Australia’s last foreign affairs white paper, Advancing the National Interest, hit the streets in 2003. Since then a lot has happened – wars waged, governments overthrown, and economies collapsed, just to mention the high points. Amid all of this change, however, is the feeling that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Coalition government has announced it is about to get to work on the next foreign affairs white paper. What can we expect?
Back in 2003 the authors of that white paper identified several challenges — terrorism, the future of the European Union, the ANZUS alliance, engaging with Asia, and assisting Pacific Island countries. In the ensuing 13 years the challenges have shifted somewhat, although some have a familiar ring – terrorism is still a problem, the need to deepen ties with the EU remains, but now without the UK, the requirement to engage with Asia is perennial as is maintaining ANZUS, and the Pacific Islands still need help.
What has changed? China is increasingly assertive. Australia’s largest trade partner has ruffled regional feathers by building bases in the South China Sea and thumbed its nose at the UN. Russia has re-emerged in troubling ways as a global force. Asymmetric campaigns against its opponents in Ukraine and elsewhere create problems leaving Western countries unsure of how to reply. The Arab Spring has collapsed into the oozing sore that is Syria. Since 2003 a refugee crisis has unfolded across northern Africa and the Middle East testing Europe’s will. Elsewhere migration flows enflame nativist sentiments. Declining rates of growth in economies around the globe today stifle and complicate government decisions from Washington to Beijing to Brussels. As if all of that were not enough cybersecurity has also erupted as an issue of concern for governments and businesses alike. The trial of climate change deepens this global complexity.
Replying to these challenges would have been hard enough for the finest political masters. Over the course of the past 13 years political leadership, however, has hardly been up to the task. Like most things, the quality of political leadership is not a constant but varies over time. In recent years it has been woeful around the globe. This is not to say that every political decision has been bad, or that some have not been excellent. It is to say that on balance political decision-making has not been of a high calibre.
Some of the more striking low quality political decisions made range from President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, followed by President Obama’s ill-conceived disengagement, to subsequent Australian prime ministers’ handling of asylum seekers, including the Rudd government’s decision to end the Pacific Solution and the Gillard/Abbott embrace of the son of Pacific Solution and Turnbull’s inability to manage the next steps. President Xi’s embrace of nationalism and an associated decision to build island bases in the South China Sea, Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex Crimea and the West’s virtual acquiescence, and David Cameron’s encouragement for a vote on the UK’s position in the European Union also fall into this category. President Rodrigo Duterte’s advocacy of extrajudicial killing of drug dealers in the Philippines ranks similarly low down on the scale of quality political decisions, as does the half-hearted way in which leaders from around the globe address climate change.
It would be easy to explain away such poor decisions. Their cause might be bad analysis, craven pandering to popular opinion and/or a lack of gumption.
The examples of Iraq, asylum seekers, climate change and UK membership of the EU are explained by domestic political division, the midwife to many of these ill-conceived ideas. Political leaders have been held hostage by a rump within their party. In order to placate these internal agitators, political leaders give in with hopes of securing their leadership. Of course, having capitulated to the cabal’s demands political leaders hurt their own effectiveness and restrict their room to manoeuvre. Xi, Putin, and Duterte, much like Trump in the US, build their political base on a call to make their country great again. The romance of nostalgia calls to the public and those that stand in the way are swept aside.
The new white paper will focus attention on the myriad challenges, both new and old. Australia’s diplomats are dedicated professionals. To a person, they will do the bidding of their political masters, and their utmost for Australia. The new white paper will be their map forward.
It’s too bad that the white paper will tell only part of the story. Left unsaid will be a call for better informed and considered decisions from political leaders.
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