Concerning the proposed foreign policy White Paper: Alison Broinowski, Richard Woolcott, John Menadue, James Cogan

Australia has not had many foreign policy White Papers, though we have had a lot of Defence White Papers. There may be some significance in this. The recent announcement from the Foreign Minister  provoked some responses to add to the already existing debate about China, the United States and other issues. (For earlier material on the Honest History site, start here.)

Alison Broinowski, Honest History vice president and former diplomat, wondered ‘what philosophical guidance can Julie Bishop’s White Paper give Australia that we don’t already have?’ The ‘usual parameters’ – trade, economic diplomacy, and avoiding difficult issues like refugees and climate change – are pretty much constant. The running on big issues tends not to be taken by the Minister’s department anyway. (Former senior public servant and diplomat, John Menadue, wrote recently about the military/security takeover of Australian foreign policy. Andrew Farran on the same subject.) ‘What the White Paper can be predicted not to discuss’, says Broinowski, ‘is the key question: the future of ANZUS. Both the Coalition and Labor piously assert that the US is and will continue to be a great power.’

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is the subject of the Menadue and Farran articles linked from the previous paragraph. Given the claims about close links between ASPI and government, ASPI’s website is worth keeping an eye on. Later, a Canadian website ran a story that American spending on war in the Middle East and security at home will reach $US4.79 trillion in 2017.

Richard Woolcott, former Secretary of DFAT, weighed in (from his experience with the last foreign policy White Paper in 2003) on the difficulties of cobbling together an agreed view on foreign policy, given the many interests involved.

Unfortunately I feel that politicians and the bureaucracy tend to be divided between, on the one hand, the group which wants to take a hairy-chested attitude towards China and, on the other hand, a group which considers that Australia in 2016 and beyond, with a population of only between, say, 23 to 30 million people, would be best served by adopting a position accepting China’s rise as a major power.

Not directly mentioning the White Paper but discussing some recent relevant reports which might well feed into it, was James Cogan on the World Socialist Web Site. Cogan claimed that the ‘Australian establishment’ was discussing the possibility of war with China. He referred to an August report from the Rand Corporation (War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable), which has been considered by a number of Australian commentators, including from ASPI and the Lowy Institute. A long interview with former Prime Minister Paul Keating (includes transcript) was also relevant. ‘The stark reality of Australian foreign policy, however’, said Cogan, ‘is that it is based on involvement in the US preparations for war in Asia precisely to preserve its regional and global dominance against a perceived challenge from China’.

Returning to the White Paper, Professor Michael Wesley from the ANU was quoted as saying it should

produce a medium-term, high-level strategic picture of what is happening in Australia’s international environment … Secondly, it should set out some clear principles of what Australia stands for, what its basic foreign policy framework will be in dealing with the world between now and, say, 2025.

The White Paper will be put together by the new Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson. The issues it has to consider will be driven as much by Australia’s history on the edge of Asia – and the feelings that geopolitical fact has engendered in generations of Australians – as by mature consideration about future possibilities.

2 September 2016 and updated


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