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Preparing for an uncertain future: Australia’s new foreign policy white paper

Image Credit: JJ Harrison (Flickr: Creative Commons)

In August 2016, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced Australia’s first foreign policy white paper since the Howard administration in the early 2000s. What the Foreign Minister termed a “philosophical framework to guide Australia’s engagement, regardless of international events” is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lay the groundwork for a new, independent and flexible foreign policy that can adapt to regional tensions and international political shocks like those that commenced in 2016. With Australia following an out-dated, overly rigid and reactive foreign policy, a new white paper that proposes a fresh and clear medium-term diplomatic strategy is needed desperately – and needs to be done right.

Australia is no stranger to white papers in security and defence policy; the most well-known being the much-publicised Australia in the Asian Century, a broad 320-page outline of Australia’s position within the region written during the Gillard administration. However, modern Australian foreign policy has been almost entirely based on Advancing the National Interest, the foreign policy white paper published in 2003. Both in the domestic and global environment, much has changed since then - more complex problems of terrorism and security, economic globalisation, social change, and environmental crisis have emerged, economic and military partnerships are no longer clear cut and defined, and formerly cordial partners are worryingly bumping chests in volatile areas. With the next few years shaping up to be even more politically turbulent given recent events, it is increasingly important that Australia adapts to this shifting power dynamic with a comprehensive white paper that addresses the shortcomings, aspirations and foreseeable goals of Australian foreign policy.

International relations experts have touted many areas that a new white paper must investigate. While foreign policy must simultaneously avoid spreading a nation’s global reach too wide or too thin, priority in any white paper must be given to dealing with contemporary global issues. These include increasing cybersecurity capabilities, strong action on environmental issues and its resulting medium and long-term problems, promoting human rights and actively engaging to solve humanitarian disasters, and enlarging aid and development regionally and globally. The white paper must also promote regional security, stability and cooperation, particularly as tensions rise between China and the US, with Russia becoming more belligerent, and the ongoing challenge of Australia’s key defence relationship with Indonesia. While Australia’s approach towards global engagement through the United Nations and foreign aid has been a high priority for previous national governments, it is important that any white paper both avoids political demagoguery and engages with the non-governmental organisation (NGO), aid and development sector, who have expressed interest in working to expand global aid and development.

More than likely, economic and political security will be a major priority in the white paper, especially after a year of turbulent global events and as the Trump administration tests regional economic relationships. With growing populist sentiment around the world and a growing malaise towards economic globalisation, the white paper must ensure that Australia is prepared to adapt to these economic and political changes while continuing to pursue important partnerships in a volatile global environment. This is especially relevant as the Trump administration kills off the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Australia strongly advocated for in regional forums. Australia must begin to propose a clear position that discourages isolationism and economic protectionism, and ensures that regional security and multilateralism is upheld in the face of increased security risks, political tensions, and economic woes.

Crucially, the paper must address a growing budgetary squeeze on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is seriously hindering Australian diplomatic participation regionally and globally. The Lowy Institute published a disturbing report in 2011 that highlighted the many linguistic and financial limitations on Australian diplomats across the world, which as of 2017, have not been effectively addressed. For an emerging middle power and key regional player like Australia, a limited diplomatic corps poses numerous difficulties in projecting and promoting interests as well as more active global engagement. Without adequate funding and management strategies, any remotely ambitious white paper will be near on impossible to pursue. The white paper must take steps to address this by funding DFAT to a level on par with Australia’s security and defence apparatuses, along with a greater emphasis on linguistic and cultural understanding, and building stronger diplomatic and economic presences in emerging regions.

The foreign policy white paper is an opportunity to readjust Australia’s position in a turbulent, vastly different world. Flexibility, greater independence, and adaptation to a new world power dynamic must become the central pillars of any white paper, along with providing the resources to better project Australian interests economically and politically in a time of increased uncertainty. It is one thing to propose “a philosophical framework”, but without the means to adopt strategies or pursue them, a white paper would be both toothless and hollow.

Euan Moyle is a student at Macquarie University studying international studies.

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