Neighbours must be the PM's focus

Neighbours must be the PM's focus

07 Jul 2010

dennis-altman Professor Dennis Altman
Email: d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

Originally published in The Age on 7 July, 2010.

Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott has much experience nor, it seems, much passion for international affairs. Despite this, Gillard has already initiated a round of regional diplomacy aimed at defusing the panic over asylum seekers.

It is encouraging that the Prime Minister is speaking to the leaders of East Timor and New Zealand, and thinking imaginatively about regional co-operation. To slow the flow of people desperate for asylum will require ongoing commitment to ending conflicts in and beyond our immediate region.

Threats to security are rapidly becoming more complex, and whoever is prime minister will need to devote considerable time to mastering fast-changing global architecture. Unlike Kevin Rudd, neither leader has much experience from which to draw.

Foreign policy may be where Gillard and Abbott are most alike. They are stalwart believers in the American alliance, and staunch allies of Israel. Abbott's monarchism might make him more sympathetic to Britain, but Gillard is, after all, British born. Neither seems to have reflected much on the countries in our region, although Gillard made several trips to India as deputy prime minister.

They grew up at the end of the Cold War, and the period of American triumphalism that is coming to an abrupt end. They are too young to have been scarred by the memories of Vietnam, although Abbott was clearly shaped by the ideological battles of the Cold War.

Since World War II, faith in the American alliance has been the bedrock of Australian foreign policy, except for a brief wavering during the Whitlam period.

The primary reason for our involvement in Afghanistan is the alliance, and the immediate challenge for Australia is rapidly declining support in the US for that war.

Already our troops have been in Afghanistan for longer than we had forces in Vietnam. As support for the intervention wavers in the US, despite a commitment by President Barack Obama to start troop withdrawals next year, even the most ardent ally will need to be very cautious in managing their commitment. One hopes the Australian government will listen to its conservative counterparts in New Zealand, who have ruled out further military involvement.

Most strikingly, the past decade has seen the rise of non-Western states to positions where they have significant political and economic power. Australians have been most aware of this in the case of China, where even a prime minister with considerable expertise had little influence in Beijing. But, increasingly, other countries - India, Russia, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia and South Africa - are asserting a larger global role.

Rudd's response was to strengthen the G20, and during the global financial crisis that gave Australia unparalleled access to global decisions. The G20 may become less important, as groupings and regional blocs develop around issues.

In this environment it is no longer possible for Australia to rely on a great and powerful ally, however attractive the current US administration.

Australia is not a big power, and as countries with far larger populations become wealthier, we will be relatively less so. Neither does Australia belong to any regional bloc, in a world in which regional groupings are important.

This means we need pay particular attention to what some call the proximate region, while building goodwill globally. While Rudd's bid for membership of the Security Council may have been overstated, it meant Australia sought engagement with countries in Latin America and Africa that have often been overlooked.

Both leaders see Australia as part of "the West", committed to supporting democracy and human rights. It is less clear that they recognise that many Asians see these terms as a cloak for Western interests. A certain agility is required for Australia to support the values we share with other Western nations while interacting with neighbouring states where democratic structures are fragile and respect for rights is weak.

Both Australian political parties have pledged to increase Australian development assistance, and the parliamentary secretary, Bob McMullan, has infused AusAID with a new energy. McMullan is retiring, and the next prime minister should create a cabinet position for international development, as is the case in Britain, and appoint someone with sufficient energy and skill to turn financial commitments into clear policy impact.

Rudd ensured that the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting takes place next year in Perth (a nod to Foreign Minister Stephen Smith).

More than 50 heads of government, including five members of the G20, will attend this meeting. This is an opportunity for a genuine breakthrough in Australia's relations with many of the poorest and most vulnerable nations around the globe.

Learning on the job is always a challenge. Given the personalities of our two party leaders, I'd have considerably more faith in Gillard adjusting to the changing world than her opponent.

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