Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Seeking clarity in Australian foreign policy

We need to align our ends and means, and engage in practical, tough-minded diplomacy directed at making a difference.

Australian coat of arms on Parliament House, Canberra (Photo: Flickr Clare Wilkinson)
Australian coat of arms on Parliament House, Canberra (Photo: Flickr Clare Wilkinson)

In August, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that the Turnbull Government would produce a new foreign policy white paper. The Minister described it as a 'philosophical framework to guide Australia's engagement, regardless of international events'.

The world is changing so fast it is sometimes hard to keep up. This makes the writing of a white paper very hard. But it also makes it very important.

This will be the third foreign policy white paper Australia has produced, after In the National Interest in 1997 and Advancing the National Interest in 2003. Australia in the Asian Century, a blueprint for Asian engagement, went way beyond foreign policy and was produced by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

By contrast, we have had no shortage of defence white papers – seven since 1976, with four since the turn of the century.

Observers at the Lowy Institute and elsewhere will be hoping the new white paper sets a framework for Australia’s foreign policy to guide our actions. After all, a country of our size and significance should try to shape its environment. Australia responds to events with great professionalism. But what are the shaping initiatives in which Canberra is currently engaged? It is hard to identify many.

I have argued for greater ambition in defining Australia’s interests, but of course, that ambition needs to be tempered by coherence.

In 1943 the American journalist and author Walter Lippmann wrote:

Without the controlling principle that the nation must maintain its objectives and its power in equilibrium, its purposes within its means and its means equal to its purposes, its commitments related to its resources and its resources adequate to its commitments, it is impossible to think at all about foreign affairs.

Australia has not always achieved this equilibrium in foreign affairs.

There have been hyperactive periods when Australian foreign policy was ambitious but incoherent, when we had big ideas but little ability to bring them off. During these periods, we were quick to urge countries to do things we were unprepared to do ourselves. Teddy Roosevelt spoke softly and carried a big stick. We spoke loudly and carried a small stick.

In Lippmann’s terms, our commitments exceeded our resources.

But perhaps the default mode for Australian foreign policy is the opposite – periods characterised by policy laziness, in which we rested on our laurels, fell back on old relationships and old slogans and pursued a small-target strategy. In Lippmann’s typology, our commitments were inadequate compared to our resources.

Australia needs ambitions, not illusions. Governments that try to do too many things at once do few of them well. Governments that are too timid are quickly forgotten. We need to align our ends and means, and engage in practical, tough-minded diplomacy directed at making a difference.

The task of preparing a White Paper was sufficiently difficult when it was announced last August. In November, when the American people elected Donald Trump as president, it became much harder.

For the first time since the Second World War, the leader of the free world has a narrow conception of leadership and may not even believe in the free world. President Trump’s 'hostile' phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and Australian public opinion on Mr Trump both point to complications ahead. The section of the White Paper on the Australia-US alliance will make for fascinating reading.

The Lowy Institute will play a role in the public consultations for the White Paper, with former DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese sharing his experiences at a public event here at the Institute on tonight.  We will also be conducting a roundtable discussion in partnership with DFAT next month.

And in coming weeks The Interpreter will host a wide-ranging debate on what should be in this important national document.

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