We need to rethink our foreign policy

Calls this week for submissions for a foreign policy white paper, the first in more than a decade, could hardly be more timely given the potentially wrenching changes ushered in by a new American presidency.

Whatever direction a Donald Trump presidency takes in the conduct of American foreign policy, we are not looking at business as usual. In fact, far from it, in ways that have the potential to shift Australia’s strategic environment on its axis.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected president not much would have changed. But with Trump about to descend on the world, uncertainty will ensue while the various players come to grips with new realities.

In this context, Australia needs to have a searching look at its priorities. This includes its alliance arrangements, its participation in various regional fora, its trading obligations, and how it might accommodate itself to the unanticipated, including the unravelling – unlikely though that might be – of a Pax Americana that has served our interests well.

Nothing can – and should – be taken for granted in an environment in which Australia’s neighbours will be repositioning themselves to take account of new realities. These will inevitably accompany a shift in the way in which America sees the world.

Whether this amounts to a profound change of direction that sees the US turning inward in its efforts to deal with its own domestic challenges, including a shrinking manufacturing base, or whether it achieves a reasonable balance between these concerns and international responsibilities, no purpose would be served by ignoring risks involved.

Inevitably, a white paper process in this environment will find itself preoccupied with two main strands. The first is how Australia might view its alliance obligations with the US in light of changing circumstances. The second is how, in view of these shifts, Australia might manage China’s continuing rise in its own interests.

Already – virtually before  DFAT white paper process has begun – we are seeing a breakout debate about Australia’s relationship with the US with former prime minister Paul Keating suggesting – provocatively – we “cut the tag” with US foreign policy following the Trump election victory. These sorts of contributions to the debate – whether you agree with Keating or not – hardly amount to blasphemy, except in the eyes of those who believe any questioning of the alliance amounts to sacrilege.

No purpose would be served by simply pretending all will continue to be well. In the best of all possible worlds, Australia could simply rely on America’s continued dominance of our strategic environment to stifle great power competition.

Those days are over.

The Turnbull government made a reasonable down-payment on addressing a more competitive strategic environment in its Defence White Paper with its proposed increases in spending on a naval capability in recognition that Australia will need to assume increased responsibilities for its own maritime defences.

Whatever judgement might be made about vast expenditures on a home-based submarine project – I believe it would have been more cost effective to buy modified submarines “off the shelf’’ rather than throwing billions at a homegrown product – it is hard to argue against the need for enhanced maritime capabilities in a region through which passes the bulk of Australian trade.

Trump’s election might have come as a shock to the system, but it could be argued it was an overdue jolt to the sort of complacency that has accompanied the Australian foreign policy debate for much of the post-World War II period. This includes the way in which questioning of the US alliance has become enmeshed in domestic politics.

Conservative politicians have tended to use debate about the alliance as an opportunity to play wedge politics. This strategy suggests that hint of Labor agnosticism on a range of issues, including participation in American-led military adventures, puts Australia’s security at risk.

Among more shameful recent episodes was the sort of politicking directed at then Labor leader Simon Crean for questioning the rush to war in Iraq. As it turned out, Crean was right, but not before he received a fearful shellacking in parliament and sections of the media.

Now is the time for a mature debate about the alliance in the national interest.

Terms of reference for the DFAT review do not specifically mention the alliance, but items 1 and 2 ask the right questions. Item 1: "How should we define Australia’s national interest in a changing world?”, and 2: “Which countries will matter most to Australia over the next 10 years? … How should we deepen and diversify key relationships?”

That word “diversify” invites reasonable questions about achieving balance between a security relationship with the US and commercial ties with China.

Former Prime Minister John Howard was fond of saying Australia did not need to choose between its history – meaning its alliance arrangements – and its geography, meaning its position in Asia.

That may have been a reasonable position in an earlier period, but circumstances now are much more complex, and require a more nuanced approach.

None of this suggests Australia should “cut the tag” with a Trump-led America. But what it does require is an end to what Keating describes as a “sacramental” view of the alliance in which no questioning of risk and reward is to be countenanced.

If nothing else, Trump’s election should remind policymakers in Canberra that a thorough review of Australia’s foreign policy priorities is overdue.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her department should strive to avoid the mistakes of the 2003 review. At the time, Howard and his then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer put their thumb on the scale to ensure no questioning of the costs and benefits of the alliance. This was partly aimed, I suspect, at causing Labor discomfort.

Now is the time for a different sort of debate.

This article first appeared in The Conversation.

Photo: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton