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The Challenges for Australian Foreign Policy

Address to ACT University of the Third Age, Canberra, 23 May 2019

I have far less confidence today than I did a week ago, for obvious reasons, that Australia will be capable of meeting the disconcerting number of serious foreign policy challenges that now confront this country. But since those challenges are not going away, let me analyse them in exactly the same way I would have had my Labor colleagues been coming into office, in the hope that, at least over time, we will start seeing similar policy responses to those I would have expected from a new Labor government. Whatever the depth of our party differences on domestic policy, it has always seemed to me to be sensible to try to make external policy as bipartisan as possible.

Australia's Strengths. In confronting the many external challenges we will face in the future – and I will be saying a fair bit more about what they are and how I think we should be responding to them – I think it is important to begin with an understanding of the very real strengths and capabilities Australia has, and how we have exercised them in the past.

There is a lot to be said for modesty in the conduct of foreign policy, as in life itself, and there are obvious constraints limiting the exercise of Australia’s diplomatic authority. We are not a great or major power, with economic or military might to match. We are somewhat geographically isolated, though much less than in the past. As a rusted on US ally – at least until now – with an unbroken record for more than a century of fighting Washington’s wars alongside it, we are not always seen, especially by the global South, to be as independently minded as we like to think of ourselves. Memories linger of our past racist policies, and we have to be more careful than most about charges of double standards or hypocrisy if our immigration or other policies are either wrong-headed or misunderstood internationally.

But against all this we have wonderful strengths: assets and capabilities giving real weight to our standing and reputation – some of them inherent or of very long standing, some much more recently acquired. We are by most measures the thirteenth largest economy in the world; by any measure we are the sixth largest by landmass and with the third largest maritime zone; we are one of the most multicultural countries in the globe, with a very large pool of fluent Asian language speakers – hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Australians alone – constituting a fantastic but so far under-appreciated and underutilised resource; and we have, belated though it may be, a strong commitment to our Indigenous people, as the whole world applauded with our apology to the stolen generation.

We bring to the table a unique geopolitical perspective, bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; Australians working in international organizations, both official and non-governmental, and Australian peacekeepers, have won almost universally outstanding reputations; we have had a strong and longstanding commitment to a rule-based global and regional order; and we have had a long record of demonstrated national commitment to the United Nations system in all its security, social and economic justice and human rights dimensions.

Beyond all that, we have been seen for many decades as a creative middle power with global interests and a long – though certainly not unbroken – record of active and effective diplomacy, on global and regional as well as bilateral issues. What should give us confidence in facing the future is how well, particularly under past Labor governments – but, to be fair again, not exclusively so – Australia has played that international role in the past, in defending and advancing our national interests: our national security interests, our national economic interests, and (the third pillar too often neglected by conservatives) our national interest in cooperatively advancing global and regional public goods. This third pillar is what I like to call our national interest in ‘being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen’: my Labor colleague, Penny Wong, prefers the expression ‘constructive internationalism’, but it’s the same basic idea.

A Past Record to Build On. The story of Australia’s international relations, at least since World War II, has been above all that of contest between our history – the perception of ourselves as a transplanted European outpost – and our Asian-hemisphere geography, with geography gradually winning out, albeit not without some periodic backsliding. One familiar way of characterizing that story has been the ‘Fear of Abandonment’, the central theme and title of Allan Gyngell’s recent book: our protracted yearning for the protection of a great and powerful Western friend. But I see that as also being just a variation on the basic theme of our history – our reliance on first Britain and then the United States – having to come to terms with the reality of our Asian geography.

While Australian political leaders were not entirely absent from the world’s stages in our first decades – most obviously (though not very helpfully for our reputation), with Billy Hughes’s performance at Versailles after World War I – Australian foreign policy, in the sense of a desire to pursue our interests combined with some independent capacity to do so, really only dates from the early 1940s. And the creation of any kind of systematic Australian foreign policy really came only with H.V. Evatt, whose most striking contribution was his internationalism. The part he played in the founding of the United Nations is the stuff of which legends are made, and rightly so – especially in his fight for the rights of the smaller powers against the great powers in the respective roles of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and in his faith in the UN as an agent for social and economic reform and as a protector of human rights.

