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Should we aspire to ‘a larger Australia’ in international affairs?

14 Mar 2014
AIIA Fellows responding to the burning question of the week.

Expert Panel-Fellows of the AIIA

HilaryCharlesworthHilary Charlesworth FAIIA-Professor, ANU; Director of Centre for International Governance and JusticeProfessorJocelynCheyAMJocelyn Chey AM FAIIA-Visiting Professor, University of Sydney; former Consul-General in Hong KongJamesCottonJames Cotton FAIIA-Emeritus Professor at the University of NSWRawdonDalrympleRawdon Dalrymple AO FAIIA-Former Visiting Professor, University of Sydney; Chairman of ASEAN Focus Group LtdGraemeDobellGraeme Dobell FAIIA-Journalist Fellow, Australian Strategic Policy InstituteErikaFellerErika Feller FAIIA-Former UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection
Janet_HuntJanet Hunt FAIIA-Former Head of the Australian Council for Overseas AidJamesIngramAOJames Ingram AO FAIIA-Former Diplomat and Head of the UN World Food ProgramJohnMcCarthyAOJohn McCarthy AO FAIIA-Former Ambassador to Japan, Indonesia, the United States, Thailand, Mexico and VietnamRobertO’NeillRobert O’Neill FAIIA– Former Chichele Professor of the History of War, Oxford UniversityGarryWoodardGarry Woodard FAIIA-Former Diplomat and Senior Fellow, University of MelbourneRichardWoolcottACRichard Woolcott FAIIA-Former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade


Question: Should we aspire to ‘a larger Australia’ in international affairs as suggested by Lowy Director Michael Fullilove? 

Graeme Dobell FAIIA
To adapt Trotsky on war: some Australians may not be interested in international affairs, but the real question is whether international affairs will be interested in Australia.The nation that occupies a continent has always been well placed, geographically, to turn inward and isolationist. Yet this has never appealed.  Instead, geography has called Australia to be a superpower in the South Pacific, a major player in Southeast Asia and a significant middle power in the Asian system.The large Australian proposition is that we are deeply engaged in the games where we have always wanted to play. We need to embrace and enjoy that challenge and give ourselves every chance to take every opportunity on offer.
James Ingram AO FAIIA

A more populous and wealthier Australia will potentially be more powerful. However, if by larger is meant more influential that can only happen if we begin to move decisively away from our subservient relationship with the United States of America.

Robert O’Neill FAIIA
Yes, Michael Fullilove is right. From a security perspective, it makes little sense for such a large piece of the earth’s surface as Australia to be occupied by such a small population. In a world of increasing numbers and pressure on available resources, we Australians ought to be making more intense use of our inheritance in many ways. Michael Fullilove has given us some excellent leads for policy development.
James Cotton FAIIA

On Dr Fullilove’s three key observations:

The truth is most Australians underestimate our country’s weight class. We don’t punch above our weight; we punch at our weight’.

On the latter point, agreed – and perhaps we should keep it that way (see below: ‘military’).

‘Now more than ever, we need a first-rate foreign service and a more capable military’.

Australia already possesses a first-rate foreign service cadre. That service however needs the resources to do its job properly. As numerous studies – including the excellent work pioneered by the Lowy Institute and mentioned in the speech – have shown, in utterly convincing detail, those resources have to be restored to former levels if the best is to be expected from the service. Here the speech makes precisely the right point.

Australia’s military is sufficiently capable for its role. Its use in recent times as a foreign policy instrument – as distinct from as a defender of Australia’s sovereignty and essential interests – has led to uneven results, but that has been for reasons that have little to do with the military as such. A more capable military – in the sense of one possessed of greater ‘throw weight’, weapons systems of enhanced range and lethality, etc – would be a doubtful asset since it might well then be even better suited for distant foreign policy adventures (see below: ‘Northeast Asia’). In short, a more nuanced understanding of capability is required.

Australia needs a larger Australian foreign policy – one that is both ‘ambitious and coherent’.

The idea of an ‘ambitious’ foreign policy seems to be a Lowy perennial. The particular objects of the ambition discussed in Dr Fullilove’s text are however surprisingly limited and thus his remarks wear something of an old-fashioned habit. Australia could certainly do very much better in pursuing important national interests, notably working to address food, energy and disease security and to mitigate global climate change. There is nothing about these issues in the speech. For a quick guide to the latter issue, a past Lowy publication, Heating up the Planet, is to be recommended. As has already been the case at the United Nations, Australia should consistently speak for the disempowered, most of whom are women, especially in the least developed nations of the world. Women do not rate a specific mention in the speech; neither does global development.

On Indonesia, however, the speech does make some essential points about coherence, though the absence of any critical note amounts to a lost opportunity. Australia must indeed pay the very greatest attention to relations with Indonesia which should be managed at the highest level and with constant attention to the larger issues. Accordingly, a recent ministerial remark to the effect that Indonesian policy ‘had neither rhyme nor reason,’ while appealing to some domestic constituencies should have been a cause for a public and severe prime ministerial rebuke.

While the speech makes positive reference to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategic conception, India surprisingly rates as much attention in the text as Vietnam. Beyond Indonesia, the next relationship that requires much greater focus – though the rewards will no doubt be meagre for some time – is that with India.

The speech also includes some cautious remarks on China. Caution is certainly required. The idea that Australia should be more ‘ambitious’ in its relations with Northeast Asia however is to be rejected. Australia is neither large nor important enough to be a credible player in relation to China, Japan or Korea, absent the connection with Washington. That connection, however, makes it impossible to assume the role of a disinterested party. With more than a millennium of shared history, the complex relations between these nations have to be managed by the nations concerned.

