asia, which Australia commenced in the Hawke-Keating era.

We need to step up our engagement with Asia on economic and development issues.

We need stronger dialogue on human rights and deeper political, strategic and security cooperation.

And we need to work with our partners in the region to encourage the new US administration to maintain and deepen constructive American engagement in Asia.

It’s disappointing that Labor’s articulation of this measured and sensible approach to the change of administration in Washington has been misrepresented by the prime minister.

The man who once called for “a style of leadership that respects people’s intelligence” does himself no credit by engaging in such partisan and misleading behaviour.

Australians do want our political leaders to consider questions of the national interest carefully—they want a sensible and mature discussion, not confected partisanship.

Foreign policy White Paper

Ideas, strategy and focus matter in foreign policy.

Yet, all too often, the need to react to unexpected events can crowd out ideas, blow strategies off course and divert resources from planned activities, creating a reactive rather than a proactive approach.

So it is good news that Ms Bishop has announced that her department will produce a White Paper.

I think it is fair to say that the Abbott-Turnbull Government’s track record to date on a strategic approach to foreign policy has, at times, been less than optimal.

Rather than strategy and ideas, there have been episodes of knee-jerk partisanship (abandoning the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper), missed opportunities (treating chairing the G20 as a vehicle for domestic political messages), and policy contradiction (cutting trade barriers while increasing investment barriers with Asian economies).

Nonetheless, Labor welcomes the initiative to produce a foreign policy White Paper at this time of great change.

While no historical period is static, the economic, political and strategic shifts now unfolding are transformational in their scale and nature.

They represent a challenge to the established orthodoxy and institutions which have dominated international relations for the last half century or more.

At the heart of these changes is the growth of Asia and, within Asia, the rise of China, and the consequent rebalancing of geopolitical forces.

These shifts are giving rise to a number of pressures: strategic competition between the world’s incumbent and emerging great powers; border disputes and tensions over access to resources; a strained multilateral system; risks to the international rules-based order; the rise of political populism and nationalism in reaction against globalisation; and threats posed by extreme Islamist terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

For Australia, the reshaping of the global order raises questions about our place in the world, our identity, our national interest and our ability to influence developments.

The White Paper needs to analyse the implications and develop an articulated framework for how Australia engages with these changes.

Much discussion will continue about what the future will look like.

But ultimately predictive accuracy is less important than the question of what we should do to further Australia’s interests under a range of plausible scenarios.

The starting point should be to identify our vital interests and key opportunities.

Allan Gyngell has suggested that Australia’s interests are in ensuring our region is peaceful, economically open, and stable in the sense that the behaviour of nation states is governed by agreed international norms.

To those interests, we might add continued US engagement, ensuring China is a constructive participant in the international order, deeper bilateral relations with our Asian neighbours, and stability and development in the Pacific.

The opportunities are there to deliver greater prosperity and continued security for Australians.

Asia’s economies are not only growing faster than the developed world.

They are also maturing and diversifying as their populations grow more affluent and demand a wider range of goods and services, and as their policy-makers shift from investment and export-led growth strategies to consumer and service-based models.

Australia’s proximity to this dynamic region will create major opportunities at a time when many advanced economies are experiencing a growth slowdown.

Continued security in our region will depend on cooperation and positive relationships between major powers, including the US, China, India and Japan.

Australia also has opportunities to enhance its role as a middle power and to work with like-minded countries on regional issues such as poverty, climate change and human rights.

To contribute to Australia’s ability to secure our interests and realise the opportunities, the White Paper will need to grapple with a number of hard questions.

How should Australia respond as the global centre of gravity shifts from the Trans-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific?

Is the world moving from a unipolar to a bipolar or multipolar system and how would Australia fit into each of these structures?

How should Australia work to maintain the US alliance and Washington’s focus on Asia in the changing international and domestic political environments?

What would be the consequences of a breakdown in multilateralism for a middle power like Australia?

What changes are needed to the UN and other post-war Bretton Woods institutions to engage emerging powers in the international rules-based order?

There is a tension in foreign policy between the need to respond to the events which press in constantly, from all sides, and the need to pursue the long-term issues that really matter.

Successful pursuit of the national interest requires handling both the urgent and the important.

The White Paper needs to guide our responses to immediate events while providing a road-map to our longer-term objectives.

It will only achieve this if it grapples with the difficult questions and adopts a clear set of strategic priorities.

This is an extract from Senator the Hon Penny Wong’s address to the AIIA’s 2016 National Conference. Senator Wong is the Australian Labor Party’s Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development. The full transcript of her speech is available here.

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