Australia on the World Stage



I don't often get a chance to discuss Australia, an important but often overlooked (from the American perspective) continent-sized country that serves as America's greatest ally in the Asia-Pacific region. As an alternative to an article I cited in the forum early in 2015, here is an Australian perspective.  The Executive Director of the Lowy Insitute (an Australian think tank), Michael Fullilove, gave a series of lectures based on his book A Larger Australia which attempt to address the question of how Australia's foreign policy should adapt itself to the changes sweeping over the world.  The audio and transcripts for the lectures are available online courtesy of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  I would like to highlight several exerpts from the lecture series, which can serve as an important template for examining Australia's role in the world.

Fullilove's first lecture illustrates the growing instability and rising challenges facing the world:

From north Africa to the Arabian peninsula, there is chaos and civil war, with the black-flagged armies of Islamic State on the march. In west Africa, governments struggle to contain deadly epidemics. In Europe, the historic project to unite the continent looks shaky. To the east, Vladimir Putin’s proxies shoot aircraft out of the sky. In Asia, navies test each other in disputed waters and neighbours exchange artillery fire. Technology is empowering malevolent forces as well as benevolent ones. Terrorist networks proliferate; nuclear weapons threaten to do so. There are more refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people now than at any time since the Second World War. And all the while, the planet continues to heat up. 

One major reason for this instability, Fullilove suggests, is 

our seeming inability to confront them. The country around which the post-war order was constructed, the United States, has inched back from the world, while powers such as China have stepped forward into it. The pillars supporting that order are weak. And the principles that define it are under challenge.

One reason for this trend is the diffusion of power across the international system. For most of Australia’s history, the world was run by countries like our own. When a quarter of the globe was coloured red, we were part of the British empire. Throughout the Pax Americana, Australia has been a treaty ally of the United States. Now, however, our ‘great and powerful friends’ are becoming less great and less powerful.

Fullilove goes on to detail the challenges presented to the Western order by Russia, Iran, and China, which are aggravated by an increasingly isolationist and introspective Western world.  Australia will be affected by this vacuum in power, as problems arising from climate change, refugees, terrorism, and more are no longer addressed by a unified international order, and instead fought over by an increasingly fragmented system.  This instability is compounded by the growing security issues in Asia as nations position themselves for advantage.

In previous decades, these differences were papered over by the overwhelming dominance of the United States, which allowed Asian countries to prosper.  As American dominance has receded, and its attention focused elsewhere, China has stepped into the breach.  Ironically, China's approach to Asia has somewhat rejeuventated American influence:

But sometimes China’s rising confidence and ambition is expressed in other ways. Beijing’s tough approach to territorial issues in its near seas, as well as its new assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere, is pushing other regional players such as Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and India closer together – and closer to the United States. The division of the world by some Chinese officials into ‘big countries’ and ‘small countries’ is disturbing to those who fall on the wrong side of that line.

Australia cannot and should not passively wait for China and the United States to determine the outcome of this struggle (whether that means conflict, separation, or accomodation).  Fullilove points out that Australia has always had an internationalist outlook, in defiance of its isolated geography:

There is an underlying continuity to the way Australians have perceived our national interests and worked to further them. We have always pursued a three-dimensional foreign policy as a means of keeping Australia prosperous and safe.

The three dimensions of which I speak are height, width and depth. Height refers to our practice of working with like-minded great powers – countries that occupy the summit of global politics. Width involves participating in the activities of international institutions. Depth means building strong relations with the countries around us, in Asia.

Regarding the practice of working with like-minded great powers, Fullilove details how Australia has stood side-by-side with the leading Western powers for the last two centuries, and how it has fought beside the United States in every war in which the US participated since the 20th century.  Why should Australia hew so closely to the US?

So why is the US alliance in our national interest? It offers protection from a strategic threat, unlikely though that may be, as well as the interactions with US military forces and their technologies that keep the Australian Defence Force sharp. Critics suggest the wording of the security guarantee is imprecise, which is true – but it is probably clear enough to deter any would-be adversary.

Just as importantly, the alliance provides an entrée to Washington’s inner councils – providing, of course, we have something of interest to say.

Analysts who obsess over the language of the ANZUS treaty miss the bigger picture. For Australia, the alliance is a force multiplier. In order for a country of our size to influence international events, we need to use all the means at our disposal – including skillful dealings with and upon the Americans. Without US leadership, none of the great challenges facing humanity will be solved. By allying ourselves with the Americans, we contribute to global security as well as our own.

The US alliance is not an end in itself but a means of protecting Australian security and furthering Australian interests. US and Australian interests are not identical. But often they run in parallel.

There is one element of the alliance that, until recently, was rarely mentioned – our membership, along with the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, of the Five Eyes intelligence network.

In the Australian foreign policy debate, Five Eyes is the love that dare not speak its name. Before Edward Snowden, it was seldom discussed in the media. The ‘Anglosphere’ is derided as a musty old concept without relevance to modern international relations – but it is alive and well in the form of the Five Eyes. In foreign policy, as in life, our most intimate partners are those with whom we share our secrets.

Through the Five Eyes, we receive privileged access to the products of friendly intelligence services, which help our leaders to make sense of the world. By contributing intelligence we have collected ourselves, we also influence decisions in other Western capitals.

Parallel to working with the Untied States, Australia seeks to magnify its influence by participating in international institutions, such as the UN, the G20, the IMF, the World Bank, and more recently, the AIIB.

That said, Australia has sought insurance in the form of building deeper relationships with its Asian neighbors.  It has done this by welcoming Asian immigrants, signing free trade agreements with several Asian countries, fostering security partnerships, and strengthening regional multilateral institutions.