But there were of course aspects of Evatt’s worldview, very much shared by the Labor Party of the time, which were not remotely broad-minded. Right up until the Whitlam era, White Australia and the prejudices which nourished it, and the perception of the world (and particularly our own region) as a dangerous place from which Australia needed to be protected, were very strong strands in the party’s thinking. The early support from Evatt and Chifley for Indonesia’s independence struggle against the Dutch was the closest we came to understanding the new forces at work in our region, and our need to reposition ourselves accordingly. This never became, however, a sustaining or dominant theme in our foreign policy at the time, and it certainly did not become one in the conservative era that followed, from 1949 to 1972.

There wasn’t much left of Evatt’s cooperative internationalism by the end of Menzies’s and his successors’ long reign. It is true that with the Cold War rendering the UN more and more impotent, and multilateral processes generally more and more sterile, there wasn’t much to pursue – other than as a regional extension of alliance relationships. And true it is that we developed, particularly under Casey, cordial diplomatic relations with the emerging new nations of the region; that Spender’s Colombo Plan made a very useful contribution to our long-term relations with Asia; that McEwen deserves credit for the 1957 treaty with Japan and the optimism and foresight that went with it; and that men like Hasluck, and particularly Gorton and Holt, had a quite open-minded international outlook.

But against all this there has to be weighed Menzies’s excruciating Anglophilia; the maintenance until the late 1960s of the full vigour of the White Australia policy; the stridency of our support for Verwoerd’s South Africa; the intensity of our antagonism toward China; the totality of our dependence upon the US; and the ultimate comprehensive misjudgement of our intervention in Vietnam. All this combined to reinforce the image, and the reality, of an Australia largely isolated and irrelevant in its own region.

The Whitlam Government well and truly broke this mould, undaunted by Cold War constraints and showing a great capacity, as Evatt had done, to match Australian foreign policy to the mood and needs of the time. Recognising China; bringing home our last troops from Vietnam; finally burying the White Australia policy; taking France to the World Court for its nuclear tests in the Pacific; and accelerating Papua New Guinea’s independence, were just some of the decisions in that tumultuously active 1972-75 period which set Australia on a new, confidently optimistic internationalist path.

While the Fraser Government which followed from 1975-83 was more than happy to re-embrace Cold War verities, and all the East-West division of friends and enemies that went with it, it is to the credit of Malcolm Fraser himself that on the issues which mattered most for Australia’s long-term capacity to advance its interests, especially in the region, Whitlam’s policies were not only continued, but reinforced. Certainly both Fraser and his Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock both understood, as many in the Coalition for a very long time did not, the critical importance of abandoning government-legitimised racism in any form whatsoever, at home and abroad, not least in his embrace of Vietnamese refugees, in fact less reluctantly than Whitlam.

The Hawke and Keating Governments that took us through the next thirteen years renewed that spirit of activist, optimistic adventure, which had so characterized the Whitlam period, but – at least as I remember it! – in a rather more focused and systematic fashion.

I think it’s fair to say that it was not until well into the 1980s and early 1990s that, under Prime Ministers Hawke and Keating, Australian policymakers really started, seriously and systematically, to redefine our identity, and have that fundamentally influence our policymaking. That was certainly at the heart of the approach I adopted right from the outset as Foreign Minister from 1988-96, saying for example in one of my earliest speeches in that role that in relation to the Asia Pacific, we should not

believe that we are cultural misfits trapped by geography. Australia and Australians should see the region not as something external which needs to be assuaged, but as a common neighbourhood of extraordinary diversity and significant economic potential. The region is primary for Australia because it is where we live, and must learn the business of normal neighbourhood civility. It is where we must find a place and a role if we are to develop our full potential as a nation.

