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The Translator: “Like-minded countries”

A new series in which experts explain the sometimes baffling jargon of international affairs.

We don’t have to be “like-minded” across the board to have common interests (Yoav Hornung/Unsplash)
We don’t have to be “like-minded” across the board to have common interests (Yoav Hornung/Unsplash)

Heard diplomats or analysts using a new turn of phrase only to wonder, “What does that mean?” Today we ask …

What are “like-minded countries”?

Commentators and academics use the term “like-minded” as shorthand for any group of countries that share a similar view, but the term is also used as a less historically and geographically fraught synonym for the grouping that might otherwise be called “the West”.

Using “like-minded” suggests that this group of countries shares certain common values. But, of course, there are always differences of perspective. For example, in most contexts, Japan and Australia are “like-minded” countries, but they do not see eye-to-eye on the issue of whaling. Equally, countries that are “like-minded” on opposing the death penalty might be a different group than those that are “like-minded” on free trade and protectionism.

Do leaders use this term in practice?

Perhaps because of this, it’s interesting to see that the term “like-minded” is only rarely used by Australian ministers compared to commentators.

A search of recent Interpreter articles finds 34 examples of Australia’s like-mindedness, including with the United States and US supply chains, Europeans, the four Quad countries, South Korea, Vietnam and democracies and open societies.

By contrast, speeches from Australia’s Prime Minister, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for Defence, and Minister for International Development and the Pacific from May 2022 to September 2023 only revealed four examples.

At its base, using the term “like-minded” implies the existence of another bloc that disagrees.

Australian Minister for Defence Richard Marles used the term twice during that period: on Japan’s robust support for Ukraine and on collaborating with other countries to develop a strong Australian defence industrial base.

Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy also used the term twice in relation to Australia’s Pacific engagement. On both occasions, he used it as a synonym for Western “donor countries” or traditional development partners. At the Australasian Aid Conference in November 2022, he stressed the value of working in lockstep with like-minded partners through the Quad and the Partners in the Blue Pacific to harness their collective strengths to support regional priorities. He described these partnerships as an asset that Australia can leverage to support our Pacific family.

What are the alternatives?

So, if Australia’s leaders tend to avoid the term “like-minded”, what do they use instead? In the same period, words such as “partner” (613), “friend” (258), and “ally” (35) were much more common.

It’s an interesting reflection of the way that Australian leaders are trying to construct relations with the region.

At its base, “like-minded” implies the existence of another bloc that disagrees. It relies on the listener or reader to make sense of which countries are in each group. When European leaders use the term (eg. in regard to the war in Ukraine), it’s a signal of unity, even if the like-mindedness of EU members can sometimes be overstated.

Countries in Australia’s neighbourhood – the wider Indo-Pacific – are often not “like-minded” on issues such as the Ukraine war or the situation in Gaza. Maintaining good relationships in the region means being cautious about “us and them” terms such as “the West”, “developed/developing” and “like-minded”. The better approach is to focus on cooperation to build a shared future.

Looking at speeches by Australian ministers suggests that they believe friends, partners and neighbours are more likely to listen to what Australia says if they steer away from anything that suggests divisiveness or exclusivity.

We don’t have to be “like-minded” across the board to have common interests.

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