Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has laid out some tough parameters for her newly commissioned White Paper. It will set out a 'philosophical framework to guide Australia's engagement, regardless of international events', have a 'global focus', and 'look at how to maximise our influence (and) shape the thinking of other nations'. but none of these tasks is harder though than Bishop's desire for the White Paper to be a 'strategy'.
Strategy is a big word. Simplified, it explains how we will build a better future for ourselves, but then 'better future' has to be carefully and prudently defined. If you can't do that, then the way to get there – the strategy - cannot be determined. Second, a strategy is not a plan. Rather, it involves interaction with other actors, all of whom have their own strategies and objectives. With the actions of all being interdependent, a strategy is constantly evolving, needing continual adjustment to keep on track for the 'better future'.
Both these factors suggest that strategies should focus on something definite, and often this is either a particular country or some specific function.
The notion that a foreign affairs strategy should focus on a single country will sound unusual, but with about 200 states in the international system, prioritisation is essential. States can do many things at once, but activity is not the same as achieving meaningful results, even for great powers. In 2002, for example, American conservative thinkers such as Robert Kagan and William Kristol argued that America could invade Iraq and win the Afghan war. Turns out they were wrong.
This failed attempt at multi-asking is in sharp contrast to the American foreign policy of the Cold War, which focused largely on its relationship with a single country: the Soviet Union. Actions took place globally but for America the rest of the world was seen in terms of this central relationship. Other countries could help, hinder or distract the implementation of America's containment policy but they were not important in themselves. The result was success, albeit it wasn't pretty getting there.
If we're considering such an approach for Australia, which nation is most important?
The choice seems to be between China and the US. Arguably, in the last decade the US was the pivot around which our foreign policies revolved. But today, China appears central, with the US seen more in terms of how it can help Australia handle China's rise.
Focusing on a single country would mean that, when considering diverse issues such as Pacific aid, ASEAN engagement or even BREXIT, their importance can be readily assessed relative to Australia's relationship with China (or whichever nation is chosen as crucial).
An alternative to taking a single-country approach is to adopt a functional focus, and here Julie Bishop's observation that 'economics is power and power is economics' might be helpful. In the contemporary globalised world, in which warfare between the major powers is unappealing, geo-politics seems to be giving way to geo-economics. Economic interdependencies can be weaponised through sanctions (just ask the Russians) or can help a country control the agenda (think China's South China Sea success). Trade talks are becoming perceived as a feature of strategic competition more than improving people's standard of living, with the TPP a prominent example.
Geo-economics, as the term's originator Edward Luttwak observed, involves the 'the logic of conflict with the methods of commerce' making relative power key. A strategy that sought to maximise Australia's relative power might be a very different one from, say, a China-focused one. Instead, the stress would be on deliberately diversifying our economic linkages. Moreover, there would need to be an effort to build our national economic resilience so that we could comfortably handle geo-economic pressures from abrupt trade constraints, for example the recent fresh milk concerns of Chinese food safety regulators impacting our exports. There may also be room for some 'pooling of the weak' approaches where peripheral nations might form geographic or functional groupings that can better negotiate with regional economic heavyweights.
This discussion about taking a China-based or geo-economic focus highlights the real predicament behind producing a 'strategic' foreign policy white paper: policymakers are forced to make hard choices about very complex issues. This suggests that maybe the DFAT White Paper won't end up being a strategy designed to shape a favourable future but be instead will be event driven.
Adopting an event-driven approach would make developing a new white paper much easier as the focus can then be inward towards building up DFAT's capabilities to respond to future events. Such an approach means that the Departmental budget needs little prioritisation because forecasting future events of concern is impossible in our uncertain world. Avoiding over-investment in any one area is important. Such a 'broad but thin' approach is likely to please more people then a narrower, contentious, demanding focus that amply funds some specific areas but diminishes others.
While shaping our future has an attraction, in the modern era strategies often lose out to political and bureaucratic pragmatism. Our new white paper seems unlikely to end up as a true strategy, as such an approach is tough on several levels. And if an event-driven White Paper is eventually settled on, there is a model available. Responding to events was the approach underpinning the UK's 2015 National Security Strategy. A DFAT white paper that stresses readiness to respond to (rather than shape) events appears more likely than Julie Bishop's desires might suggest.
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