Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Was Abbott right on national security?

Was Abbott right on national security?
Published 31 Mar 2016   Follow @AOCarr

The transformation of Tony Abbott from a social conservative to security commentator has been stark. In his 2009 book Battlelines he offered a bare 4-5 pages of perfunctory defence of the Howard Government's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In office, however, a portrait emerged of a man who 'sits for much of the day...pondering national security, Islamic State and reading Winston Churchill'.

Like Churchill in the wilderness, Abbott has spent his time out of office with a pen in hand, this time writing an essay for Quadrant magazine titled 'I Was Right on National Security'. Quite what Abbott thinks he is right about is hard to know. The essay is a defence of his government, but there are no major judgement calls which the current government has repealed or which are very far from the mainstream. Abbott says he 'was determined to advance our interests, protect our citizens and uphold our values around the world', but we are never specifically told what those interests or values are.

The essay has clear areas of emphasis such as terrorism, the downing of MH17, asylum seekers and China's rise, but no strong sense of how Abbott prioritised the myriad issues he faced. Abbott also spends much of the essay describing the personal interactions he had with world leaders. The combined effect feels much like the critique Abbott used to offer of Kevin Rudd: lots of heat and action, little clear sense of the national interest.

If Abbott's essay reveals one principle which he values most, it is this: Australia needs to be 'a country that said what it meant and did what it said'. Throughout the essay, he identifies his desire for Australia to be

seen as a 'reliable partner'. 'Australia may not be America's most powerful or important ally' Abbott says, 'but we would strive to be its most dependable one'.

There are many who will agree that the Rudd-Gillard years often involved telling foreign countries what they wanted to hear. And middle powers probably do need an image of credibility. But on the list of problems and challenges facing Australia, I'm not sure this issue would even break the top 20. Being direct is a useful diplomatic skill, but is that the main concern affecting Australia's relationships with the US, Japan, China, or Indonesia? [fold]

Perhaps Abbott is trying to insist that Turnbull keeps the promises his government made — such as to Japan. Or maybe this is Abbott the conservative philosopher asserting that honourable nations don't try for clever diplomacy but state their world views directly and let the chips fall where they may? 

Abbott's views never seem to go beyond the anodyne. For instance, when it comes to the US-China relationship, Abbott tells us that 'my formulation was that "you don't gain new friends by losing old ones"'. Which makes good sense. But it's not clear how this drove his government's choices. The essay mentions the tension between security and economic interests with China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but doesn't say why he was then willing to earn US ire by joining it.

Abbott also places a heavy responsibility upon American shoulders, stating 'US absence from any major trouble spot creates a vacuum that less high-minded countries will eventually fill'. In the very next paragraph however we get a paraphrase from US President Barack Obama's West Point speech to the effect that 'America could no longer be the world's policeman on its own'. Abbott's intended point is to say that Australia will stand beside the US. But this seems to miss the message Obama was quietly acknowledging, and which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are now shouting: the US doesn't want responsibility for every major trouble spot. I'm not sure Abbott's promise of dependable Australian support will change that.

Tellingly, the main justification Abbott advances across the essay is not for his views but his management skills. Rather than talk about whether he actually wanted to send 1000 troops into Ukraine after the downing of MH17, we get a discussion of how the he got the machinery of government moving. Rather than state which submarines we should buy, we get a defence of the Competitive Evaluation Process. This emphasis on demonstrating competence might seem unusual, except for the fact that polling at the time he was deposed showed three-quarters of Australians thought Malcolm Turnbull a better manager of security policy than Abbott.

In time, I hope we see much more by Abbott on national security issues. He has a rare position of insight. But until he can separate the defence of his prime ministership from how we should be defending the country, his ability to really contribute to the national security debate will be muted.

Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

You may also be interested in