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Diplomacy in decline: Filling Australia's foreign policy void

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Australia's allegiance to the U.S. has left our relationship with China suffering (Image by Dan Jensen)

Australian diplomacy has been on the decline and independence is necessary in order to repair foreign relations, writes Dr Alison Broinowski.

IF YOUR NATIONAL DAY celebrates the arrival of a colonising power, your country may appear still to be a dominion. If your MPs and senators swear to serve the monarch of another nation on tAustralian diplomacy has been on the decline and independence is necessary in order to repair foreign relationshe other side of the world and your flag is adapted from theirs, that doesn’t represent sovereignty. If your country allows its territory to be occupied by an ally’s military and intelligence bases, the same applies. If your government has modelled much of its foreign and defence policy on those of its two allies, it isn’t independent.

Fighting successive wars under the command first of one ally, then the other, persisting in doing so for the latest seven decades without success, meets the definition of national insanity.

This is how Australia is widely seen in the world and correctly because this is our behaviour. How a nation behaves creates its reputation and that determines the effectiveness of its diplomacy. Australia’s diplomacy is in decline and we are not seen as having much foreign policy of our own. That means Australia cannot advance our interests in discussions with others.

Few countries in Australia’s region are so lacking in independence and sovereignty, to the detriment of their diplomatic effectiveness. Among those few are Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, with which Australia often forms a tiny minority of U.S. supporters in United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) votes. They have recently left the South Pacific Forum, where Australia now carries the American anti-China can virtually alone.

In most countries, able people compete for the opportunity to become diplomats, working to advance their nation’s interests abroad and seeking cooperation in regional and international organisations. Australia, although a relative late-comer to diplomacy, began building its foreign service earlier than many of our regional neighbours. In past decades, Australia had a reputation for “good international citizenship” in development, disarmament and peace initiatives and for an intimate understanding of the affairs of several regional countries, achieved through wide-ranging exchanges.

In the 21st Century, most of that has been dispensed with. Australian governments have rejected nuclear disarmament and action on global heating. They have re-directed their policy priorities away from Asia and back to the U.S. and UK. War-fighting and arms exporting have displaced soft power, negotiation and non-confrontation as favoured means of advancing Australia’s national interest and national security. Politicians repeatedly warn us of threats from past and present varieties of terrorism, foreign influence and new technologies in the hands of Russia, China, and even Iran.

The decline of Australian diplomacy reflects the disempowerment of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Its aid budget and staff numbers have been slashed and even before the pandemic, consultations between Australian ministers and their counterparts in other countries were falling off. It is now more the rule than the exception for high-level head of mission appointments to be given to politicians, not career diplomats. This affects morale and expertise. DFAT prides itself on being close to achieving female parity with men — but where have the men gone? To where the power now is, anywhere called “national security”.

What else has caused the change in how Australia conducts foreign relations? In the wider world, the relative decline of America and Britain and Israel’s expansionism set the scene for long-delayed vengeance in the form of Islamist terrorism. In sequence, the Western invasion of Middle Eastern states led to massive numbers of refugees, which contributed to Brexit and anti-Muslim reactions in Europe and the U.S.

In Australia, change should have begun with the acknowledgement of the Asian Century, the rise of China and the end of U.S. hegemony. Instead, rejection of multiculturalism and asylum seekers and disengagement from Asia, in general, led to the reversal of Australia’s China policy. Governments got by for decades claiming we didn’t have to choose between the U.S. alliance and our trade with China, but they had chosen militarism over accommodation and now we face the consequences.

Australia chose to become more dependent on America and to stay close to Britain, even when it became abundantly clear that neither was particularly interested in us. One could not and the other would not defend Australia unless it suited them.

Change in the world and in Australia came together in the “war on terror”, our longest ever deployment of troops, a conflict we are still fighting and losing. In wartime, foreign and defence policy become bipartisan, public debate diminishes, and oppositions fall silent. A smokescreen of “national security” hides what is happening and Parliament passes increasingly oppressive laws to prevent us from finding out. The stifling of contrary opinion reflects the dominance of the pro-American, pro-war Murdoch media and of military-funded think tanks and secretive, interlinked organisations in Australia, the U.S. and UK.

