Foreign Policy Needs a Shake up

ImageNOTES ON THE NEWS: For those of us who take an interest in world affairs, the current election campaign is even more of a washout than usual. Even The Australian’s foreign editor is now devoting his columns to domestic politics.

Apart from a desultory debate on the treatment of the boat people – with both sides seemingly drawing closer together on policy but often being disingenuous with their arguments – there has been scant mention of our role in the world and the world about us, even though our livelihoods depend on this.

But comments this week by Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), were a timely reminder that whoever gets the keys to The Lodge after September 7, foreign policy will need a shake-up. Mr Jennings says that if Kevin Rudd wins, he would have no reason to stick with Julia Gillard’s Asian Century white paper, while Tony Abbott has promised “more Jakarta and less Geneva”.

What exactly does this mean?  ASPI produced its own 60-page foreign policy strategy document this week, which would fuel political debate if only we could have one. It is well worth reading.

Essentially it proposes a radical change: that we should adopt a global rather than an Asian-centric foreign policy focus, distilled in a new white paper rather than the flawed and aspirational Gillard prime ministerial document, where the emphasis was on the big five Asian countries, with only a passing mention of the rest. ASPI describes its treatment of security issues as “glib”.

Importantly, it suggests the new government should restore order and consistency to defence planning, “by reconciling ambitious equipment plans with budget realities”.  And it wants to see a white paper on Cyber security within 12 months.

On national security, Peter Jennings argues three key issues will challenge decision making – the need for a more coherent approach to Australia’s interests in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond; the return to some order in defence planning and spending; rethinking intelligence operations and how to deal with cyber threats.

I would not take issue with any of this, and certainly agree that Australia should think globally think globally, rather than through the prism of the Asia big five, important though they may be. China’s growth has slowed substantially in recent years, and it is far too early to talk of the ‘Chinese Century’, however good a marketing slogan that may be.  North Asia is beset with problems, and Australian foreign policymakers have to get to grips with the fact that the six power talks over the Korean peninsular are a non-starter. Few, if any, of the participants want them to succeed, but, of course, they will not admit to that, so we continue with the pretence that resumption might provide a solution to the Korean question.

The Japanese fear the potential strength of a united Korea, the Chinese don’t fancy the prospect of American troops up the Yaiu river, while Seoul is uncomfortable about being saddled with the lion’s share of the cost of reunification.  As for Pyongyang, it seeks regime recognition and continuation above everything, and no one will sign up to that.

The complex issues in the South China Sea also hold out little prospect of regional stability. Some of us from the AIIA attended a 14-hour ASPI workshop in Sydney last week in a search for confidence building measures that, if introduced, might nurse the various parties towards a resolution. It quickly became apparent that the disagreements go far beyond disputes over island outcrops and uninhabited rocks. They involve sovereignty, history, oil and gas drilling rights, national and international laws, illegal fishing and other maritime activities, proper sea routes, drug trafficking, people trafficking, terrorism, electronic surveillance, and a whole lot more, much of it not covered by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

To his credit, Senator Bob Carr, foreign minister, took time off political campaigning to contribute to the workshop, which involved senior military, academic and other participants from most stakeholder countries in the South China Sea. As he pointed out, Australia, with more than 90 per cent of its merchandise trade moving by sea, two-thirds of that through the South and East China seas, has no deeper national interest.

The ASPI initiative is a great contribution by a not-for-profit organisation, and others, including the AIIA, can and should engage in public diplomacy over the South China Sea. It is clear Canberra is limited by the deep cuts in public funding at DFAT and the Department of Defence. 

Outside the region, there are other areas that need a rethink. All, in one form or another, involve international organisations, or the ‘international architecture’, as some like to call it. Most international bureaucracies need an overhaul, but the three most pressing are the Group of 20(G20), the European Union, and the United Nations.

Australia takes over the chair of the G20 in November ahead of next year’s meeting in Brisbane, and Senator Carr will be standing in for the prime minister at this year’s gathering in St Petersburg on September 5 and 6, just prior to the election. In theory a G20 summit is the world’s most important annual meeting, because it includes China, India, and Brazil, as well as strategically important countries such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea.

