Australia’s foreign policy elites could be forgiven for thinking that they live in especially challenging times. The current international order appears to throw up a number of problems that not only defy easy resolution but also threaten to overturn many of the ideas and principles that have underpinned policy-making in Australia for many decades. To be sure, the challenges of the past – especially the two World Wars and the Cold War’s proxy conflicts in Asia – should not be belittled; indeed, they seem to dwarf many of thechallenges confronting contemporary policy-makers. Yet what appears to have been lost, to quote British sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991), is Australian foreign policy–makers’ sense of ‘ontological security’: the knowledge of what to expect in a rapidly changing world where established structures and institutions seem to be crumbling. This anxiety is a significant phenomenon of our time, whether or not the developments we now observe in international politics prove to be epochal.
Perhaps the most obvious transformation worrying Australian foreign policy–makers is the apparent weakening of the US-centred security order in East Asia and the re-emergence of China as a major power in the region. As Nick Bisley’s chapter argues, in the period 2011–15 we have seen the first expressions of a growing Chinese willingness to challenge the status quo, most notably in the East and South China Seas, unsettling Japan, several Southeast Asian states and others in the process. Challenges to the Western- dominated international order have also emerged in Europe, where Russia unilaterally annexed Crimea, taking it from the Ukraine in March 2014, despite strong protests from the European Union (EU) and the United States. Although Australia has cleaved ever closer to its long-standing ally, some commentators have argued that the dissonance between the US alliance and Australia’s close economic relationship with China will grow (White 2015), potentially forcing tougher choices in the future.
Also disconcerting to policy-makers has been the emergence or intensification of a range of transnational, ‘non-traditional’ security problems, including terrorist groups such as Islamic State, climate change, environmental degradation, pandemics and even, for some, irregular migration. These problems are rarely the result of intentional aggression from another state, but are either the undesirable externalities of economic development or are associated with the activities of non-state groups. They are usually not seen to threaten the state’s very survival, but do undermine its real or perceived capacity to protect national populations. Traditional security responses, such as deterrence or alliance- formation, are usually seen as no longer appropriate for these issues, and nor are responses focusing strictly on intergovernmental diplomatic relations. As a result, Australian foreign policy–making has expanded beyond the traditional ‘three Ds’ – diplomacy, defence and development assistance – to include a range of new departments which previously had a more restricted domestic role. The most significant example from the last five years is the fast-evolving and internationalising Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP). Meanwhile, as Michael Wesley’s chapter shows, traditional foreign policy actors in Australia, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), have had to acquire new ways of implementing and developing policy, as well as establishing new relationships with other agencies inside and outside the Australian bureaucracy, producing new challenges of coordination.
Adding to the broader sense of volatility and uncertainty in Australian foreign policy– making circles in recent years has been the rapid turnover at the top: in the five years since 2010, Australia has had five prime ministers and four foreign ministers. To be sure, there has been considerable continuity in how Australian governments of both the centre-left (the Australian Labor Party) and the centre-right (the Liberal–National Coalition) have approached key foreign policy issues, most notably the US alliance and the treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Even where policy differences between the major parties have been small in practice, however public debate has often been sharply polarised, as Lorraine Elliott explains in regard to climate change. Traditionally, foreign policy–making in Australia was seen as an elite pursuit, dominated by a handful of policy-makers and bureaucrats with limited scrutiny, even by Parliament (Firth 2005). Yet, increasingly the public discourse surrounding foreign policy issues has taken on populist tones, as the issues, and the way they are managed, are seen as having implications for Australians’ everyday lives. This, we argue, reflects the blurring of the distinction between domestic and foreign policies wrought by the growing complexity associated with public policy-making in an interconnected, globalised world. It is, in other words, another manifestation of the same processes that have made foreign policy–making appear more challenging in general.
Specifically, the tighter interplay between the domestic and foreign policy arenas has broadened the range of interests and groups with a stake in the way many foreign policy issues are managed. This has two important and interrelated implications: first, it is clear that attaining coherent, ‘national’ positions on most issues of consequence is becoming more difficult in practice than in the past. Second, from a normative perspective, governments’ claims to be acting in the ‘national interest’ internationally are becoming even more problematic. As Ramesh Thakur’s chapter in this volume outlines, in reality the idea of a distinctive national interest has always reflected contested choices and preferences,
manifesting political and normative differences over what could or should be done. As Andrew Phillips’ chapter reminds us, foreign policy has been part of the construction of particular national identities and social relations within Australia since before Federation. Yet the relationship between foreign policy and identity-construction at home is becoming more contentious, as it is increasingly apparent that acting in the national interest actually advances only some interests within Australian society.
