Lowy Institute
Election Interpreter 2016

It is a universally acknowledged truth that foreign and defence policy are not major political issues in elections. Yet at least for Australia's 2016 federal election campaign, the national security community can say it has tried to change that.

Since the start of the election campaign six weeks ago, the wider community of scholars, bloggers, think tankers and journalists have advocated a somewhat consistent message: we need to talk more about national security issues. 

Certainly, this could (and perhaps ought) to be seen as special pleading. Every industry spends elections trying to get politicians to focus on their area. But the national security community has traditionally been a little different. 

In past years many have preferred the sound of silence than to letting the public or parliamentary benches meddle with policy settings. Walter Lippman's famous complaint that the public is 'destructively wrong at the critical junctures…too late with too little, or too long with too much, too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war' would likely ring true for many in the field.

In 2016 however, there has been a growing chorus insisting that this idea of exclusion and silence needs to change. Recent examples have included:

And so on. While many have bemoaned the lack of foreign and defence policy discussion during this campaign, there are at least some signs of life from the relevant politicians.

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On 16 July there was a National Press Club 'Defence Debate' between the Defence Minister Marise Payne and her shadow counterpart Senator Stephen Conroy. Meanwhile, Foreign Affair Minister Julie Bishop, shadow Tanya Plibersek and Greens Party Senator Scott Ludlum have all penned articles for the Australian Outlook blog on their party's foreign policy. Small steps, but certainly welcome.

On a range of fronts, the last few years have suggested Australia's politicians are increasingly willing to highlight their disagreements on foreign and defence policy. This was clearer under the combative Tony Abbott, but even Turnbull's more refined style can't hide growing differences in how the major parties talk about and think about issues such as terrorism, China, defence spending, climate change (as a security concern), foreign aid, and until Abbott succumbed to the political pressure, submarines. 

The public also feel excluded. A 2010 Lowy Institute poll found that only 22% of the public were satisfied with the government's willignness to listen to and engage the electorate on foreign policy issues. Similarly the 2015 Defence White Paper Expert Panel 'heard repeated concerns that much of the Australian community did not have a good understanding of their present-day defence force'. Politicians now know that the usual cone of silence on these issues can't continue. As rising ALP backbenchers Clare O'Neil and Tim Watts argued in their 2015 book Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment, 'the significant changes occurring in our region merit a better standard of public debate than they have in the past'.

Changing this picture, with greater levels of discussion and engagement in defence and security issues from both the public and political class will of course require more than a few concerned comments in the media or blog posts. There are large structural impediments to such change. The clamour for bipartisanship, the small size of our think-tank and academic community, and the public's natural inclination for hip-pocket issues, all conspire to keep foreign and defence policy issues off the front page.

While many in the wider national security community will continue to doubt the wisdom of greater public engagement in their field, it's encouraging to see a range of voices calling for change. Navigating an era of uncertainty and potential conflict requires new forms of conduct and thought from us all. As Abraham Lincoln reminded the US Congress in 1862, 'The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present…As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew'.

Photo by Mick Tsikas - Pool/Getty Images



The transformation of Tony Abbott from a social conservative to security commentator has been stark. In his 2009 book Battlelines he offered a bare 4-5 pages of perfunctory defence of the Howard Government's actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In office, however, a portrait emerged of a man who 'sits for much of the day...pondering national security, Islamic State and reading Winston Churchill'.

Like Churchill in the wilderness, Abbott has spent his time out of office with a pen in hand, this time writing an essay for Quadrant magazine titled 'I Was Right on National Security'. Quite what Abbott thinks he is right about is hard to know. The essay is a defence of his government, but there are no major judgement calls which the current government has repealed or which are very far from the mainstream. Abbott says he 'was determined to advance our interests, protect our citizens and uphold our values around the world', but we are never specifically told what those interests or values are.

The essay has clear areas of emphasis such as terrorism, the downing of MH17, asylum seekers and China's rise, but no strong sense of how Abbott prioritised the myriad issues he faced. Abbott also spends much of the essay describing the personal interactions he had with world leaders. The combined effect feels much like the critique Abbott used to offer of Kevin Rudd: lots of heat and action, little clear sense of the national interest.

