Australian Foreign Affairs The Big Picture: Towards an Independent Foreign Policy

November 29, 2017

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Australian-Foreign-Affairs-Oct-2017Launched in October 2017, Australian Foreign Affairs is a new journal that “seeks to explore – and encourage – debate on Australia’s place in the world and global outlook.” The inaugural issue, The Big Picture: Towards an Independent Foreign Policy, achieves this aim and sets a solid foundation for future discussions and debates. The Big Picture includes essays from leading academics Allan Gyngell, Linda Jakobson, James Curran and John Delury; an article on the changing face of Australia by one of our most thoughtful journalists and political authors, George Megalogenis; and an interview of strong opinion, clear analysis and memorable one-liners with former Prime Minister Paul Keating.

Towards an Independent Foreign Policy may seem a slightly misleading sub-title, since contributors argue that Australia should retain formal military alliance relations with the USA while being less willing to automatically “tag along” with our big and powerful ally. This is what Paul Keating meant when he said that Australia should “cut the tag” with the United States. (He is not as radical in his critique of Australia/US relations as former PM Malcolm Fraser became in his final years.) Canada and New Zealand provide models for this alliance without obeisance. These two nations, unlike Australia under Prime Minister John Howard, did not follow the USA into the Iraq wars. Fortunately, Australia, like other US allies in the South-East Asian region today, has so far resisted US encouragement to “send a message to China” by sailing warships through the South China Sea. Australian Foreign Affairs emphasises that Australia needs to take responsibility for our own actions. In Allan Gyngell’s words: “It’s not independence that Australian foreign policy needs, but substance, subtlety and creativity.”

The Big Picture includes interviews and articles written in accessible prose on such topics as: Australia’s relationships with the USA and the People’s Republic of China; Australia’s changing demographic profile and emergence as a Eurasian nation; and the threat posed by North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and the inability of the USA (and its ANZUS ally Australia) to engage with North Korea politically. A number of book reviews broaden the scope of the journal’s vision to include Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, India, and the global issue of refugees. The Middle East, and particularly Australia’s role in the disastrous Iraq wars and the current conflict in Syria, does not feature prominently in Issue 1 (which I’m confident will be addressed in future issues), although the foreign policy “realism” of certain authors – a “realism” that assumes the USA must be engaged throughout the world and must lead in war – throws up the occasionally startling sentence about that tortured part of the world: “Sighs of relief were heard [in Australia’s foreign policy establishment] when the president [Trump] ordered air strikes on Syria.”

Whether acting predictably or unpredictably, President Trump has forced or encouraged many Australians to reconsider Australia’s role in the ANZUS alliance and our place in the world. As John Delury reminds us: “Australia sent 17,000 troops to fight in the Korean War and remains an active and engaged ‘sending state’ to the United Nations Command, the formal military structure under which US and allied troops maintain a presence in South Korea.” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has recently confirmed that any unilateral North Korean attack on the US will lead to Australia coming to the aid of the US. At the same time, Australia is becoming more Asian, as leaders from Paul Keating to Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have clearly understood. Six million Australians were born overseas. This raises further questions about our identity and our foreign policy. As George Megalogenis says: “An Australia with two big Eurasian capitals cannot continue to behave as a white outpost in Asia.”

China’s rise is exceptional, and the current US president is unusual. Both provide Australia with enormous challenges and opportunities. As a middle power with an overwhelming economic reliance on China and a long-established military alliance with the US, as well as deep cultural, political, and legal ties, how can Australia navigate through a world in which both China and the US are enormously important to our future and where China seeks to expand its role in a world where the rules were largely set by the US? It is all well and good to say “obey the rules” when you or your allies set them in the first place (and have sometimes ignored them when they have proven inconvenient or unenforceable).

China will soon be the world’s largest economy by GDP and is expanding through its “One Belt, One Road” initiatives and institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (which Australia belatedly joined over US protests). Containing China is an unhealthy and counterproductive fantasy, but China will not inevitably become the world’s leading military, cultural, political or economic power. China faces massive problems or challenges, including domestic inequality, pollution, an ageing population, complex international borders, the need for ongoing economic reform, corruption, issues of legitimacy, and geo-political rivalry (the USA remains by far the world’s most powerful military force).

In dealing with China and the USA, Australia needs to be alert, informed, and aware of history, contemporary context, and future possibilities to be a meaningful partner, friend, and ally with its own identity and influence. In 1935 Robert Menzies said that “the thing which sticks firmly in the mind of the average Australian is that he is entirely British.” Few Australians (even amongst the most ardent monarchists) would say that today, or agree with the description of Australia as America’s “deputy sheriff” in Asia. So, who are we, and what can we become? Australian Foreign Affairs is a worthy vehicle for discussing these questions.

Australian Foreign Affairs is written for a general audience and is refreshingly free from jargon. A section of the journal called The Back Page even includes a slightly irreverent explanation of “Foreign Policy Concepts and Jargon”, in this case the “Thucydides Trap.” Expounded by Harvard professor Graham Allison and quoted by Chinese president Xi Jinping and Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, the “Thucydides Trap” emphasises “the risk of war between two great powers as one rises.” The Back Page points out that “Thucydides’ arguments are ancient and subtle – which means that they offer something for everybody.” The Back Page also quotes approvingly from the historian David A. Welch: “No modern doctor would base his or her medical practice on the writings of Erasistratus, Herophilus, or Hippocrates, but for some reason International Relations scholars seem to think that whatever Thucydides wrote almost 2500 years ago still applies today.” (I am writing this as Australia’s same sex marriage postal survey has just been concluded, with “Yes” to equal marriage attracting 61.6% of responses and the “No” case, prosecuted largely on the authority of religious texts as ancient as Thucydides, failing to catch enough Australians in its trap.)

Issue 2 of Australian Foreign Affairs, due for release in February 2018, will be titled Trump in Asia. Given the quality of Issue 1 and the importance of the topic, it should be compelling reading.

Glen Jennings has studied and worked in Australia and Asia, and is currently Deputy Dean of the Pathways School at Trinity College.


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