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Liberty, equality, fraternity: Three dimensions of Australian foreign policy

Liberty, equality, fraternity: Three dimensions of Australian foreign policy

This is the first in a series of posts marking the launch (tomorrow) of A Larger Australia, the book of the 2015 Boyer Lectures, by Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove.

Since his university days, Michael Fullilove has had two abiding interests: speechcraft and international affairs. This made him the perfect choice to deliver the first Boyer Lectures on foreign policy in over a decade. The talks are mercifully cliché free. They sparkle with pithy observations and choice anecdotes. The 2015 Boyers are a pleasure to consume, and I'm pleased to have been asked to offer some observations on them.

Reading Michael's four lectures prompted three responses. With a nod to the ongoing Paris climate talks, let me sum them up as liberty, equality and fraternity.


Over recent decades, one of the hallmarks of Australian economic policy has been our commitment to openness. It meant cutting tariffs under Whitlam, strengthening immigration under Fraser, creating APEC under Hawke, floating the dollar under Keating, creating the G20 leaders' forum under Rudd, strengthening ties with China under Gillard and signing free-trade agreements under Abbott.

A middle power like Australia — whoops, thanks Michael, a 'significant power' like Australia — will be richer, happier and more interesting if we engage with the world than if we retreat from it. It is in our national interest to be open to the world and help shape the rules, norms and institutions that govern it.

Perhaps it isn't surprising that the head of Australia's leading foreign policy think-tank believes we need to grow our economy to order to improve our foreign policy. But in my view, it makes more sense to see things the other way around. We don't boost living standards so we can expand our diplomatic footprint. Rather, smart foreign policy is a means to improving the wellbeing of Australians. [fold]

Economists sometimes like to tease foreign policy boffins by saying that the purpose of foreign policy is to facilitate trade. It's an exaggeration, of course, but history has shown that foreign policy is a powerful tool for Australia's economic policy. Unfortunately, this is at risk of being eroded. As Michael Fullilove reminds us, Labor laid the groundwork for a brief moment in which Australia chaired both the G20 and the UN Security Council. Alas, Treasurer Morrison's refusal to attend any G20 meetings sends a disappointing signal to our trading partners and misunderstands how the global economy shapes ours at home. Similarly, Australia's sluggish response in joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — signing on only after Britain had joined — sent mixed signals to our region.


Bob Carr once recounted a meeting he had as Australian foreign minister with representatives from 14 Caribbean countries. As he tells it, those present liked our stance on climate change, arms control and protection of the marine environment. But they particularly singled out Australia's apology to the Stolen Generations.

The story reminds us that foreign policy is about values as well as interests. For Australia, one of our central values should be egalitarianism. Ours is a country where there aren't private areas on the beaches, where many of us sit in the front seat of the taxi, and in which audiences rarely stand for the prime minister. The gap between battlers and billionaires has grown considerably in recent decades, but most Australians pride ourselves on being the nation of 'mate' not 'sir'.

Egalitarianism can also be a vital part of our peacekeeping missions. When the UN intervened in Somalia in the 1990s, our troops were more inclined to go on foot patrols than the French and US forces, who tended to stay in jeeps and behind sandbags. As a result, our troops were more likely to listen to local townspeople rather than just hearing the views of tribal leaders. Egalitarianism should also lead us to value an effective aid program, not one where overseas aid has fallen from 0.36% to 0.22% of national income.


Many of Australia's greatest foreign policy moments have seen us strengthening the community of nations. As Michael notes, these included the negotiation of ANZUS, the Cambodian peace accord, the creation of the Cairns Group of agricultural free-trading nations, transforming APEC into a leaders' gathering and restoring order in the Solomon Islands.

Global challenges require acting in solidarity with like-minded nations. And yet I worry that the Liberal-National parties' approach in recent years has had more in common with what Manning Clark called the 'straighteners' rather than the 'enlargers'. Opposing Australia's bid for a UN Security Council seat. Going backwards on climate change. Offending our Pacific neighbours with wisecracks about rising sea levels. In each case, the government presented a 'little Australia' view to the world. A great nation like Australia deserves leadership that projects confidence about our place in the world, rather than shrinking from global challenges.

Michael points out the oddity that some on the right want us to lead in the Middle East and free-ride on climate change; while some on the left want us to lead on climate change and free-ride in the Middle East. I agree with this assesment, and I cannot help noting that Labor is the only party in Australian politics that has consistently argued for Australia to play a role in bringing greater stability in the Middle East and addressing global warming.


In his lectures, Michael argues for a three-dimensional foreign policy, which emphasises depth (Asian engagement), height (alliance management) and width (multilateral diplomacy). To this most useful metaphor, I'd argue that our depth should be informed by economic openness, our height by the value of egalitarianism, and our width by a commitment to the community of nations. In short, liberty, equality and fraternity can teach us something about our place in the globe.

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