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'Be the change…' An opportunity to overhaul Australian foreign policy

Image credit: NASA (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Without any doubt, the whole wide world has been reeling from the outcome of the 8 November 2016 US election. Officially the 45th president-elect of the United States, Donald J. Trump has been the most popularised conversation revolving around our dinner tables. In particular, the greatest talking point has been the business tycoon, reality television personality turned politician’s national and international policy projections. Australia’s greatest ally whom we have enduringly relied upon now appears to be our most unpredictable and precarious one. His verbal pledge to dismantle the long-awaited Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a pivot away from the inclusive dialogue our region has come to expect. But we in Australia must think about a greater question: what does this mean for us? More specifically, what does this mean for Australian foreign policy?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tells us that Australia will be ‘working closely’ with the incumbent American administration as we have invariably done since the end of the Second World War. But when leading strategic studies expert Hugh White, who's known for his contentious view against Australia's hedging relationship between the US and China, tells us in his post-election contribution to the Lowy Institute to prepare for an end to the ANZUS alliance, then maybe we ought to take heed. For Trump’s presidency might just be the necessary shake up that our government needs to transform Australia's foreign affairs for the better.

Change is hard. Change is jarring. But it's necessary if we are to progress in our foreign policy and as a country. Former prime minister Paul Keating shares a similar sentiment with White, urging us that the time is ripe for Australia to break free from the shackles in which our defence framework is confined and ‘cut the tag’. Indeed, Australia must make a transformation in defiance, audacity and sovereign autonomy. Our region’s ‘arc of instability’ could be made stable by placing some distance between ourselves and the US. Instead, Australia could be a militarily independent nation with robust multilateral partnerships within the Asia-Pacific region. Ultimately, this would project Australia’s revised ambition as nonpartisan powerbroker seeking to uphold regional security.

Various Australian prime ministers have chosen to refer to our sunburnt country as a creative ‘middle-power’ or a ‘top-20 nation’. None of the labels have ever expanded our benchmark to aspire for something more. Ever since our nation’s inception, we have relied on the strength of our allies with the ANZUS treaty acting as the foundational ‘bedrock’ for our defence policy. But doing so has acted as our crutch. Our British ancestry was replaced during the Second World War by familiar Anglo faces as America acted as our security guarantor. Since then, we have not paused to evaluate. But this unquestioned affiliation whirls pangs of apathetic and lackadaisical conservatism. Reimagining one’s place in the world has been achieved by the likes of France, which is known for its occasional divergence from the US. During the Cold War, France developed an autonomous charisma inspired by the regional ambitions of French statesman Charles De Gaulle. Perhaps Australia should follow suit.

Few analyses have weighed in their opinions, concerned about prematurely formulating their prescriptions when it’s still too early to confirm Trump's foreign policy ambitions. Will the US retreat from the Asia-Pacific and become an isolationist country as it was in the 1920s and 30s? Or will it expand its global hegemony through greater faucets by asserting more might in the South China Sea? Australia will gain nothing from taking sides in the disputes over the Spratly and Paracel Islands as conflict will certainly curtail freedom of navigation and trade. What's America’s next move? Or more importantly, what are the prospects of potential flare ups over regional tensions? Under Trump, all of this remains uncertain.

But what we can be certain about is that Australia is strong, capable and our diverse voices need to be heard across the seas. Doing so does not mean we foster a belligerent attitude, relinquish our ties or lose favour with our allies. Certainly, Australia could do this by becoming a greater multilateral contributor within ASEAN or APEC. Or better yet, Australia could lead the rework of the TPP without the US, similar to the leadership established by the Cairns group in which Australia prioritised regional partnerships. Indeed, within this capricious international realm, Australia ought to be a contender in its own right. Mahatma Gandhi, the famous Indian nationalist, is often misquoted and reduced to the swift catchphrase bumper sticker, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’. Yet, I would argue that the most crucial part of his quote is actually ignored. It is 'We need not wait to see what others do'. Hence, maybe it's time for Australia to be truly seen, respected and heard by being a proactive leader in the region.

Faseeha Hashmi holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne, with an interest in security and human rights.

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