It’s been quite something to watch the Abbott Government’s international forays in its early months. I can’t recall a new Government being so internationally oriented in its early days, a good thing in principle. Upon his election, Prime Minister Abbott immediately toured south east Asia, aiming to deliver on his “stop the boats” election commitments. Andrew Robb has also been very active in pursuit of free trade agreements, especially with China. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been active in the US and our climate delegations have been attending negotiations in Poland. Even at home the new Government is pre-occupied with international engagement issues with big decisions on foreign takeovers of local firms pending.
Some of this is simply the timing of international meetings and it shows as well that Australia is not an island in a global economy. But it illustrates something else about the new Government too. The Abbott regime is determined to pursue its agenda to the four corners of the earth, whether that be climate change, people smuggling, trade or anything else. Again, reassuring in principle.
But there is another pattern developing and it is less comforting.
In all of its international engagements, the Abbott Government is operating under the broadly disseminated term the “national interest”. It was one of John Howard’s most oft-used and politically impressive rubrics as well. But under Howard it had clearly defined parameters of supporting the US alliance, of ignoring and often disparaging any institutions of “global government” and of being open to international business. As a doctrine it had historic ballast and was supported by the times. The problem is, I’m not sure what the new Government means by it and I am quite sure that the times demand something more nuanced.
The phrase the “national interest” evokes a body a of thought in international relations known as “realism”. It’s most famous champion is the US diplomat George Kennan and most notorious practitioner is Henry Kissinger. In more contemporary times it is associated with the always impressive Owen Harries, one of Australia’s most significant intellectual exports to the US as the founding editor of the US journal “The National Interest”.
Put simply, as a guiding principle in international relations, realism is to operate in a state of perpetual distrust of one’s neighbors. It eschews values and pursues naked self-interest for the nation lest the temptations of empire overstretch power. A prime example was George Bush senior’s first Iraqi invasion and withdrawal, leaving the tyrant in place to torment his people but leaving the US with a limited bill, cheaper oil and a suppressed strategic threat. Compare this with George Bush junior’s second Iraq invasion, which left the US with paralysing debts, an exhausted military in a quagmire, promoted a new strategic threat in Iran and you get some idea of the value of “realism”.
The primary alternative frame of reference in international relations is “internationalism”. It is a doctrine that holds that national self-interest is advanced more through cooperation than it is contest. Bill Clinton is more an example of this school of thought with his efforts to defuse various global conflicts multi-laterally. For better or worse, using institutions like NATO and UN Security Council to rally coalitions for action. It too had its hard-nosed successes, most notably in the former Yugoslavia, a war which was probably shortened by NATO intervention, even if it was atrocious first.
There are other schools of course, most prominently the neo-conservatives that invaded Iraq a second time in a weird fusion of “coalitions of the willing” and delusional ideas of democratic dominoes etc. But the polarities between which most international relations thought is suspended remains “realism” versus “internationalism”
In the local context these polarities operate somewhat differently. Australia is not a super power. On most measures it’s barely a middle power and it’s influence is shrinking relative as demographically much larger nations embrace liberalisation and their economies catch up. A such Australia has a tradition of operating further towards the “internationlist” end of the spectrum. With some differences, especially during the Cold War, this has been bipartisan for decades, though it was ruptured somewhat by John Howard as he privileged US relations during the War on Terror.
The logic behind Australia’s greater orientation towards internationalism is itself somewhat realist. As a small to middling power, it serves our strategic interests to enmesh larger powers in a net relations. Giving free reign to rule by the biggest stick doesn’t make much sense when you possess a twig.
So where does the Abbott Government see itself on this spectrum?
The government is too young to know. We haven’t had any major foreign policy speeches laying it out. I’m not sure it would know if you asked it. What we appear to have is a series of election-winning promises in action, “stop the boats”, “open for business” – slogans if you will – that are being pursued piecemeal, with stakeholders loudly proclaiming their needs but no overall narrative guiding decision-making.
The latest debacle with Indonesia is another example. Tony Abbott has swung from seeking to elevate the Indonesian relationship to condemning it with no apparent thought towards what it means strategically. The Abbott Government was not responsible for the spying and was unlucky it hit so early in its tenure but had the PM genuinely thought of Indonesian engagement as a strategic priority, within a larger framework of realist internationalism, he’d have quickly responded with sympathy when the spy scandal broke (apologising if need be) and then go on with business as usual.
By not doing so, he now has even conservative commentators suggesting he must make real concessions to prevent disaster. From Paul Kelly over the weekend:
THE onus now resides with Tony Abbott to demonstrate a flexible and new approach to intelligence and security issues by offering concessions when he replies to the letter from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Nothing else will suffice. The key to the Prime Minister’s reply must be the recognition that this is not just an intelligence crisis with Indonesia. It is a political crisis. It must be treated as a political crisis. That dictates against the mere “neither confirm nor deny” stance, plus regrets taken by Abbott, because this position cannot satisfy the political pressures now unleashed.
Make no mistake, Kelly’s suggestion is far more radical than would have been an apology to Jakarta. He is arguing that we should dismantle or at least inhibit our Indonesian espionage capability in order to re-engage our neighbour. But Australia is the eyes and ears of the “five eyes” – US, UK, Canada and New Zealand – in south east Asia and to do so will materially downgrade our usefulness in that partnership. Yet if it doesn’t do it, losing Indonesian support on people smuggling, on counter-terrorism, on Australian integration with broader Asian political blocks, will be very serious.
In short, Australia has stumbled into a pivot point in its Asian engagement and appears unprepared to face it.