And the Hawke and Keating Governments were able to achieve a great deal both in or own region and wider afield, including helping create the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and other new, cooperative, regional economic and security architecture; crafting the peace plan for Cambodia; securing the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention and advancing some major nuclear weapons objectives; playing a central role throughout during the Uruguay Round trade negotiations; building, with France, a strong coalition to save the Antarctic environment from mining and oil drilling; and in being a key player in crafting the financial sanctions strategy which finally brought down apartheid in South Africa.

Throughout John Howard’s long term, to 2007, foreign policy was dominated by the Prime Minister himself, and that was not to Australia’s advantage. He was over-focused on hard rather than soft power, deeply comfortable in following the US alliance lead wherever it took us, unadventurous in seeking global or regional policy change, profoundly uninterested in the UN and the whole idea of transnational problem-solving by creative multilateral cooperation, and generally inward-looking. In his relationships with our Asian regional neighbours, and especially China, the wheel did turn back in his latter years, and his government did make major contributions to regional stability with Australia’s role in leading the East Timor and Solomon Islands peacekeeping operations. But Howard remained manifestly uncomfortable with the whole idea of our primary relationships needing to be in our own region, and quite unaccepting of the notion that our geography now mattered more than our history.

When the Labor Government was returned in 2007, with Kevin Rudd the dominant foreign policy player – as Prime Minister, Foreign Minister under Julia Gillard, and then as Prime Minister again making common cause with Bob Carr – I think it is fair to say that those who Manning Clark used to describe as the ‘enlargers’ rather than the ‘straiteners’ were back on centre stage in the conduct of our international relations. That was most evident in Rudd’s work on climate change (for all the domestic horror that issue generated for him); in playing a brilliant role in getting Australia into the G20, playing a blinder there in forging a response to the global financial crisis, and building its role in global economic management and potentially on a wider front; in trying to give serious content and energy to a new global debate on nuclear disarmament; in creating (albeit after a few diplomatic slips along the way) important new regional architecture in the expanded East Asian Summit; and in moving to claw back a seat at the table for Australia in the UN Security Council. It was also evident in Australia’s support – driven by Carr, and supported by Rudd in backbench exile, but opposed by Gillard – for moves toward recognition of Palestinian statehood in the UN General Assembly.

The two year Abbott administration, from 2013 to 2015, was back to the early Howard days, with the US alliance relationship front and centre, little regional focus, and multilateral diplomacy seen as of second or third order importance (except insofar as it involved the ‘Anglosphere’). Things improved a little under Turnbull, but with Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister, generally professionally competent though she was, maintaining an essentially transactional rather than any kind of creative or adventurous policy-focused approach – and Scott Morrison and Marise Payne subsequently showing themselves to be out of their depth on external issues – the overall record of the present Coalition government has been at best limp, and at worst very damaging for Australia’s interests. I need hardly say that I find the prospect, after last weekend’s election, of this Coalition Government leading us for another three years deeply dispiriting.

Foreign Policy Challenges. There is no doubt the incoming government will face an international environment, both regionally and globally, more challenging than it has been for a very long time. Big and often disconcerting geopolitical shifts have been occurring, most of them faster and going further than almost any of us would have believed possible not very long ago. They include China’s rapid rise; America’s rapid comparative decline; North Korea’s rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons capability; ASEAN’s loss of a significant amount of its coherence and credibility at a time when both have never been more needed; the re-emergence of our own immediate South Pacific region as a potential playground for major power contest; India’s long awaited emergence as a major player; Russia playing the role of regional hegemon and global spoiler whenever and wherever it can (although, we often forget, its economy remains no bigger than Australia’s); Europe struggling to maintain its own coherence in the face of Britain’s Brexit brain-fade and surging nationalist and populist sentiment across the continent; and a deteriorating worldwide commitment to multilateral problem solving, with diminishing confidence in the capacity of a global rules-based order to constrain those who are big and strong enough to think they can act unilaterally. And that list doesn’t even mention what is happening in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America.