What are our alternatives? Australia is not alone in its concern about China. But our East, Southeast, and South Asian neighbours seek to co-exist peacefully in the region. Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan are extensively engaged in trade with China, which benefits them all. While maintaining significant defence forces, they see no point in provoking either China or North Korea as the U.S. repeatedly does.

Unlike Australia, they have not invaded Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria in exchange for U.S. “protection” — which they know about from past experience. In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) 2019 Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the 11 member states, with China in mind, emphasised economy over security and diplomatic cooperation over armed confrontation. Australia, the U.S. and China have all signed the ASEAN Treaty which rejects the threat or use of force — we should observe it.

In contrast with 800 U.S. military bases worldwide, China has only two (in Djibouti and Tajikistan) and in the modern era has invaded no other nation. China is now the world’s largest economy in PPP terms and its Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are building profitable connections through Central Asia, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

In Southeast Asian countries, China proposes applying the “internet of things” to manufacturing in smart cities equipped with digital infrastructure including 5G. China is building ports and facilities in PNG and South Pacific island states. The U.S. sees this and the Chinese navy (the world’s largest) as threats to its dominance of the Pacific, but for Australia, the decline of the old order is an opportunity and one that will not wait for us to get used to it.

Australia doesn’t often follow New Zealand’s example in foreign or defence policy, but Wellington’s response to China’s “peaceful rise” provides an alternative to being in lockstep with the U.S. Remaining in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing group but not in ANZUS, New Zealand has joined China in the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank (as Australia reluctantly did) and has signed up for its BRI.

Last year, Australia and New Zealand joined China in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, but because of the Government’s anti-China statements, Australian exports to China of all but iron ore have been slashed, while New Zealand’s have not. New Zealand is an energetic contributor to U.N. initiatives, has signed the Nuclear Disarmament Treaty and does not have foreign military bases in its territory. Its expenditure on military personnel and equipment rose by 25 per cent in 2020 to NZ$6.06 billion (AU$5.6 billion), compared with Australia’s AU$42.2 billion.

COVID-19 could threaten the world for years and could be followed by another pandemic. But global heating and nuclear war could eliminate human life. Australia has gone to great lengths to eliminate the disease but not to save lives from the other greater threats. Irrationally, our governments pursue the foreign and defence policies of the past, keeping voters afraid of minor threats, while they incrementally militarise Australia at vast cost to the detriment of our social equity and wellbeing.

What can stop our slide to disaster? Like New Zealand, Australia would do well to put more distance between us and ANZUS. We should not allow the Five Eyes and related bodies to control Australian policies and instead, we should consult more closely with our regional neighbours and seek to rebuild relations with China. Australia should start behaving by the spirit and the letter of the U.N. Charter and the ASEAN Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation and desist from the threat and use of force. This is how we could genuinely respect the international rules-based order which Australian leaders so often commend to others.

As evidence of our independence, Australia would be wise to review the 2012 White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century and adopt and fund its best recommendations. If expensive, non-productive defence contracts were cancelled, Australia could direct the large savings to paying off debt and investing in education, health, clean energy and infrastructure. Australia, according to Ross Garnaut, could make “green” steel and aluminium and dispense with gas and coal. Australia could rebuild and properly resource its foreign service and reverse the decline in ODA.

As evidence of our independence, we could reject punitive sanctions on countries like Iran and desist from endorsing America’s counterproductive policies towards Israel, the Palestinians, Cuba and Diego Garcia, for example. We could respond to our Pacific neighbours’ concerns and those of other countries by committing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by specific dates.

Filling Australia’s foreign policy void after so long is a big task, but the need is urgent. With public support for responsible leadership, achieving it should not be impossible.

Dr Alison Broinowski is a former Australian diplomat, vice-president of Australians for War Powers Reform and vice-president of Honest History.

Dr Broinowski will be taking part in a webinar entitled ‘U.S.-Australian alliance — on defence & foreign policy’ on 25 March 2021 at 6 pm AEDT as part of the People’s Inquiry into the costs and consequences of the U.S. alliance.

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