What exactly is the new Foreign Affairs White Paper supposed to do? 

The foreign minister’s own words don’t help much. A ’philosophical framework to guide Australia’s engagement, regardless of international events’, sounds dangerously like a collection of pious platitudes. And how could it be otherwise, one might ask. The future is unpredictable and foreign policy seems inherently reactive, so what can we usefully say about where Australia’s foreign policy should go over the next few years, let alone beyond?

In fact, there is a lot we can say, and some important decisions we can make. A Foreign Affairs White Paper could be a really valuable and important document, if done right. And at the risk of seeming partial, I’d suggest that doing it right means doing it the way we’d do a Defence White Paper – or at least the way we should do a Defence White Paper.  

A good Defence White Paper is not just an essay about our strategic circumstances. It makes a lot of specific decisions about what we want our forces to be able to do in the decades ahead. It does not do that by trying to predict what specific wars we will actually fight. Instead it identifies the broad features of our environment that are most important to Australia’s security from armed attack in whatever circumstances emerge – our ‘strategic interests’. It then works out what forces we would need to protect these interests, and sets a plan to build and fund them. A good Defence White Paper involves making decisions about what really matters to us, and allocating resources accordingly.

This is just what a Foreign Affairs White Paper could do in the wider field of foreign policy. It is an opportunity to make and explain some big decisions about the kind of world we want to live in and what we are going to do about it. It would be a four-step process:

1. Start by defining in the broadest terms what our foreign policy is supposed to do. We can agree on that easily enough. It goes something like this: shape Australia’s international environment to maximise Australia’s security and prosperity. Some would want to add 'values' to that list, so let’s have that debate and decide one way or the other.

2. Next, identify the features of our international environment that will do most to determine our security and prosperity over the next, say, three or four decades, in the widest range of possible futures. This is not so straightforward. We should aim for a list of just five or six features, which we might call Australia’s 'key foreign policy interests'. There will be lots of debate, as there should be, about what goes on the list and what gets left off. 

Just to get the ball rolling, here is my first stab at what the list might look like:

  • A stable immediate neighbourhood in the Southwest Pacific.
  • Good relations with a stable, prosperous and secure Indonesia.
  • Peaceful and stable relations among the major powers of Asia.
  • An open trading environment in Asia, and globally.
  • Effective global action on climate change.

My list leaves off many things that others would want to include: an effective UN; a stable and peaceful Middle East; an end to global poverty; and better management of refugee flows, just to name a few. So let's debate that and make some choices. 

Of course we could make the choices easier by making the list longer, but that would be a big mistake. This is all about setting priorities so we can focus our effort on what matters most to us. We cannot do everything. If we cannot set priorities, we cannot act effectively.

So we should choose the features of our international setting that really matter to all Australians. It can be easy for a country that has been so secure and so prosperous for so long to forget that foreign policy is not just a matter of exercising influence for its own sake or helping to right the wrongs being done to others. Real foreign policy failures affect the lives of everyone in the country directly. Those are the things we should focus on.

3. The next step is to design a specific long-term plans to address each of the interests on the list we decide on. This is a big, even daunting task. It requires us to be brutally honest about how well we have done so far on our primary interests, and imaginative about what we could do better. We need to ask ourselves, for example, what we can as a country do to support our interests in the Southwest Pacific. Where is our relationship with Indonesia going, and how can we make it work better? How well are we managing the emerging rivalry among Asia’s major powers? What could we do? These are issues that a Foreign Affairs White Paper must address very directly if it is to be any use. 

4. Finally, we have to allocate resources to implement the plans we have developed. There are hard choices here too, moving resources way from things that are not on the list to make sure we can do the things that are. Choices like this are what strategy (in this sense) is all about.

Of course a long-term strategy like this cannot cover every contingency. Things will come up unexpectedly that demand our attention, but with a clear set of priorities we can be sure that we do not get distracted by such passing events from the things that really matter to us.

Naturally it would take a lot of intellectual effort to make the choices embodied in this kind of White Paper, and a lot of political courage to explain and defend them. It would be much easier to stick to pious platitudes. 

Photo: Twitter/Julie Bishop