If Abbott's essay reveals one principle which he values most, it is this: Australia needs to be 'a country that said what it meant and did what it said'. Throughout the essay, he identifies his desire for Australia to be

seen as a 'reliable partner'. 'Australia may not be America's most powerful or important ally' Abbott says, 'but we would strive to be its most dependable one'.

There are many who will agree that the Rudd-Gillard years often involved telling foreign countries what they wanted to hear. And middle powers probably do need an image of credibility. But on the list of problems and challenges facing Australia, I'm not sure this issue would even break the top 20. Being direct is a useful diplomatic skill, but is that the main concern affecting Australia's relationships with the US, Japan, China, or Indonesia?

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Perhaps Abbott is trying to insist that Turnbull keeps the promises his government made — such as to Japan. Or maybe this is Abbott the conservative philosopher asserting that honourable nations don't try for clever diplomacy but state their world views directly and let the chips fall where they may? 

Abbott's views never seem to go beyond the anodyne. For instance, when it comes to the US-China relationship, Abbott tells us that 'my formulation was that "you don't gain new friends by losing old ones"'. Which makes good sense. But it's not clear how this drove his government's choices. The essay mentions the tension between security and economic interests with China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but doesn't say why he was then willing to earn US ire by joining it.

Abbott also places a heavy responsibility upon American shoulders, stating 'US absence from any major trouble spot creates a vacuum that less high-minded countries will eventually fill'. In the very next paragraph however we get a paraphrase from US President Barack Obama's West Point speech to the effect that 'America could no longer be the world's policeman on its own'. Abbott's intended point is to say that Australia will stand beside the US. But this seems to miss the message Obama was quietly acknowledging, and which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are now shouting: the US doesn't want responsibility for every major trouble spot. I'm not sure Abbott's promise of dependable Australian support will change that.

Tellingly, the main justification Abbott advances across the essay is not for his views but his management skills. Rather than talk about whether he actually wanted to send 1000 troops into Ukraine after the downing of MH17, we get a discussion of how the he got the machinery of government moving. Rather than state which submarines we should buy, we get a defence of the Competitive Evaluation Process. This emphasis on demonstrating competence might seem unusual, except for the fact that polling at the time he was deposed showed three-quarters of Australians thought Malcolm Turnbull a better manager of security policy than Abbott.

In time, I hope we see much more by Abbott on national security issues. He has a rare position of insight. But until he can separate the defence of his prime ministership from how we should be defending the country, his ability to really contribute to the national security debate will be muted.

Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

5 of 5 This post is part of a debate on The death penalty

While Australians are largely united in their sadness at the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran there is divide over how we should respond.

For many, the over-riding sense is one of helplessness. Prominent voices on the left and right have reacted with anger and want to go beyond withdrawing our ambassador to also punish Indonesia by cutting aid. Others, such as those in the #saveourboys video, seem to think the Australian Government can just snap its fingers and force Jakarta to change.

In the last 24 hours both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten have said Australia should campaign against the death penalty. How might our politicians make meaningful progress to end this practice?

The good news is that there is a long historical record of Australia being influential on the policies of its neighbours. The story of Australia's engagement with the Asia Pacific is as much one of Australia trying to change its region as it is of Australia adapting to it. As I detailed a few weeks ago, there are clear lessons from this history for how Australia could campaign for change in regional thinking about the death penalty.

First we’d need a good argument. But more than that, an argument which appeals to the existing views and concerns of those in the region who support the death penalty. Our concern is to persuade, not simply parade our views.

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Second, we need a platform on which to talk. That might include appointing an Australian ambassador to focus on this issue full time — as we have for counter-terrorism and irregular migration — as well as building coalitions and forums of those who also want to end this practice.

Third, we need to work out a strategy for creating change. Are there key countries which everyone else looks to for leadership? Are there domestic groups we could work with? And how do we ensure our views come across as genuine moral conviction and not a stereotype of the West lecturing the East?

Finally, we need to accept that this is a long, long campaign. Any serious effort will outlast the careers of current members of the Australian parliament. The campaign needs to be based on a united genuine belief and backed by serious resources, as we did with non-proliferation and trade liberalisation.