Recently, however, this three-pronged approach to magnification of Australian influence has encountered difficult choices.  China is Australia's most important trading partner–should Australia downgrade its relationship with the US in order to secure its relationship with China?  Can Australia remain close to the US without eventually having to choose sides in a future dispute between the two?  The answer, Fullilove posits, is for Australia to strengthen its own institutions in order to position itself as an indispensable partner for both countries.  He bluntly illustrates the challenge:

In the past three years the country has had four prime ministers. None of the previous three looked comfortable for long. None of them served a full term. They spent most of their time in survival mode, clinging to office from budget to budget and from poll to poll. Consider how this clouds international perceptions of Australia as a reliable and credible interlocutor.

In the past eight years we have had four foreign ministers, whereas in the preceding nineteen years we had only two. This means that the average tenure of Australian foreign ministers has gone from nearly a decade to a couple of years. Consider how this retards their ability to form deep relationships and develop long-term initiatives.

In the same period we have had six defence ministers. Consider how this inhibits well-informed and far-sighted decision-making about our national security.

Government policy on the issues facing our country has lurched from one pole to the other. Few truly significant reforms have been enacted – and most of those that were stood up were subsequently torn down.

In other words, Australia needs a long-term vision, and the stablity and courage to implement that vision.  Specifically, Australia needs to focus on economic reform in order to ensure economic prosperity, which is the core attribute that enables Australia to exercise influence abroad.  It needs to bolster education and skills training, and attract top-tier immigrants.

Moreover, Australia needs to match its globalist mindset with a globalist ambition–even if Australia is a middle power, it should attempt to play a part in addressing the world's greatest challenges, such as climate change and instability in the Middle East.  If Australia shies away from such challenges under the excuse that those problems are not caused by Australia, and probably will not affect Australia, then it surrenders its ability to influence the pressing matters of the day.

Finally, and controversially, Fullilove calls for Australia to become a republic and finally sever its last formal association with the United Kingdom.  (It's unclear to me why replacing a nominal and powerless Monarch or Governor-General with a nominal and powerless President would significantly improve Australia's international position, but such are the fetishes of leftists like Fullilove.)

Fullilove closes the lecture series by pointing out that Australia seems to be turning increasingly inward, demonstrated by its shrinking cohort of foreign correspondents, which results in Australia getting its foreign news and analysis from foreign sources–in other words, non-Australian entities are helping to shape the way Australians think about global issues, when it should be Australians themselves that bring their own perspective to these issues.  

Furthermore, a prevalent "little Australia" mode of thinking means that foreign travel by Australian politicians is scorned, when it should be supported as part of the effort to grow Australia's network.  This is reflected in Australia's shrinking diplomatic corp, which also limits Australia's influence abroad.  

Fullilove also calls for Australia's foreign aid budget to be expanded, claiming that it increases Australia's leverage and soft power.  He also believes that Australia should boost its hard power with a strengthened military to match the growing challenges present in the Asia-Pacific.

In conclusion, Fullilove calls for a strengthening of Australia-US ties in order to protect the liberal interantional order.  Australia, he says, should increase its participation and ambitions in the international institutions, such as aiming for a recurring seat on the UN Security Council.  Interestingly, he calls for Australia to amplify its soft power through cultural projection:

Increasingly, everything we do as a country will be touched in some way by developments in Asia. We need to redouble our efforts to understand Asia – and to project Australian voices into Asia. In addition to expanding our diplomatic network, Australia should establish cultural and educational centres in key Asian capitals, modelled on the UK’s British Council, Germany’s Goethe-Institut, China’s Confucius Institute and the Japan Foundation.

The Australia Centres would be vehicles to promote Australian ideas, culture and services in Asia. They would host exhibitions and festivals; promote Australian education, arts, science and sport; provide language teaching; act as hubs for existing programs such as the New Colombo Plan; and connect Australians with their Asian counterparts. They would boost our profile and complement our bilateral diplomacy.

And of course, Fullilove calls for Australia to deepen its relationship with China, which is at least as important to its future as the United States.  At the same time, Australia must hedge by upgrading relations with Japan, India, South Korea, Indonesia, and other actors in the region.


And now, my own commentary.

There is much to digest in these lectures, but two questions stand out to me:

  • How will these ambitions (stronger military, stronger diplomatic corp, Australian cultural institutions, more educational spending, etc.) be paid for?  Is this not a re-run of the typical leftist wish-list?  Fullilove called for economic reform in order to maintain prosperity, but will the implied gigantic tax increases help this cause?


  • The other question is if fate will play so neatly into Australia's hands.  If the US and China come into conflict, will Australia be able to maintain Fullilove's Switzerland-like neutrality, or will it have to choose a side?  If it appears that Australia will embrace neutrality, what does this mean in terms of Australia's privileged position in the US-led alliance system?  If Australia must choose a side, will it necessarily choose that of the United States?  It's difficult to imagine the United States attacking Australia under any circumstances, especially as the United Kingdom, perhaps America's most important global ally, increasingly becomes a sycophant towards China.

I can't fault Fullilove's overall view of Australia's position in the world, and the options it should pursue, but it comes across as a bit idealistic, or even naive.  If it were easy to pursue those options, it would have already been done–there is nothing revolutionary in Fullilove's prescription for Australia.  Instead, Fullilove should embrace his own call for a larger Australia, and stop hedging.  Choose a side, and execute a plan with confidence.  The three-pronged strategy of alliance, multilateral institutions, and friendship with Asia is failing because, as Herbert Stein's Law dictates, if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.  Australia had a comfortable multi-decade run in which it could avoid making difficult decisions, but that time is in the past.  What will Australia choose?