Australian Outlook

In this section

Reconciling the Australian National Interest

14 Apr 2023
By Dr Heather Smith PSM FAIIA
AIIA National President Heather Smith. Source: AIIA National

We are at a unique time in world history. This is a period of unprecedented turbulence stemming from a confluence of events that we have not witnessed in the past three-quarters of a century.

We are in uncharted waters, and worse, as United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted this year at Davos, we are “plagued by a perfect storm on a number of fronts.” As some have said, we are living in a “polycrisis,” where the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, geostrategic competition, entrenched inflation, supply chain management, and a myriad of international problems are all connected. We used to think of “complex interdependence” as a pathway to peace. If all nations had to rely on each other for solutions, there was more incentive to cooperate peacefully.

That doesn’t now seem to be the case. Within such a connected environment, problems also become more complex. In an environment characterised by a lack of strategic trust, solutions to international problems will be harder to arrive at, and they will need to reflect a wider range of perspectives. Unfortunately, there is today little faith in common solutions negotiated through a globalised international system.

For its part, Australia is being pushed and pulled by the interrelated forces of deglobalisation and the ongoing distributive backlash; geostrategic competition and the struggle against authoritarianism; the digital revolution and techno-nationalism; and energy transformation and decarbonisation of the global economy. This new world is deeply at odds with Australia’s history, where Australia has benefitted from a sustained period of globalisation and peace between major powers.

In this new world, Australia will need to be clear-eyed about its national interests. In its simplest form, the national interest should be about ensuring security, prosperity, and social cohesion of the nation and its people, today and into the future. But different sections of Australian society place different weights and priorities in terms of security, prosperity, and social cohesion. And there is no shared understanding of the costs the Australian people are prepared to pay to achieve each.

It is time for Australia to adopt a national interest strategy, or at the very least a national statement that brings together an integrated and balanced understanding of the national interest, incorporating security, economic, and societal interests. Such a strategy would help bring clearer policy frameworks to decision-making by better connecting the principles that guide domestic economic interests – competitive markets, robust institutions, and a focus on social wellbeing – with the principles that underpin national security: interests, values, identity, and history.

While an ambitious objective, such a strategy will only succeed if there is a recognition that public input is crucial. Especially in a vibrant democracy like Australia, it should be a truism that you cannot have a national strategy, or even a plan for national security, without engaging the nation.

Indeed, the era when strategic policy was pursued behind closed doors has passed. The threats we face, and the difficult choices our elected leaders will have to make on our behalf, call for more, not less public discussion because of the profound inter-generational implications.

When Allan Gyngell assumed the National Presidency of the AIIA in 2017, he spoke to three types of public opinion dealing with foreign affairs: interest groups who seek to advance a cause they believe in; the interested generalists who keep themselves informed; and the general public who, short of war, terrorist threats, and consular cases, have little interest in foreign policy.

If think tank polling of the Australian public is anything to go by, an informed national discussion is needed on what is in Australia’s national interest because of the inevitable trade-offs it now faces. Lowy Institute polls point to the societal contradictions. While Australians’ trust in China has fallen sharply, and most Australians see the alliance with the US as making Australia safer, more than three quarters of those surveyed in 2022 also believe that the alliance with the US makes it more likely Australia will be drawn into a war in Asia that would not be in Australia’s interests.

And in a world that has been deglobalising since the global financial crisis, seven in ten Australians saw globalisation as being good for the nation. Eight in ten saw free trade as being good for living standards. But if Australians were asked to prepare the national budget, Lowy Institute polling suggests most would prioritise spending on health, education, and social welfare over foreign and defence policy issues. And at a time when there has already been a commitment to increase outlays, only slightly over half say defence spending should be increased.

My own interpretation of these seemingly conflicting perspectives is that while the Australian public intuitively understand that Australia will almost always align with the US in a crisis, they also wish to have, and exercise, strategic manoeuvrability, and that at times Australia will need to choose its own path. Like most in the region, they want a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific where countries can make their sovereign choices and are not forced to choose sides.

In terms of economic interests, Australians should also pause to reflect upon the consequences as the US seeks to technologically contain China, and China seeks to build a self-sufficient and war-resilient economy, and the implications of that for the region and beyond. It signals to others the price each is willing to pay to safeguard their interests.

It also shows Australia urgently needs guardrails to prevent further escalation toward military conflict, and to mitigate the inevitable spillover effects of unilateral economic policies and policies to foster collective resilience. Policymakers should take heed of the IMF’s recent sobering analysis of the costs of geoeconomic fragmentation for trade, investment, and financial flows. Australians should expect growth to be lower, slower, and more unequal. For Australia, threading this needle of unilateral and collective resilience will be particularly difficult given its dependence on well-functioning, transparent global markets that have underwritten Australia’s prosperity.

Adam Tooze recently said in the context of this polycrisis that “no one is outside the current conjecture. There are different vantage points, with different perspectives, but no single point and no single theory that encompasses our reality.” In these turbulent times, disagreement on economic, foreign, and strategic policy issues is to be expected. But it seems that recently many experts have been talking past one another.

The national security narrative has become dominant, muscular, and all-encompassing, along the lines of “don’t you understand the magnitude of the threat.” The civilian narrative is “we need sovereign capability to ensure our resilience.” However, there has yet to be a national conversation as to the trade-offs that will be needed as Australia builds resilience at home and abroad, and a sustained focus on deterrence. This will test the social license as to what is sustainable.

A wider conversation is needed. Indeed, this has been the guiding principle of this institute since it was founded. To note one of the AIIA’s early presidents, Richard Boyer, in the 1947 inaugural issue of The Australian Outlook, which later became the Australian Journal of International Affairs, and which you can find just metres away in our library:

The day is long past when the issues covered by the Institute are matters of intellectual and group concern only. The Institute is designed to leave its mark to some good purpose on the actual turn of events. It does so not by espousing any policy – indeed, it is strictly prevented by its constitution from endorsing or propagating any point of view. It does aim, however, to strike firmly at the heart of the problem by setting up means whereby research into international issues may be carried out and information of a factual nature may be disseminated, and also to act as a forum wherein those competent not only to give information but to express views may do so without any limitation and without unwanted publicity.

In this day and age, where the Chatham House Rule may have been diminished by broadcast of speaker events, it may be difficult to avoid the publicity, but the rest still rings true.

The purpose of the Australian Institute of International Affairs is to help Australians know more, understand more, and engage more in international affairs. The role that the AIIA plays in the public discussion on the state of the world and Australia in it has never been more important.

It is therefore appropriate that the organisation continues to be firmly grounded in the communities of Australia’s states and territories. As president of the AIIA, I hope to see the AIIA’s role and contribution enhanced both nationally and beyond the capital cities into regional communities to ensure all Australians can be better informed of the challenges, opportunities, and trade-offs that they need to navigate over the years ahead.

Dr Heather Smith PSM FAIIA is the National President and a fellow of the AIIA.

This article is adapted from a speech delivered by Heather on 13 April 2023 at the AIIA National Office. Read the full text of the speech HERE

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