After surveying 30 years of Australian foreign policy in Asia for my book Winning the Peace, I am optimistic that Australia can have significant influence in regional policies. We should not feel helpless, but nor should we assume influence is easy. The real question is not whether we could campaign for change, but whether we are prepared to do so for not a month or year but for a decade and beyond.

Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama.


Australians sometimes wonder if their nation has a grand strategy. I think it did. It was called 'Engagement' and it has now come to an end.

Beginning in the 1950s and 60s and re-doubled in the 1980s and 90s, Australia's leaders began a historic turn of their nation from West to East. For many this is believed to be a still-distant goal. After all, most of us don't speak an Asian language, too many don't realise Bali is in Indonesia, and our foreign policy keeps looking toward the Middle East and singing sweet notes about the Anglosphere.

Yet on the terms the Engagers actually sought, the policy has been thoroughly achieved.

Cautious about culture and history, their terms of success were focused on gaining economic and political access as a basis for influence and security. Today, Australia's top six export markets and five of our top six import markets are in the Asia Pacific, with the US the only Anglosphere nation to feature prominently in both lists. Politically we have guaranteed ourselves a seat at the table of all of the region's major forums. We have created and reformed institutions, and helped shape the region's values and norms on such key issues as trade, non-proliferation and irregular migration. We no longer fear economic or political isolation as we once did. This is our region and we are no longer the odd man out or even the odd man in, but thoroughly at home.

This is the story I set out to tell in my new book Winning the Peace: Australia's campaign to change the Asia-Pacific, launched last night by Paul Kelly.

However, once I had the mass of notes and chapter drafts before me, I realised that what Australia needs is not a collective effort to praise engagement but to bury it.

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As many have noticed over the last ten or so years, many of our key relationships and key initiatives don't seem to have blossomed as they did in the past. However, I don't accept the usual explanations, such as a lack of 'creativity', 'maturity' or that we can pin the blame on certain individuals or political parties.

Instead, I think the problem is that we still think of our country as an outsider looking to engage, rather than being in a fully enmeshed position, which we actually are. The 'engagement' posture suited us during the courtship, but I believe it's now hurting us in the marriage.

As a self-proclaimed 'middle power' we felt free to let our attention wander between global and local concerns. We saw our relationships as exclusively bilateral concerns and not part of the region's networks and hubs. And we didn't mind being seen as an outsider as long as it gave us the freedom to lob diplomatic hand grenades every once in a while.

The costs of holding onto this 'outsider looking in' engagement-era thinking are starting to mount.

Kevin Rudd was high priest of the need to return to a 'pure' engagement vision. But his voluminous activity earned little respect and his signature policies, such as the Asia-Pacific Community, fell embarrassingly flat. The Gillard Government likewise sought to spruik the need to engage with the Asian Century, but its own thinking looked outdated when it announced a major new US presence in Darwin without even informing the neighbours. Finally, the Abbott Government seems continually surprised that Indonesia doesn't want to keep doing us favours (such as ignoring spying, accepting boats or giving mercy to drug smugglers) and can't quite understand why getting closer to our old friend Japan is leaving many so nervous.

These governments are victims of the success of their predecessors. Their failure is one of adaptation, a result of their desire to cling onto engagement-era thinking.

I don't have an overarching new concept or slogan to sell you at this point. Maybe we shouldn't even think in terms of slogans. But we do need a new intellectual framework that helps us think about what Australia wants from its region and what role it will play within it.

The starting point is to throw away the idea of being an outsider looking in, and begin afresh from our real position as part of Southeast Asia. That probably means more constraints, but it also promises more security and prosperity.

Before that debate can begin, however, we need to accept that the old beloved project of engagement is over. Despite the controversy, this truly was a bipartisan and national effort of re-orientation, of a form and success that few nations have ever attempted. No wonder we have trouble letting it go.
Until we do, however, Australian foreign policy will be far less effective and influential than it ought to be, and our nation will be weaker and poorer for it.


One word that keeps cropping up in the overnight hysteria about the movement of some Russian ships in the South Pacific is 'power'. But it is hard to see how that word applies.

Few terms generate more heat and less light in international relations than 'power', but the basic premise is that it involves Actor A behaving in such a way as to get Actor B to do something.

