It is often said that Australia is a middle power. But there is nothing middling about Australia.
There are 200-odd countries in the world. On every important measure except population, we rank in the top 10 or 20. Our economy is the 12th largest in the world. Our people are the fifth richest. Australia is an old democracy and a free society. We are allied to the global leader and located in the most dynamic region in the world. Our diaspora is one million strong: our own worldwide web of ideas and influence.
We have a continent to ourselves. And we are fortunate enough to share it with the oldest continuing culture on earth.
Australia is not a middle power. Australia is a significant power with regional and global interests — and we should act like one. This begins with a larger debate about our country’s place in the world. The coming changes will affect all Australians and we should include all Australians in the discussion of them.
A robust debate requires high-quality information and analysis. We should not have to rely on the homogenised world view of international media organisations.
It is imperative to the national interest that we keep Australian journalists on the global beat. If that means fewer stories about private schools and house prices, well, sacrifices must be made. Better international coverage would help to elevate the foreign policy debate at home, which is not what it should be.
International issues rarely attract the discussion they merit. The world tends to be reduced to a few totemic issues, such as asylum-seekers. In the future, I suspect, we will have greater threats with which to contend than leaky boats.
Further, the tone of Australian commentary on international relations betrays a persistent strain of self-doubt. Too often we regard ourselves as onlookers or cheerleaders, not players.
I mentioned in my second lecture the peculiar little debate we had on whether we should run for the UN Security Council, although the value of council membership was self-evident.
The routine criticism of overseas travel by ministers is another example of small-country thinking. The general assumption seems to be that ministers travelling abroad on our country’s business are big-noters or rorters.
Recall the breathless reporting a few years ago of the overseas travel racked up by foreign ministers. This is what it has come to, I thought at the time: we complain when the foreign minister visits foreign countries. We should be complaining if the foreign minister did not visit foreign countries.
If this remains the standard of our debate, then we are in trouble as a country.
We saw a similar tendency after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. At the time, many people asked why Moscow would care what Australia thought. But, as it turned out, a strong response from Canberra influenced the tenor of the global debate. Australia helped to stiffen the West’s spine.
Australia can aspire to play in the big global debates. We should aim for nothing less. But if we talk ourselves down, no one will listen to us. If we take ourselves lightly, we can hardly expect others to take us seriously.
I believe our foreign policy debate can be larger than it is. After all, in the 1980s Australians conducted a lively and intelligent debate on economic reform. We should have a similar conversation in the coming years on Australia’s place in the world.
Just as Australia needs a larger debate, I believe we also need a larger foreign policy. This means a greater measure of ambition. It means taking aim at the really big issues.
Of course, that ambition needs to be tempered by coherence. We need ambitions, not illusions. Governments that try to do too many things at once do few of them well. We need to align our ends and means, and engage in practical, tough-minded diplomacy directed at making a difference.
We should try to shape our environment.
Australia responds to events with great professionalism. But what are the shaping initiatives in which we are currently engaged?
Consider some of the occasions in Australian foreign policy history when ambition met coherence: the negotiation of ANZUS; the Colombo Plan; the 1957 commerce treaty with Japan; the recognition of the People’s Republic of China; the diplomatic campaign against apartheid; our peace initiative in Cambodia; the work of the Cairns Group in support of free trade; the development of APEC; the intervention that helped East Timor win its independence; the restoration of law and order in Solomon Islands.
These initiatives were creative and credible. They took ambition and flair along with persistence, pragmatism and attention to detail. And they took leadership.
This is a time of great strategic flux. It is a moment that calls for Australian leadership.
Australia is, Clive James once wrote, “the birthplace of the fortunate”.
But we are responsible for much of our own good fortune. We should be unafraid once more to shape our circumstances, trusting in our own abilities and knowing that providence favours those who help themselves.
“We stand, all of us,” said Winston Churchill in 1941, “upon the watch towers of history.”
Now as then, the view from the watch tower is disquieting. There are patches of sunshine but clouds are accumulating. The disposition of forces in the world is changing before us. The old order is giving way to something new. We do not know what it will look like. But we do know that our region will be central to the new order.
It is often said that our new circumstances present us with a choice: should we throw in our lot with our ally, the US, or our economic partner, China?
It is true that we have a choice, but that’s not it. Australians are unlikely to opt for a two-dimensional approach. We are predisposed towards a three-dimensional foreign policy. This requires us to work with our global ally, strengthen international institutions, and enliven our connections with Asia — and to manage the tensions between these three imperatives.
The real choice we have to make is a different one.
Are we content to be a little nation, anxious about the world and disposed to erect barriers against it, with a negative political system and a meanness of spirit about the place?
Do we want to be a nation with a limited diplomatic network, a modest defence force and a cramped vision of our future? Do we wish to be a people with a habit of talking ourselves down — who must look elsewhere for inspiration because we don’t believe we can fill our highest office from within our own ranks?
Or do we want to be larger than this — a big, confident country, open to the world and alive to the attractions of diversity; a nation with a reforming mindset, a generous debate and a serious public life; an ambitious country with the instruments that enable us to influence the balance of power in Asia; a people with enough confidence and self-belief to have our own head of state?
We need a national conversation about this choice. I hope the men and women of Australia decide to think big.
Edited extract from the final of four lectures in the 2015 ABC Boyer Lectures series, A Larger Australia, by Michael Fullilove. The audio and transcript of the full lecture are available on ABC RN from noon; abc.net.au/rn.