Australia played a useful role in moving G20 centre stage, but the fizz has gone out of the bottle, and G8, where Japan is the only Asian country, has refused to lie down and die. It is overweight in European members – Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Russia – and the Americans seem to like it that way, especially as secretary of state John Kerry appears to be ‘pivoting’ across the Atlantic rather than the Pacific.

The problem with G20 is twofold. So far it has not really produced anything of much value to its members, or the wider world, other than some fairly bland communiqués. Secondly, it lacks a permanent secretariat – highly skilled, highly motivated and energetic officials that can drive an agenda forward, especially in foreign policy and economy areas. China may have the world’s second largest economy, and Japan the third, but together the United States and the European Union is the most powerful bloc, and are moving slowly but relentlessly towards a game-changing free trade treaty. This development, together with the probable failure of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, should be watched very closely by Australia’s politicians and business leaders.

This leads to the second institution – the European Union. Mark Twain once said that reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated, and so it is with the European Union. I have to confess that I myself have had my doubts about the longevity of euro zone, if not the EU itself.

But after spending five weeks in Europe this winter, I sense a will and desire to survive, notwithstanding awful problems in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and deterioration in France since the election of Francois Hollande as French president. Overall the EU is growing again, albeit slowly, and it looks as if Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition will still be in power after next month’s election. Once that happens the strength of Germany, along with the Nordic countries, and Poland will assert its influence.

The big question is over Britain. It is very important for Australia that Britain remains in the EU, because London remains the most valuable connection for Canberra, not least because of its ongoing supremacy as a financial centre, and our commercial ties. It is beginning to look as if the referendum in Scotland to split from the UK will fail, but the future of Britain in Europe is far from certain.  The success of the UK Independence Party in local elections has fed xenophobic notions that Britain can somehow prosper outside the EU. Were there to be a ‘No’ vote in a referendum on staying in the EU, Australia would need to rethink its approach to Europe, and strengthen its connections at every level with Germany, and some other countries.

The post-election foreign minister should follow the example of Radek Sikorski, Poland’s counterpart, in making it clear to the Cameron government and the British public how important it is for Europe that Britain’s influence not only be maintained in Europe, but also increased. It may be said this is none of Australia’s business. That is not true. A strong Europe based on sound economic principles is needed as a counterbalance to rising Russian influence and challenges, and an increasingly unstable Middle East. A fracturing Europe will be a disaster.

Australia’s voice may not count for much in London, but there is no point in remaining silent in a city where the influence of Russian oligarchs now goes well beyond Stamford Bridge. If Poland can alert Britain to the risks of isolation, so should Australia.

Finally, there are the international institutions. Nearly all of them are in a greater or lesser degree of decay. Despite that, many serve a useful purpose, but tend to be self-perpetuating entities that are not subject to sufficient scrutiny or public attention.  These include UNCTAD, UNESCO, ILO, and the World Trade Organisation. There is also the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which is swamped by the tasks it has to fulfil, and whose inability to cope in a decade where numbers have swollen, leading to increased people trafficking and other forms of illegal migration.

Of course Australia this year and next has a lead role in the United Nations with its temporary seat on the Security Council. In this capacity and others, it is in a position to ask questions about the effectiveness of UN, particularly with regard to conflict resolution in appalling situations such as that in Syria and, now, Egypt.

The UN can claim some accomplishments, but the organisation is the product of the 20th Century, built to address the international issues of the time. Today’s issues are very different. Many of them, like Syria, involve subjects of humanitarian and military intervention – the responsibility to protect; the right to intervene – but so long as countries like China, Russ and the United States consistently use their Security Council veto, the UN will be inhibited, even if there is agreement on a particular action.

Like many others, I have been to countless conferences and seminars on UN reform over the past 20 years, but we are further away from creating a body fit for today’s world as ever.  This leads to much hand wringing by our present foreign minister, but a policy goal for 2014 should be gathering international support for a new and revitalised UN. We did it with the creation of the Cairns Group on world trade, which, despite limited success, made its mark.

In short there is a need for our foreign policy to be more ambitious, and more global.

Colin Chapman is president of the AIIA in NSW, and an international writer and broadcaster


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