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Free DFAT from “national interests” so that it can solve problems

Discussion of foreign policy always begins by identifying interests, but that’s less helpful than you might think

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the AUKMIN meeting, 10 Downing St, 2023. (Flickr/UK Government)
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong at the AUKMIN meeting, 10 Downing St, 2023. (Flickr/UK Government)

With the 2023 Defence Strategic Review and 2024 National Defence Strategy, Australian defence policy has begun moving away from thinking about the ADF as a means to achieve “interests” and towards using the ADF as a tool for solving “problems”. DFAT should explore the same conceptual shift.

Most discussion of policy begins by identifying “interests”, the things we want to achieve in the world. For example, in a speech to the Lowy Institute in 2017, Penny Wong said “a clear articulation of our national interests provides purpose and direction to the conduct of foreign policy”.

As Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt famously argued, “People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

But while interest frameworks have many strengths and are widely used, they have a number of drawbacks. First, they’re often self-evident. Everyone wants security and prosperity; the challenge is how best to achieve them, particularly when they are in tension. Second, a focus on interests rarely forces governments to be explicit about why any given choice is the right one. Third, focusing on interests doesn’t help policymakers to prioritise, since multiple and competing initiatives can all make legitimate cases to serve the same interest.

In truth, most of what governments choose to do is despite the interest-based framework, not because of it. They want to serve national interests, but national interests as a conceptual framework does not serve them. Other methods and models are used for decisions, while interests are useful mainly as a rhetorical tool that enables governments to justify what they’re doing and allows commentators to critique them.

In recent years, the literature on both business and strategy has begun to argue for an alternate “problem-based” approach which shifts our focus from things we want to do and towards things that most significantly impede our welfare. Interest-based and problem-based frameworks are not opposed, but they do look in different directions. To use an analogy, if we believe the ship of state is no longer sailing as capably as it once did in international affairs, “interests” tell us which harbours we should sail to, while “problems” urge us to pull up the anchors dragging along the seabed.

Australian defence policy has begun to shift towards a problem-based approach. Instead of identifying “strategic interests” and “strategic objectives”, as past White Papers have done, the 2024 National Defence Strategy identifies a handful of core scenarios where Australia may have to use the ADF. Defence can now prioritise solving these problems as its core task.

Could a problem-based approach make sense for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade? There are at least three reason to believe so.

First, for a department that has been pulled in too many directions, for too long, with too few resources, a problem-based framework enables prioritisation. DFAT should set up a task force of their best strategic minds to identify the half-dozen first-order challenges facing Australia’s foreign policy. Once DFAT has a common view, Cabinet could sign off on those priorities. That wouldn’t guarantee new resources, but it could allow a tighter focus, reducing some of DFAT’s exhausting workload. Some of these priorities should be directly tied to Defence’s core problems. For instance, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands have distinct importance given their placement alongside key logistic routes for the ADF. Other priorities may be distinct to DFAT’s remit, such as preparing Australia to better understand, communicate with, and mitigate the challenges of a second Trump presidency.

Second, if we want to strengthen particular trade relationships, one fresh way to do so is to try to solve the problems other states face not simply by offering a good product but by examining the underlying problem driving demand for that product. As Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt famously argued, “People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” It is great that Australia’s critical minerals are high quality and ethically developed, but what is perhaps most valuable is assurance of supply. Can favoured partners be offered bipartisan guarantees of supply that would lead them to help Australia with some of its core problems?

Third, as a stream of reports and articles calling for a National Security Strategy have made clear, there is a feeling of disconnect between the expertise DFAT has about the region and Australia’s broader approach to security. Can the brightest minds in DFAT be given the time and resources to help diagnose Australia’s core security problems? After all, the US Cold War strategy of Containment did not come from the Pentagon or the White House. It emerged from a consular official, George Kennan, who wanted to help America better understand the Soviet “problem”.

A problem-based approach has its limits. DFAT must remain a responsive and globally-attentive organisation. When an earthquake hits – natural or political – it needs people on the spot and engaged. That won’t change. The flipside of prioritisation is a risk of narrowness, leading to surprise or missed opportunities. These risks will have to be carefully examined.

Given the scale of challenges Australia faces, a problem-based framework could sharpen DFAT's focus and deliver real results. Embracing this shift might just be the compass needed to keeping Australia's foreign policy sailing smoothly in a turbulent world.

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