Any one of these challenges could occupy us for the rest of the afternoon, but it is the contest between the United States and China which is dominating almost everything else, and certainly concentrating the minds of Australian policymakers more than anything else.

China’s economic rise has been breathtaking in its speed and magnitude, and is now being accompanied by much more geopolitical assertiveness. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the longstanding injunction of Deng Xiaoping for China to ‘hide its strength, bide its time and never take the lead’ internationally has now been completely abandoned. China wants to be a global rule-maker, not just a rule taker. It is no longer prepared to accept second-rank status in international financial and policymaking institutions. Its economic strength is now being parlayed into geopolitical influence on a massive scale across the Asian continent and its maritime surrounds, including the Pacific, through the Belt and Road Initiative.

Strategically, China wants its own space in East Asia, and is no longer prepared to play second fiddle to the United States. Militarily, while its expenditure and overall firepower does not match America’s, and catch-up globally will be a long time coming, there has been a very significant modernization and expansion of its capability, certainly along the East Asian littoral, and into the Indian Ocean. Most disconcertingly, some expansionist territorial claims have been pursued, most notably in the South China Sea, with the continuing creeping militarisation of the reef installations in the Spratlys.

As China’s authority has been rising, that of the United States has been manifestly waning, notwithstanding the enormous economic and military power the US continues to have, and the alliances and partnerships it continues to maintain. Its President has forfeited by his behaviour any claim to personal respect, and he Trump administration has squandered US credibility, not just in Asia but worldwide, at multiple levels. By tearing up the painstakingly negotiated and so far totally successful nuclear agreement with Iran; by insulting and alienating his NATO partners, and making clear in multiple ways that he regards allies as expensive encumbrances rather than assets; by walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, trying to destroy the WTO, and showing less understanding than a junior high-school student of the economic benefits of international trade; and by mounting a host of other assaults on multilateral institutions and processes, above all walking away from the Paris Climate Accords.

Responding to the Challenges. So how should Australia, and in particular an incoming Labor government, be reacting to these and other stress-generating international developments in our own region and beyond? I think there should be four primary elements in our policy response: Less America, More Self-Reliance, More Asia and More Global Engagement.

Less America. I am not suggesting for a moment that Australia walk away from the US alliance, from which we unquestionably benefit in terms of access to intelligence and high-end armaments, and – however flimsy the ANZUS guarantee may prove to be in reality – the notional deterrent protection of America’s massive military firepower. Continued counter-balancing US engagement in our region is certainly highly desirable, but less reflexive support by Australia for everything the US chooses to do is long overdue. As I have often said, ‘Whither thou goest, there I goest’ might be good theology, but it is not great foreign policy for a country that values its independence and wants international respect.

My own experience strongly suggests that periodically saying ‘no’ to the US when our national interests are manifestly different, makes for a much healthier and productive relationship than one of craven dependence. While Simon Crean’s position in 2003 that we would not support the US invasion of Iraq in the absence of a UN mandate gave Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd, among others, the vapours, he was absolutely right and I hope we would take that stance again if a similar situation arose: I was glad to see Bill Shorten effectively saying as much in his major foreign policy speech last month, but that’s now academic.

The bottom line is that neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that, for all the insurance we might think we have bought with our past support, the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat. While that was almost certainly also the reality under previous administrations, it has been thrown into much starker relief by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, and it should not be assumed that anything would be very different in a post-Trump era. I think the reality is, as my ANU colleague Hugh White has repeatedly put it, that ‘we need to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America’.

None of this positioning is as breathtakingly adventurous, or politically dangerous, as it might once have been. Recognition that the US is a much less reliable ally than it once may have been is alive and well in Europe, is creeping into the writing even of the conservative commentariat here (certainly that of Pope Paul Kelly, if not Cardinal Greg Sheridan), was clearly a subtext of the Government’s own Foreign Policy White Paper in 2017. The new Australian government is going to have to think long and hard about how sensible it is to resist coming to terms with this new reality.

