Canberra’s rejection of America’s request for an additional Australian troop presence in the Middle East should not be underestimated: it signals a growing maturity and self-assurance in Australian foreign policy that will ultimately strengthen Australia’s place in the world, and enhance the Australia-US alliance.
The first month of 2016 has seen important developments in the style and substance of Australia’s relationship with its staunchest ally and security guarantor, the United States.
Australia’s decision to decline a request by Washington to increase Australian boots on the ground in the fight against ISIS demonstrates a growing maturity in Australian foreign policy. It is a decision that reflects the confidence that comes with a change of leadership and the returning sense of political stability – a shift that has enabled Australian foreign policy makers to better adapt the US relationship to a contemporary international political environment.
The last months of 2015 and 2016 have so far seen foreign policy at the top of the political agenda within Australia. Prime Minister Turnbull’s visits to multiple countries in November and December last year usefully broadcast his stylistic differences and superior ability as a statesman when compared with his predecessor, Tony Abbott.
Turnbull’s recent trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and the US in late January 2016 has been similarly useful in showing a patient and strategic, long-term approach to Australia’s role in international affairs that goes far beyond an overtly compliant relationship with the US.
The rejection of Washington’s request for a greater Australian military presence in the Middle East is enormously consequential for Australian foreign policy in the coming years.
By declining a formal request, Australia is displaying a greater autonomy than it had shown under Abbott and previous governments. This has the consequence of ensuring that the US does not take the Australian alliance for granted – forcing Washington to continuously work on the relationship with Turnbull rather than expecting unwavering allegiance to America’s international ambitions.
The decision has been an important symbolic gesture by a prime minister determined to apply an innovative and nuanced style - which he professes to take on economic matters - towards Australia’s foreign policy.
Upon the rejection of the American request, Washington’s overtures to Canberra amplified. The State Department extended the warmest praise to the Australian alliance, and to Turnbull himself.
The prime minister's two-day visit to Washington saw the positive symbolism continue, with Turnbull enjoying residency in accommodation traditionally reserved for only the most distinguished international guests – a privilege Abbott never enjoyed - and an equally rare two-hour working lunch with President Obama himself.
Such overtures from Washington may have intended to sway Turnbull towards a more compliant position on expanding Australia’s presence in the Middle East. Instead, the prime minister firmly reasserted his reluctance for a larger Australian role.
In an important speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington think tank, Turnbull reaffirmed the need for a stronger response by powers closer to the ‘theatre’ of war.
He emphasised that it was time to find co-operation between all regional actors, including the US, Iran and Russia. In the same speech, Turnbull reiterated Australia’s important role in multilateral settings, suggesting Canberra’s future role in the Middle East should be one of creative diplomacy rather than just military involvement.
Not only does Australia’s denial of the US request for further troops, and the rhetoric deployed by Turnbull in Washington this month, imply greater autonomy in Canberra’s foreign policy, it also suggests that Australia’s role in the Middle East may be shifting.
I have previously argued that Australia could have a key role to play in the eventual negotiated settlement to the conflict in the Middle East: Canberra’s interests in a future Syrian state are significantly less than all regional and major powers vying for influence, and its relatively strong relationships with major Middle Eastern actors, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – not to mention the US – leave it well placed to act as an important mediator in international negotiations.
Any significant increase in Australia’s troop presence – particularly if it is seen as being forced by the US – will undermine Australia’s credibility in the region, reinforcing its reputation as an overly compliant partner to Washington’s foreign policy.
By deliberately altering this reputation, Canberra can better demonstrate a more independent, confident and mature diplomatic approach to the region.
The rejection of America’s request is an important symbol by Australia. It represents a shift towards a more confident and self-assured foreign policy that will enhance Australia’s global influence, and will strengthen ties with the US in the long-term.
Edward Cavanough is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs. He tweets at @actoncavanough and can be reached at email@example.com.
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