Rawdon Dalrymple AO FAIIA

Michael Fullilove, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute, has used his National Press Club address to send a very important message to Australia’s politicians, to the media and indeed to all concerned citizens. It is that if Australia wants to be secure and prosperous into the future it needs to grow much faster – in terms of population and economy. And it needs to equip itself with the diplomatic, defence and public relations capabilities to defend and promote its interests in a world and a region which will be much more challenging than what we have had to deal with since WW2.

But the lead-in to his message seems to get off on the wrong foot. He rightly criticises the “pernicious cliche” that “Australia punches above its weight” and argues that the opposite is often the case. The false idea arises, he says because “most Australians underestimate our country’s weight class”. That may be true and the Lowy poll due out next month will perhaps give us a read-out on that as well as many other important questions. But I doubt that Gareth Evans and others who used the punching metaphor were unaware of Australia’s place on the list of national economies – which Fullilove says is now 12th in order of size, having gone up several places since the GFC and the commodities boom. It seems likely to go down a few places in the next few years if the Asian growth story continues.

A similar cliche of a lot of discussion of Australia’s place in the world has been that we are “a middle power”. I recall vividly having once used that expression in conversation with an American professor, Fred Teiwes, a scholar of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney. We were walking along a corridor and Fred swung round from his great height and exclaimed “A what power? A middle what?” The difference in power between the big powers and the sort of power Australia can muster is huge.

I think that what Fullilove has in mind is that Australia has great potential to promote its interests internationally to greater effect and to develop a far more effective capacity to defend itself and to influence others in the region to stand up against a regional superpower with expansionist ambitions. And he is right to say that there is urgency about this. We need to get on with it: with economic reforms, with recovery of diplomatic coverage and DFAT policy influence (as distinct from the opaque intelligence community) and the redevelopment of the ADF with special emphasis on the navy and submarines (ideally nuclear powered ones). He gives high praise to the current Foreign Minister noting especially her work with Fiji. But he does not seek to reconcile the announcement of the agreement to move some small Australian embassies into the UK embassies in the capitals concerned with his call for greater coverage and capability of Australia’s diplomatic establishment. The links with the UK are still valuable and in accord with the sentiments of many Australians. But we need to remember that our monarchical status is not well understood in this part of the world. “Why are you still under England?”

Perhaps Dr Fullilove reckoned that to emphasize that Australia still has a significant economy in world terms is a necessary prolegomena to an argument that we need to get moving on the task of making good the deficiencies in our capabilities to influence developments in this part of the world and to defend ourselves or join with others in resisting a predatory big power. And he is absolutely right that “we are facing unprecedented changes that will test us as a people”. A situation which will demand “in short, a larger Australia”.

Garry Woodard FAIIA
‘Aspirational’ is motherhood (and vice versa). No one can object to using such terms to describe Australia; equally ‘confident’, ‘ambitious’ or ‘coherent’. In referring to Dr Fullilove’s speech, ‘larger’ seems to mean bigger, more active, more assertive, more noticeable, but perhaps with an implication to ‘soft power’. ‘Big tool chest’ calls to mind Sir Winston Churchill’s remark about his colleague Sir Alfred Bossom.In answering this week’s question it is important to consider: What are the ingredients of international status?Economic power?
Able trade negotiators long capitalised on Australia being the 12th largest trader, but an adverse international trend, country FTAs and Australia as a quarry, creating envy not respect, arguably mean our economic power is a wasting international asset.Military power?
Used by Australian leaders after World War I and World War II with contentious results, its days seem gone. Our refusal to mobilise in 1967 helped (unintentionally of course) to reverse US involvement in VietnamMilitary prowess?
This is now obviously an asset only in relations with the US, which is contracting its military reach (probably just as well after Iraq)..Sheer diplomatic skill?
Barwick appropriated this phrase, and it worked for him and for Evans on Cambodia, (i. e Australia’s policy was narrowly focussed and culturally sensitive and knowledgable). Both situations are fundamentally different from the Sino-American relationship, which requires maximum flexibility and long horizons. The Indonesia and Cambodia initiatives monopolised diplomatic talent, which the Lowy Institute is working admirably to rebuild. That will be a long haul.Good friend and neighbour?
Indonesia and Timor Leste would not urge that Australia should loom larger in the neighbourhood.Good international citizen?
By all means give it another try, modestly.Watching and studying ‘Big Australian Initiatives’ from Evatt’s efforts
1946-50 to mediate an end to the Cold War through to Fraser’s worldwide anti-Soviet crusade 1976-82 has left me uneasy about ‘Big Messages’.
(Consistently, I was an early critic at AIIA (Vic) of Kevin Rudd’s Asia Pacific community).
Erika Feller FAIIA
My some 27 years with the UN leads me to answer the question with a resounding yes. We live in a world of increasingly shared and common spaces, in which very confronting, potentially destabilizing events do not and will not respect Westphalian notions of sovereignty. Global migration patterns, forced people movements, environmental destruction and climate change are but several. Space, land and seas are part of a common heritage whose protection requires ever greater international cooperation. Australia’s interests in multilateral issues have in my experience often been too narrowly defined over recent times. Serious engagement on international issues has tended to flow from what is politically hot domestically, with inadequate attention paid to longer term consequences of non-engagement. The label “Pragmatic multilateralism” has been tagged to the policies of the moment. Sometimes I feel “Parochial multilateralism” might be more apt.


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