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Engagement is over

Engagement is over
Published 5 Mar 2015   Follow @AOCarr

Australians sometimes wonder if their nation has a grand strategy. I think it did. It was called 'Engagement' and it has now come to an end.

Beginning in the 1950s and 60s and re-doubled in the 1980s and 90s, Australia's leaders began a historic turn of their nation from West to East. For many this is believed to be a still-distant goal. After all, most of us don't speak an Asian language, too many don't realise Bali is in Indonesia, and our foreign policy keeps looking toward the Middle East and singing sweet notes about the Anglosphere.

Yet on the terms the Engagers actually sought, the policy has been thoroughly achieved.

Cautious about culture and history, their terms of success were focused on gaining economic and political access as a basis for influence and security. Today, Australia's top six export markets and five of our top six import markets are in the Asia Pacific, with the US the only Anglosphere nation to feature prominently in both lists. Politically we have guaranteed ourselves a seat at the table of all of the region's major forums. We have created and reformed institutions, and helped shape the region's values and norms on such key issues as trade, non-proliferation and irregular migration. We no longer fear economic or political isolation as we once did. This is our region and we are no longer the odd man out or even the odd man in, but thoroughly at home.

This is the story I set out to tell in my new book Winning the Peace: Australia's campaign to change the Asia-Pacific, launched last night by Paul Kelly.

However, once I had the mass of notes and chapter drafts before me, I realised that what Australia needs is not a collective effort to praise engagement but to bury it. [fold]

As many have noticed over the last ten or so years, many of our key relationships and key initiatives don't seem to have blossomed as they did in the past. However, I don't accept the usual explanations, such as a lack of 'creativity', 'maturity' or that we can pin the blame on certain individuals or political parties.

Instead, I think the problem is that we still think of our country as an outsider looking to engage, rather than being in a fully enmeshed position, which we actually are. The 'engagement' posture suited us during the courtship, but I believe it's now hurting us in the marriage.

As a self-proclaimed 'middle power' we felt free to let our attention wander between global and local concerns. We saw our relationships as exclusively bilateral concerns and not part of the region's networks and hubs. And we didn't mind being seen as an outsider as long as it gave us the freedom to lob diplomatic hand grenades every once in a while.

The costs of holding onto this 'outsider looking in' engagement-era thinking are starting to mount.

Kevin Rudd was high priest of the need to return to a 'pure' engagement vision. But his voluminous activity earned little respect and his signature policies, such as the Asia-Pacific Community, fell embarrassingly flat. The Gillard Government likewise sought to spruik the need to engage with the Asian Century, but its own thinking looked outdated when it announced a major new US presence in Darwin without even informing the neighbours. Finally, the Abbott Government seems continually surprised that Indonesia doesn't want to keep doing us favours (such as ignoring spying, accepting boats or giving mercy to drug smugglers) and can't quite understand why getting closer to our old friend Japan is leaving many so nervous.

These governments are victims of the success of their predecessors. Their failure is one of adaptation, a result of their desire to cling onto engagement-era thinking.

I don't have an overarching new concept or slogan to sell you at this point. Maybe we shouldn't even think in terms of slogans. But we do need a new intellectual framework that helps us think about what Australia wants from its region and what role it will play within it.

The starting point is to throw away the idea of being an outsider looking in, and begin afresh from our real position as part of Southeast Asia. That probably means more constraints, but it also promises more security and prosperity.

Before that debate can begin, however, we need to accept that the old beloved project of engagement is over. Despite the controversy, this truly was a bipartisan and national effort of re-orientation, of a form and success that few nations have ever attempted. No wonder we have trouble letting it go.
Until we do, however, Australian foreign policy will be far less effective and influential than it ought to be, and our nation will be weaker and poorer for it.

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