But if that is power, then there is nothing to see here. There is no evidence Russia is seeking to change Australia's behaviour over MH17 or at the G20, nor is there any likelihood that this sea cruise will have any effect on Australia's positions and attitudes.

A more subtle take is that this is not about using power so much as a 'demonstration of power'. But again, that claim is hard to justify. We already knew Russia spends more than double what Australia does on its defence budget and that it has a moderately large navy. So Russia does not need to demonstrate the existence of these assets. Nor is this a demonstration of willingness or capacity to use those assets. Russia will not use force against Australia because of some harsh words about MH17 or over any other issue on the table today.

This is not like the US sailing an aircraft carrier down the Taiwan Strait in 1996. In that case, the US was going through the motions of what it could do in a war-type situation, on an issue over which it is committed to use force. Some Russian ships hanging around PNG meets none of those criteria.

The take-away point here is the over-emphasis our society still places on material assets and 'hard power'. It's visible and easy to count, hence the proliferation of news stories. Everyone knows military power is vital in actual war-time scenarios. But outside of those times, I think we pay it too much attention in understanding how the world works.

As US President Barack Obama stated, Moscow is neither a super or great power, but a regional one. Nothing about this story challenges that claim. Russia has a stagnant economy which has been hit hard by the stock market and international sanctions. No matter how many ships Russia has, the illegitimacy of its actions in Crimea have led the world to punish Moscow in ways that are hurting. Just last month Russia's finance minister had to declare that the country 'couldn't afford' its proposed defence build-up.

As I've argued in other places, hard power is hard to use and often achieves far less in the international arena than autocratic leaders like to imagine. Twenty-five years ago the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR's military was powerless to stop it. Let's not indulge those who still can't get over this by rewarding the word 'power' for what is a mere sea cruise.


A favourite analogy of the Australian Treasurer is that the budget he delivered yesterday 'does the heavy lifting'. But like all weights regimes, we're first in for some visualisation and warm ups. 

The Treasurer's speech hit the right note by outlining the goal, with the Government recommitting  to spending 2% of GDP on defence within a decade. It's not quite clear when the Government intends to develop this muscle: did the clock start in 2013 when the Government was elected, in 2014 with this budget, or in 2015 with the new Defence White Paper?

We won't know until next year, with the promise that the White Paper 'will also set out how the Government will increase defence spending to two per cent of GDP'. Ideally the Government can also show that this is not some arbitrary target, but a necessary path to real strength. Still, setting clear goals is the start of a good regime.

After visualisation and verbalisation we got a dose of warmups. The Government has brought forward $1.5 billion from 2017-18, with about a $500 million increase this year. This is a welcome start after the cuts from 2009 to 2013, but it's not exactly a sign of strength. There is also the removal of 1200 civilian roles, hopes for $1.2 billion in savings via 'various initiatives to increase efficiency and reduce spending in lower priority areas' (to be re-invested in Defence) and a less generous superannuation scheme.

Counter-intuitively for a conservative government, the area where we saw the biggest desire to improve Australia's security was in the non-traditional sphere (let's call this the cardio package). While already announced, we saw the commitment to a large new agency, the Australian Border Force, to combine customs, immigration, and borders (this government seems to treat 'borders' as a good in and of itself).

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There was also $86.8 million to Indonesia to help deal with asylum seekers on their shores and $6.4 million for a 'dedicated position in Sri Lanka, the continuation of the Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues and annual Bali Process meetings at Ministerial and senior official levels'. All welcome steps for a government which took office decrying the worth of regional cooperation to deal with irregular migration. 

So as the Treasurer grabs a Gatorade and towels down, what level of effort should be recorded? The government turned up, wrote down its goals and conducted a vigorous warm up. But as everyone who has begun a gym program knows, the first session is easy. The resulting pain even seems pleasant, serving as proof of your new commitment. But it is going back on a regular basis to lift ever heavier weights that will be the challenge. 

Yet just that is what is required for defence funding to hit 2% of GDP. If that is to remain our target, then this is the beginning of a decade's worth of prioritising defence over many other popular issues, regardless of electoral pressures. This budget begins that task, but for the moment the really heavy weights are still in the rack, waiting to be hoisted. 

Photo by Flickr user jerryonlife.


