One of the most pernicious cliches in our foreign policy debate is that “Australia punches above its weight”. It’s meant to be a compliment, but it’s inaccurate and demeaning. It underestimates our weight class.
The phrase is not just wrong, however. It’s also debilitating. It breeds complacency — because if we’re already punching above our weight, there’s no need for us to do anything more.
In fact, the reverse is true. We should brace ourselves because in the next decade we will need to move up a weight division.
For Australians, the tyranny of distance is being replaced by the predicament of proximity.
As wealth and power shifts eastwards, towards us, our new economic opportunities are accompanied by new political risks.
We are closer to the world’s booming markets — and closer to the world’s developing crises. We are less isolated — and less insulated. Australians understand this predicament.
For example, the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll, which will be released in May, reveals that sentiments towards China have warmed six points this year to the equal highest point since 2006. On the other hand, nearly half of Australians think it is likely China will be a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, which is up seven points from last year.
How should we approach the predicament of proximity? How can we maximise our opportunities and minimise our risks?
The usual answer is we will need be smarter and shrewder than ever. That is true. But we will also need to be larger.
Our economy and our strategic weight would benefit from a larger population. We can get larger by increasing immigration and boosting our birthrate — but also by embracing the one-million-strong Australian diaspora. Creating a global community of Australians would help to make us a larger country.
We need a larger foreign service. Australia has the smallest diplomatic network of all the G20 nations, and close to the smallest in the developed world. We suffer from a “diplomatic deficit”.
It is madness for Australia to starve its diplomatic service like this. For the past five years, the Lowy Institute’s arguments that Australia needs a larger and better-resourced foreign service have met with vigorous and bipartisan nodding. Now we need action from the government.
Australia also needs a larger, more capable military. Australian defence spending is too low given our strategic circumstances. Indeed, our defence spending has scaled down at exactly the moment when other countries in the region are scaling up.
A gap has opened up between Australia’s ambitions and its capacities. This signals a lack of seriousness — a dangerous signal for a nation to send. What matters here is numbers, not words.
If the Abbott government is to deliver on its promise of increasing defence spending to 2 per cent of gross domestic product within a decade, it will have to make hard choices. The sooner the journey back to 2 per cent starts, the likelier it is that we will reach our destination.
In addition to a larger tool chest, we also need a larger debate about our country’s role in the world.
The coming changes in our region will affect all Australians, so we need Australian eyes on the world. Yet our news organisations are closing foreign bureaus. If foreign coverage is getting thinner, the debate at home is getting flatter. Much of our international debate is deeply unserious. For example, the criticism of overseas travel by senior ministers is an epic example of small-country thinking. It is a sign of our immaturity that we assume that ministers travelling abroad are big-noters or rorters. It reveals a depressingly shrunken opinion of Australia’s possibilities.
Other countries don’t distract themselves with this nonsense. Hillary Clinton was celebrated for the fact she travelled a million miles as US secretary of state.
If this remains the standard of our debate, then we are in trouble as a country. But we can do better. In the 1980s, Australians conducted a lively and intelligent debate on economic reform. We can have a similar debate this decade on Australia’s place in the world.
Finally, we need a larger foreign policy, one that combines two qualities: ambition and coherence. Ambition is about imagination; coherence is about execution.
Achieving both ambition and coherence is difficult. Ultimately, it requires leadership. Tony Abbott will need to decide on the couple of international issues and countries on which he will focus as Prime Minister.
One of these countries should be Indonesia. Both our nations have an interest in refloating the relationship and Abbott has some advantages on this score. Jakarta was his first port of call on assuming office.
If his government can stop the boats, that will earn him credibility in Indonesia. Focusing on Jakarta rather than the Anglospheric capitals of Washington or London would give the Prime Minister the advantage of surprise. Who knows what opportunities this year’s elections in Indonesia will create?
Australia has a choice. Do we want to be a little nation, with a small population, a restricted diplomatic network, a modest defence force and a cramped vision of our future? Or do we want to be larger: a big, confident country with an ability to influence the balance of power in Asia, a constructive public debate, and a foreign policy that is ambitious and coherent?
Are we content to languish in the lower divisions or do we want to move up a weight?
We need a national conversation about this choice. I hope we decide to think big.
Michael Fullilove is executive director of the Lowy Institute. This is an edited extract of an address he will give today to the National Press Club in Canberra.