Foreign Policy

Allan Gyngell and Michael Wesley write in Making Australian Foreign Policy:

Changes in foreign policy direction are rare but important. The most significant postwar changes in the focus of Australian foreign policy came with the election in 1972 of the Whitlam Government, which introduced a more independent and internationalist foreign policy with a clearer focus on Asia, and the 1996 election of the Howard Government, which abandoned the post-Whitlam bipartisan consensus to focus foreign policy more openly on the national interest and link it more directly to the domestic political agenda.

I have argued in the past that there are three doctrines which inform Australia foreign policy. They are the Great and Powerful Friends doctrine 1, International Liberalism and the Engagement doctrine.

The GAPF gets its name from a comment by Robert Menzies but it was initially used by Billy Hughes at Versailles. This is where Australia subordinates its defence and foreign policy to the ‘great and powerful friend’ in return for security and economic benefits – that is the theory anyway. This means that the Australian foreign policy and defence policies are not in the Australian national interest, but in the ‘great and powerful friends’ interest. When Curtin made his statement that we ‘look to America’ in 1942, he was swapping Britain for the US. It has been that way ever since.

The GAPF is pretty much the dominant philosophy, other than short periods during Gareth Evans’ and Doc Evatt’s time as foreign ministers, it has been the central framework for Australian foreign relations.

International liberalism pops up constantly from back in the days of Immanuel Kant with his cosmopolitan liberalism to Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, and after World War II a short period where it was hoped establishing a confederacy in the United Nations would provide a non-violent means for nation-states to communicate openly. The Cold War effectively snookered this initiative as foreign relations dropped into a binary state between the West and the Soviets. Doc Evatt took the doctrine very seriously to the point where his bluntness of communication was shocking to diplomats of other countries. International liberalism has been persistent. Even today Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers have to work inside the UN framework, a good example being East Timor.

The Engagement doctrine is rather new, though aspects of it have existed in the past, such as components of Percy Spender’s Columbo Plan and Gough Whitlam’s worldview: though Paul Keating and Gareth Evans took it to a new level. The Engagement doctrine is basically the belief that security is not possible unless there is engagement between nations in all areas of national life; from diplomacy, military, economy, society, culture, etc etc. Cultural isolationists tend to find it offensive but Engagement is predicated on Australian strength at all levels – not just governmental or diplomatic.

These three doctrines are never practiced in isolation, nor can the adoption of one exclude the others. As I mentioned every Prime Minister and Foreign Minister has had to deal with the UN, transnational organisations and treaties – so international liberalism still has a place. Same with Engagement, people are so mobile these days that the positive influence of non-governmental character on stability and security cannot be ignored.

Because of the highly different doctrines which Australian governments have used to inform foreign policy there are effects that lead through the Australian system that go beyond foreign affairs itself. For instance the recent debate between GAPF and Engagement proponents brought divergent approaches to military structure and economic policy.

Engagement military policy tends to be what Paul Dibbs calls ‘regionalists’ where the main focus is projecting into the Air-Sea Gap – the Northwest shelf, Timor Sea and Coral Sea. GAPF policy is ‘expeditionist’ in comparison and seeks to ensure that Australian military procurement is compatible with the great and powerful friend’s military. Additionally the ADF is not necessarily structured to defend the Air-Sea Gap, rather, it is for short and long term expeditions as a minor part of the great and powerful friends forces. To confuse it further, international liberalists tend to prefer expeditionist multi-national force deployment: al-la UN.

Central to the GAPF doctrine is that a subservient foreign policy brings economic benefits. The political narrative over the Au-US Free Trade Agreement 2 was an example of this where it was claimed that the Australian support of the Iraq war led to the FTA. In reality bilateral FTAs are the current fashion with the waning power of the international liberalist World Trade Organisation 3 and several nations received FTAs with the US despite opposing the Iraq war or giving moral support only: such as Costa Rica, Singapore and Chile.

So which one of the doctrines is best? I consider the Engagement doctrine a disruptive technology that is the best able to seek national advantage under globalisation. I also believe that the GAPF unnecessarily places Australia in disadvantage on the world stage and inherently cannot live up to its promise of economic and security benefits. Most of the GAPFs assumptions and benefits are persistent political myths from the early 20thC.

That said, the reality is all three doctrines have merit at different times: a strong relationship with the US is a prerequisite in this day and age, as is the transnational structures of international liberalism: and the interdependence of globalisation which engagement seeks to exploit. However, in my opinion governments have hidden behind the myths of the GAPF for far too long – we need more Engagement and less GAPF.

  1. GAPF[]
  2. FTA[]
  3. WTO[]
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17 years ago

I agree with the three broad policy classifications you have used here, however there is one strand of current policy that I think may warrant attention on its own. The policy aim of “strategic denial”, as it is called, drives Australia’s foreign policy in the Pacific region. We must deny other powers who seek influence in our sphere.

John Howard recently talked about the need for Australia to have a presence in Pacific to offset “evil” influences from elsewhere. Possibly because of Howard’s interest in the policies of the US neo-cons, I think that this approach is alive and well, and by no means restricted to the Liberal side of Australian politics.