Values in Australian diplomacy

Australian governments will need to hold allies and partners to their word if they want to distinguish themselves from authoritarian alternatives.

Professor John Fitzgerald (Centre for Social Impact, Swinburne University of Technology)
First published in The La Trobe Asia Brief Issue 2 on 1 July, 2019.

Foreign policy practitioners and researchers rarely agree on anything in Australia, but one subject on which they do converge is the role of values. Values, we are told, have a place in foreign policy aspirations but in fact count for little in the conduct of Australia’s international relations.

This may be about to change as the place of values in foreign and defence policy is thrown into sharp relief by the disruptive times in which we live.

Shifting power relations in the region, challenges to the post-war international order, and the rise of populist nationalism around the globe all present ethical challenges as well as policy ones.

At the popular level, movements targeting religious and ethnic difference test Australia’s commitment to inclusion, equality, and diversity at home and abroad. Among state actors, a dynamic and increasingly powerful China is driving structural and strategic changes in the region while showing little sympathy for the values underpinning democracy, rule of law, or the liberal rules-based order on which regional stability and prosperity have been based since the second World War.

For Australia, the question arises whether the values by which Australians live their lives can help governments to negotiate safe passage through these complex ethical and policy issues.

Recent Australian governments appear to think so. A crude but useful measure of government foreign-policy thinking is a series of formal statements on values and foreign policy issued in Canberra over the past two decades.

Comparing the place of values across Foreign Policy White Papers issued in 1997, 2003 and 2017 is a reasonably reliable measure of continuity and change, as each was produced by a conservative coalition government, and all were issued through a single department in DFAT. Given these similarities, the difference between the earliest and latest White Papers is revealing.

The first two White Papers issued under Prime Minister John Howard (1996-2007) made a number of unequivocal statements about values but reflected the Howard government’s preference for describing values in particularistic colloquial terms such as mateship and the fair go.

Values so described were subordinated to the pursuit of jobs and security as the basic test of the national interest guiding foreign policy (Foreign Policy White Paper [FPWP] 1997 p.iii).

The effect was often to exclude values diplomacy from the Australian foreign policy tool box, a practice reflected in the convention governing bilateral relations with China, under which Australia and China agreed to leave their values at the door in meetings and negotiations.

This subordination of values to prosperity and security was facilitated by an ethno-cultural approach to values which proved difficult to translate into the language of international cooperation and diplomacy.

The first of the White Papers projected an ethnically grounded national identity rooted in a distinctively European if not British social and cultural heritage. “The values which Australia brings to its foreign policy,” the paper stated, “have been shaped by national experience, given vigour through cultural diversity, but reflect a predominantly European intellectual and cultural heritage” (FPWP 1997, p. 11).

The second identified Australia as a cultural outlier with “predominantly European heritage” in an otherwise alien region (FPWP 2003, p.99). Translated into diplomacy, this approach implied that Australia had one set of values, Asians another, and all parties should respect the values associated with the other’s ethno-cultural traditions by remaining silent on values.

The 2017 White Paper issued under Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull (2015-2018) sidestepped this ethno- cultural approach to describe values in terms of universal liberal principles.

It effectively repudiated earlier White Paper assertions that Australian identity and values were grounded in a particularistic ethnic heritage, stating that “Australia does not define its national identity by race or religion.” And it gave greater weight to values in foreign policy by shifting the locus of national identity from one based on ethno- cultural heritage to one grounded in values: “Australia does not define its national identity by race or religion, but by shared values” (emphasis added; 2017 FPWP p.11).

Consistent with these shifts, the folksy colloquialism of earlier statements gave way to the universal language of democratic liberalism in describing values as “political, economic and religious freedom, liberal democracy, the rule of law, racial and gender equality and mutual respect” (FPWP 2017 p.11).

Values were elevated in Australian foreign policy thinking from secondary attributes of a particular ethnic heritage to primary markers of national identity expressed in commonly understood liberal terms.

Further, the 2017 White Paper endorsed values advocacy as a legitimate aim of Australian foreign policy, particularly where this could help to sustain an international order based on commonly-accepted rules and norms.

By defining Australia’s values as the universal values that Australians shared with one another and with like- minded democracies abroad, the statement also equipped Australian governments to engage more effectively in values advocacy.

The 2017 statement conceded that the catalyst for this change was China. Beijing’s behaviour in occupying and militarising disputed territories in the South China Sea, and evidence of its interference in Australian politics and society in recent years, prompted a major reassessment of Australian foreign and defence policy which included serious reconsideration of the nature and salience of values.

While China may have been the catalyst for this transvaluation of values, values advocacy is by its nature regime agnostic.

If the 2017 White Paper secures bipartisan support then the long-standing assumption that all countries in the American alliance system share and practice common values is likely to come under scrutiny.

The phrase ‘common values’ has long served in official Australian documents as coded reference to the US alliance framework, on the assumption that these values require little further elaboration and that their realisation is self-evident. The rise of popular nationalism in North America and Europe makes this cosy assumption less tenable.

Australian governments will need to hold allies and partners to their word if they want to distinguish themselves from authoritarian alternatives. And to the extent that governments in Australia fail to live up to their own aspirations of racial, gender, and civic equality, their capacity to promote their values abroad is likely to be compromised.

Photo: Supporters and protesters during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games torch relay in Canberra, 24 April 2008 (Pierre Pouliquin/Flickr).