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Is Abbott spreading Australia too thin?

Is Abbott spreading Australia too thin?

Two months ago, as Prime Minister Abbott's globalist reflexes were becoming increasingly apparent, I offered a perspective from Washington that the US should welcome a more prominent role for Australia on the world stage.

I argued that America's steadfast ally had unique normative, diplomatic and geopolitical strengths that could advance our common interests, particularly if Australia escaped from the confines of outdated models of 'deputy sheriff' and the 'hub-and-spoke' alliance system.

This was already occurring with Australian leadership over the MH370 search, at the UN in the wake of the MH17 tragedy, and in helping to deepen military-to-military cooperation between the US and China with next month's trilateral 'Exercise Kowari' in northern Australia. I said at the time, with few reservations, that, 'greater Australian involvement in world politics — again, even in pursuit of its own aims — will ultimately advance American interests.'

Having just returned from a week in Australia that overlapped with the Abbott Government's one-year anniversary, I have to admit it was less clear than ever exactly what those aims are.

Traveling to Canberra, Sydney, and places in between, I had the opportunity to discuss Australia's newfound direction with leading foreign policy and defence experts, as well as officials from the Australian Defence Force, Department of Defence, and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. On everyone's mind was the question of Australia's appropriate role in the world, reinforced by current events and ongoing debates over what the Abbott Government would and should say in its much anticipated Defence White Paper due next year.

And yet, lurking behind widespread support for Australia to be a more proactive security provider in world affairs, it was easy to detect a budding sense of unease among Australia's strategic community. [fold]

A prevailing critique, coming in different flavours and from different angles, was that Prime Minister Abbott risked spreading Australia too thin. If there's one thing Australian security experts are quick to remind you of, it's that their country has limited resources. As a result, doing things like deploying police officers to Ukraine, special operations units to Afghanistan and fighter jets to Iraq quickly places constraints on Canberra's freedom of action, particularly given the requirements of keeping resources at home for homeland defence and unanticipated local crises.

Similar concerns arose about capacity and prioritisation in defence procurement and military modernisation. Sure, it would be great if Australia could go all in with the US on ballistic missile defence, interoperable amphibious forces and a region-wide maritime domain awareness architecture. This in addition to continuing to invest in fifth-generation aircraft while working with Japan on submarine technology and committing to additional spending on military construction to support a rotational US naval presence in Australia.

But as in any country, Prime Minister Abbott will have to ensure that his strategic ambitions do not outpace Australia's capacity. To put this another way, Australia will have to start thinking seriously about the relative impact of its global activism, including trade-offs between expending pockets of resources on numerous international efforts versus consolidating those resources to pursue areas of core competence and comparative advantage.

This is about how, not if, Australia should be a global player.

Perhaps this is where politics and strategy diverge, but hearing that Prime Minister Abbott was sending another 100 police to support efforts in Ukraine, a country in which Australia didn't even have an embassy prior to September 2014, made me wonder whether Australia might be better served by a leader more akin to candidate Abbott, who committed to 'more Jakarta, less Geneva.'

All things being equal, of course Australian contributions in Europe and the Middle East are welcome. And no doubt the Obama Administration values the ability to cast its initiatives as multilateral.

But all things aren't equal. And Australia's backyard, especially Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, is emerging as a focal point of international politics. Therein, Australia's partnerships with India and Japan harbour critical opportunities for exceptional economic and security cooperation. Moreover, Australia has the essential task of preparing for potential instability in the Pacific Islands. *

This is not to suggest that Australia doesn't have the ability or the right to play on global issues with great powers. Of course it does, and Prime Minister Abbott has made that abundantly clear. But the critical question now is: where can Australia make the greatest relative contributions to both its national interests and the larger common interest of advancing peace and prosperity?

Prime Minister Abbott's answer to this question appears to be that Australia should participate in major crises in which it has national security equities, regardless of distance and relative effect. Both admirers and detractors characterised Abbott to me as taking an ideological approach to these issues, similar to Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher.

But it's not yet clear he's convinced the majority of the Australian people or its expert foreign policy community that this is the right path for their country.

While Australia's leading strategists don't all agree with each other on priorities and alternatives, many said quietly (and some not so quietly) that Abbott may dilute Australia's power and influence if globalist ambitions prevent Australia from devoting sufficient resources to issues where it can make more unique and significant contributions. In the case of Australia's global activism, less may ultimately be more. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.

* Ed note: this sentence added at 12.12pm.

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