More Self-Reliance. Preparing ourselves to rely less on America certainly means being more of a diplomatic free agent: adding to our reputation and credibility with an activist foreign policy that is creative, proactive, value-adding and unconstrained by the constant urge to look over our shoulder to Washington. But more than that, it does entail, in military terms, building defence capability that involves not only more bucks than we are usually comfortable spending but getting a bigger bang for each of them – focusing as Hugh White will argue in his forthcoming book on Australian defence on maritime denial, with a necessary complete rethink of our major equipment expenditure priorities. It certainly means maximising our capacity to protect our shores and maritime environment (including the South West Pacific) from hostile intrusion, but also means having a capacity to engage in military operations wider afield if there is a good national interest (including responsible global citizenship) reason for doing so.

While defence expenditure has been increasing – with both sides of politics committed to maintaining it at a credible 2 per cent, or slightly more, of GDP – given the size of our continent, our capacity to defend ourselves against any really existential threat is limited. I am optimistic enough to believe that in today’s world the costs and risks of waging war so wildly outweigh any conceivable benefits for any significant player that the likelihood of a major conflict in the foreseeable future is actually very low. But defence planning always has to be based on worst case assumptions, taking into account potential adversaries’ capabilities, not just known intent, and in that context we are going to have to get used to doing more.

More Asia. This to me has two dimensions: on the one hand, strengthening our relationships at all levels with key regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, as a collective counterweight to a potentially overreaching China; and on the other hand trying to develop a more multidimensional relationship, not just a one dimensional economic one, with China itself.

As much as I would welcome Australia developing an even closer relationship with ASEAN as a whole – with all its potential for harnessing the region’s collective middle power energy and capacity – and to see that relationship perhaps extending in the future to some form of associate membership rather than just partnership, I suspect that for the foreseeable future internal divisions, and the organization’s culture of extreme caution, make that unlikely, and that our efforts in South East Asia should be focused on its two heaviest players, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as our traditional partners Singapore and Malaysia. Which means, among other things, that just about the last thing we should be doing is gratuitously putting any of those relationships at risk by the kind of unbelievable folly involved in Morrison’s Jerusalem Embassy thought-bubble.

So far as China itself is concerned, it is critical – and I am glad to see last year’s Foreign Policy White Paper spelling this out quite clearly, and this focus becoming evident in policy statements from our own side – to approach the relationship in a spirit of multi-dimensional engagement. We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for our prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on anything to do with security issues in the hope and expectation, almost certainly now misguided, that the US will do the heavy lifting for us on that front. None of this means becoming Beijing’s patsy, any more than we should be Washington’s: we should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values, and should be prepared to push back strongly when China overreaches, as it has in the South China Sea.

But it does mean recognizing the legitimacy of many of China’s own security and economic national interest claims, including the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative: with us being a little less anxious about its regional security implications, and being prepared – with appropriate commercial caution – to be an active participant in the enterprise. And it certainly means recognizing the legitimacy of China’s demand to be now not just a rule-taker but a participant in global rule-making. In that context, one of the most productive ways of building content into Australia’s relationship may be to work more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to nuclear arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on many of which issues China has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised. Some will say Xi Jinping’s rapid occupation of the climate space abdicated by the US, and rush, similarly, to champion the virtues of free trade, was just cynical opportunism, but I don’t think we should necessarily assume that: we should be out there exploring the options.

More Global Engagement. I strongly believe that this should come back into focus as a sustaining theme of Australian foreign policy, picking up the idea that what I have been calling ‘good international citizenship’ really is itself a core national interest, sitting alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests. The willingness of ALP governments in the past to take seriously the pursuit of global and regional public goods, even when there was no direct or immediate economic or security return, has been a fundamental point of differentiation between us and most of our conservative opponents for decades now, and it’s time in my judgement for this to take centre stage again. If it can’t be a Labor government leading the way, then I hope a Coalition government will at least take this role seriously in a way that it has not previously.