Mindful of these developments, we have decided to break with tradition and make this the first edition of Australia in World Affairs since the series began in 1950 to be organised around key themes and issues in Australia’s international relations and foreign policy, rather than around Australia’s bilateral relations. The most important issues today encompass a set of processes and relations that cannot be simply or adequately captured through an emphasis on the relations between two or more governments. For example, Australia’s bilateral relations with Indonesia were obviously affected by its policy of unilaterally towing boats carrying asylum seekers back into Indonesian waters from late 2013. But it clearly makes more sense to examine this development and its implications in the context of Australia’s broader response to irregular migration, which encompasses domestic debates and policy changes, international legal aspects, and relations with several countries, including Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Nauru; to name but a few. Sara Davies’ chapter takes on this challenge.
Nonetheless, conscious of our duty to produce a journal of record and a reference tool for diverse readerships, we provide a chronology of important events in Australia’s international relations and foreign policy for the period 2011–15 and a list of prime ministers and relevant ministers. We also encourage readers interested in Australia’s relations with particular countries or regions, such as Southeast Asia, to make use of the detailed index.
In this introductory chapter, we trace some of the key elements of the emerging new international disorder that Australian foreign policy–makers are learning to navigate. We then consider how Australian governments have understood and responded to these changes and the normative implications of these policy responses.
A LESS PREDICTABLE WORLD ORDER
Australia now seems to be facing a more uncertain international environment than it has done for decades. Serious transnational threats that are beyond the capacity of Australian policy-makers to alleviate single-handedly seem to be multiplying, while the rise of China appears to challenge the long-standing US-led security order in Asia. Both potentially undermine traditional approaches to foreign policy–making in Australia.
Although the emerging international order has multiple sources, particularly important are the effects of the end of the Cold War and the deepening and intensification of a range of processes subsumed under the rubric of ‘globalisation’ (see Held et al. 1999). The end of the Cold War had been seen by some observers as reflecting the triumph of liberal capitalism as ‘the end of history’ (Fukuyama 1992). As non-capitalist alternatives were weakened and the threat of large-scale war between the superpowers receded, many states, especially the United States, were able to refocus their foreign policies towards opening up markets for ‘their’ corporations in other countries (Smith 2005).Thus, during the 1990s there was a noteworthy, though partial, shift in the priorities of policy-makers around the world, from geopolitics to geoeconomics (Luttwak 1990). Geoeconomics is distinguished from geopolitics in that the latter emphasises power in the context of a territorially demarcated state system, whereas the former emphasises power underpinned by control over trans-border flows and markets (Cowen and Smith 2009). The shift to geoeconomics has also entailed a change in the way security is understood, from a near- exclusive focus on the threat posed by powerful states towards a more comprehensive view of security that includes a range of border-spanning, often non-state, security problems, such as environmental degradation, climate change, organised crime, terrorism, infectious disease and even irregular migration (Cowen and Smith 2009; Hameiri and Jones 2015b).
In short, what we have seen is a partial change both in policy-makers’ perceptions of the international economic and security environments and in the ways in which they seek to deal with these issues. This process of globalisation continues today, despite the apparent decoupling of emerging economies from the traditional centres in the North Atlantic since the onset of global financial crisis. First, the perception of transnational vulnerability to new security problems is now firmly established and not subject to the ebb and flow of interstate economic relations. Second, the winding down of the US Federal Reserve’s program of quantitative easing appears to have affected investment in emerging economies, leading to significant economic downturn, especially in Brazil, which has seen its gross domestic product (GDP) go into negative territory. In China, meanwhile, current economic wobbles and a long-term crisis of over-capacity suggest that the government stimulus program could not forever defy the downward pressures on economic growth wrought by declining demand in the West. Andrew Walter’s chapter outlines some of these issues.
As Cold War strictures dissolved, however, the relationship between what we might describe as ‘structure’ and ‘agency’ in international politics also changed. Traditionally, international relations scholars and policy-makers have understood both structure and agency in world politics as constituted by inter-state relations. Now, however, internal and external transformations associated with globalisation have eroded the neat separation of the world into territorialised ‘power containers’, which the Cold War had reinforced (Giddens 1985; Agnew 1994). As a result, even for the most powerful states, the outputs of foreign policy decisions have become more complex and unpredictable. A clear example is provided by the second Iraq war, widely regarded as one of the most catastrophic failures of US foreign policy of recent times, possibly ever (Stiglitz and Bilmes 2008). Although US and allied forces were far superior militarily to their rivals, the US goal of establishing a liberal democracy in Iraq has proven elusive. This conflict has spilled over into a more generalised regional instability, involving new actors such as the Islamic State, which defies obvious means of resolution.
The United States’ inability to attain key foreign policy objectives, or even to contain the negative consequences of earlier failures, amplifies the challenges and dilemmas facing Australian policy-makers.
This extract is taken from Navigating the New International Disorder, the latest volume in the Australia In World Affairs series.
Mark Beeson, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Western Australia.
Shahar Hameiri, Associate Professor and Associate Director of the Graduate Centre in Governance and International Affairs, School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland.
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