Plan Now, Gain Later – Is Australia’s foreign policy machinery ready for uncertainty?

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Alan Tidwell

Australia’s White Paper forecasts future threats, but falls short of addressing how to effectively manage them. Alan Tidwell takes a look at how Australia can better address its unknown future.

The 2017 foreign policy White Paper anticipates a range of changes and threats that will shape Australia’s international environment in the next 10 to 15 years. Most immediately of concern are the changes in power underway throughout the Indo-Pacific region, and chiefly the seemingly inexorable rise of China. Accompanying these changes are the threats to the international rules-based order – an order that very much works to small and middle powers’ advantage.

Globalisation, once thought of as an unstoppable force, has come under fire. Free trade is no longer so warmly welcomed in many western states. Nationalism, along with the chronic sickness of terrorism, is partly to blame for the attacks on globalisation. Trump’s catchcry of America First, the poster-child for these anti-globalisation forces, has left the hegemon’s capital in disarray.

The dynamism of world politics makes strategic planning difficult in the best of times, and the authors of White Papers cannot easily foresee the future. It is instructive to revisit Australia’s previous foreign policy White Paper in 2003 and consider the threat environment envisioned then.

“…[R]elations between the major powers are now more stable than they have been for many years. But the security of Australia and many other countries is threatened by other international developments, notably terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional disorder and transnational crimes such as people smuggling.”

Some threats persist, like terrorism, whereas other threats morphed into something quite different. In 2003 globalisation had its opponents and sometimes came with unanticipated consequences (like terrorism), but nativism was not considered a significant threat.

Other threats, like those emerging out of the Arab Spring (for example, the Syrian civil war) were for the most part unanticipated. Hindsight makes them seem predictable, but from the vantage point of 2003, the Arab Spring and the collapse of Syria were nothing more than theoretical musings at best.

All of this suggests that white papers, like most strategic planning documents, are middling at best in preparing for the future. Australia’s White Paper does an adequate job of forecasting the threat environment, but falls short of envisioning how to effectively manage those unforeseen threats. How can Australia better address its unknown future?

Writing in The Guardian, Hugh White warns against complacency in his analysis of the rise of China and its consequences for Australia’s security. For White, the problem is one of political will. He argues that for a long time leaders in Canberra have refused to “… to admit …that a great strategic contest is underway between our major ally and our major trading partner.”

White’s analysis is sharp and alluring, and he is joined in his views by other academics and retired public servants. Yet even if White and others are correct regarding the rise of China and its consequences for the management of Australia’s security, questions still remain: Is Australian leadership in denial? Or is there genuine disagreement about the consequences of the rise of China?

Or, is it simply that Australia’s policy planning process is inadequate to the task at hand?

If ever were a time for a clever country, this would be it.

Since the mid-1940s Australia has been aboard the American bandwagon. That has served Australia well. White and others now question the wisdom of riding the American bandwagon. His proposal of an alternative balance of power, bringing together a concert of states guaranteeing the security of Asia, is debateable. It is unclear whether this would serve Australian interests any better than the current arrangements.

What is clear, however, is that the current institutional capacity to analyse what is needed for Australia’s future is lacking. For an Australia that seems to want to stay in America’s orbit, the strategic concepts and modes of interaction between Australia and the US are inadequate.

For example, most Australia-US interactions are ad hoc, with the exception of the brief Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AusMin). There is no secretariat in Canberra responsible for developing US doctrine, nor is there one in Washington for Australia. Equally, if Australia is to reimagine its future without an alliance, there is precious little institutional thought given to the complexity of managing such a concert arrangement.

Beyond the particular challenges of managing Australia’s immediate security are the broader questions: who is tasked with thinking deeply about future challenges to the nation? And who is responsible for aligning organisational and financial resources in order to address them?

The Policy Planning branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is neither sufficiently resourced nor sufficiently enabled to work across the whole of government to consider the future needs of Australian foreign policy.

Perhaps responsibility for thinking about the overall direction of Australia’s foreign policy may not be best seated within DFAT itself, but instead may be better situated outside the department. Anticipating future trends and conducting plausible futures analysis is best conducted away from the demands of short-term policy-making and situational response.

Delivering greater capacity for Australia’s management of future threats and challenges requires political will. Maintaining the Australia-US alliance against the backdrop of a rising China requires leaders to not only make the case for the alliance, but also take the steps required to support and fund that choice.

Equally, for Australia to embrace an alternate future and forge its own path without the United States will require political will and an abundance of organisational infrastructure.

Only by properly resourcing the machinery of foreign policy can Australia claim to be truly prepared for the uncertainty of the next few decades.


This piece was first published at Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion. Read the original here: https://www.policyforum.net/plan-now-gain-later/

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