Australia has been at its best, and our standing in the world highest, when we play to the national strengths I described at the outset, and have projected ourselves effectively on to the world stage as a country deeply committed to our common humanity and determined to do everything we can to make the world safer, saner, more prosperous and just.

In the contemporary world, every state’s security, prosperity and quality of life is best advanced by cooperation rather than confrontation, and Australia should be a relentless campaigner for just that. There are many public goods issues on which we could make a positive difference, using our own strengths as a capable, credible middle power and the strategies of international coalition building that are the essence of effective middle power diplomacy.

To take just one example, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, where we have played a major role in global agenda setting in the past with the Canberra Commission initiated by Paul Keating in 1996 and the Australia-Japan Commission initiated by Kevin Rudd in 2009, and can play a major role again, including – I don’t think it’s too naïve to hope – by working with China, which has long been among the least enthusiastic of the nuclear-armed states.

I don’t disagree with those who say that the recently negotiated UN Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty – the Nuclear Ban Treaty – is aspirational rather than remotely operational in its present form, and is never likely to win the support of any of the present nuclear-armed states. But I do think we should be more prepared to knowledge the normative – moral, if you like – significance involved in two-thirds of the world’s countries participating in its negotiation, and not in any way accept that support for the Ban Treaty somehow undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): it does not.

My own view is that the most useful way forward is to develop a broad-based international coalition aimed at bridging the widening gulf between those who clamour hopelessly impractically for global zero now, and those who want to do nothing at all about nuclear disarmament. This is not the occasion to spell it out in detail now, but I think the beginning of wisdom here is a serious step-by-step process of the kind proposed in the Rudd Australia-Japan Commission I co-chaired, focusing initially on the ‘4 Ds’ – Doctrine (‘No First Use’), De-alerting (to build in launch-time delays and reduce the possibility of catastrophic error), Deployment (reducing the number of weapons actively deployed) and Decreasing overall numbers to a small fraction of the 14,500 presently in existence.

We know that complete elimination of nuclear weapons is going to remain out of reach for a very long time, but we just have to do something to reduce the salience and legitimacy of the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, and the most immediate risk to life on this planet as we know it. The other great existential risk is, of course, climate change: but nuclear weapons can kill us a lot faster than CO2. Nuclear disarmament should be core business for any Australian government worth the name.

My own strong belief is that Australians just don't accept that we are another also-ran, and that any government which adopts a posture which concentrates just on our more obvious bilateral relationships, and just on our immediate neighbourhood (though I support completely the re-engagement and re-focus on the South Pacific which has been capturing so much attention recently), and which remains myopic about what is capable of being achieved if we engage in a whole variety of multilateral forums with the skill and stamina which has served us so well in the past, will be a government that will simply not be playing the confident external projection role which most Australians want it to.

Our track record over many decades overwhelmingly shows that Australia and individual Australians are decent and committed international citizens, independently minded – and with a real egalitarian streak, something which plays well with a great many other countries with our strong record, everywhere from peacekeeping missions to diplomatic forums, of neither sucking up to the powerful nor kicking down at the powerless.

Playing to that instinct of decency, focusing on cooperative problem solving, working through forums like the G20 and East Asia Summit and APEC where as a result of past Labor government efforts we have a top-table place, using all the energy and creativity that has traditionally been associated with Australian middle power diplomacy at its best – and above all with ALP governments – will be far and away the best way of ensuring in the years and decades ahead, in a region and world in which the tectonic plates are shifting and every possible kind of uncertainty abounds, that this great country of ours not only survives but thrives.

I would have had a great deal of confidence that with Bill Shorten leading a new ALP government and Penny Wong leading our external relations team, Australia really would be in very good hands, fully realizing our capability in a way that we have almost completely failed to do over the last five years, and doing so in a way that will bring real and lasting benefit not only to our own people, but those of our region and the wider world. I can only hope that the new Morrison Government starts to appreciate the scale of the foreign policy challenge Australia now faces, and at least starts to respond accordingly. Just as well I am, as my memoir title makes clear, an ‘Incorrigible Optimist’.