One area of policy difference between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard immediately raised after last night's leadership change is asylum seekers. After all, it's one of the biggest challenges in terms of policy and votes facing the Government, and Rudd famously declared he did not want to see the party 'lurch to the right' on the issue on the night he was deposed three years ago.

However, a left/right analysis of Rudd and Gillard's approach to the issue misleads far more than it reveals. Instead, there is a regional/domestic divide in their approach, and curiously enough, it's Gillard who is the regionalist.

Within two weeks of coming to power, Gillard declared in a speech to the Lowy Institute that she was working towards 'a regional approach to the processing of asylum seekers, with the involvement of the UNHCR, which effectively eliminates the on shore processing of unauthorised arrivals'. She also announced, pre-emptively it turned out, an agreement with East Timor to host a processing centre.

While that deal soon collapsed, Gillard's instincts continued to be regional. She and Chris Bowen put far more effort in to the Bali Process than Rudd had, and saw the (still weak) institution agree to a 'Regional Cooperation Framework', as suggested by the UNHCR. This included, for the first time, the discussion of a regional processing centre hosted in a Southeast Asian country. Gillard pursued a deal with Malaysia which was rightly criticised as too small and without sufficient protection of minority rights, but which could have been a framework for something sustainable in the longer term.

Of course, Gillard's plans were stymied by the High Court, the Coalition and the Greens, leading her to use domestic policy approaches and restore the Pacific Solution (the Manus Island and Nauru facilities are not 'regional' in any sense of significant cooperation; they are merely Australian-run detention and processing centres in locations outside Australia's legal framework).

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Rudd, by comparison, tried to use domestic measures to address the issue. He argued for restoring morality to Australia's approach, and ended some of the Howard Government's restrictions and policies. However he slowly began rolling back some of his changes as the boats began arriving. Rudd even used a flat-out ban on processing arrivals from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan in a desperate bid to stop the flow. Like almost all other domestic measures we've tried, none of this really worked. Yet for all his talk about engagement and Asia as a 'third pillar' of his government's foreign policy, Kevin Rudd did not want to involve the region in solving Australia's asylum seeker problem. If the comments by Bob Carr last night are any indication, the second Rudd Government will also focus on domestic approaches.

To borrow a line from the former PM, this regional/domestic divide doesn't explain everything about Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard's different approaches, but it does explain much of it.

There are two takeaways from this. One is that the story of how the Australian government has tried to solve the asylum seeker issue is far more complex and far more interesting than a simple left/right dichotomy. Gillard, like Howard before her, sought a regional approach. Rudd, like Keating before him, sought a domestic approach.

Which raises the second and perhaps unanswerable question: is there a link between the idealism which Rudd and Keating attach to concept of engagement and their unwillingness to pursue a regional approach on morally difficult issues like asylum seekers? In other words, is the idealistic conception of 'engagement' restricting actual engagement with Asia on issues that matter to Australians?


Being a blogger often feels like going fishing. Every morning you cast your line out looking for something to catch and discuss. Some days there's lots of things about, sometimes nothing. Some days you try and catch a big fish to impress others (and usually miss), some days you put in a lot of time and struggle, only to reel in a minnow.

It's a great and rewarding pursuit, but I've come to realise that my knowledge of the bank and currents isn't yet good enough to compete with the pros. So, I'm hanging up my rod for the time being to go researching. I've accepted an Associate Lecturer position at ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. I'm hoping to spend a few years really getting to know my field, publishing and getting back into teaching.

I'd like to thank all the people at Lowy for their support, but especially Sam who has been an excellent boss and taught me a lot about this craft.


Photo by Flickr user faungg.


British officials criticised his [Burton's] "extraordinary" views, such as that India and Indonesia were more important to Australia than Canada and South Africa.




In the links last week I highlighted a survey of US international relations (IR) scholars. One question particularly leapt out: 'Which of the following best describes your approach to the study of IR?'.

While a colleague has noted that you'll never hear the word 'constructivism' inside the walls of DFAT*, it is the most popular IR discipline. In some ways this isn't too surprising, as constructivism is a new field with high research energy. But given the traditional dominance of realism, and the return to great power studies that has accompanied China's rise this century, I would have expected many more realists.

It may be that some realists are hiding their ideological colours under the 'I don't have a paradigm' option, but given this is a group of experts being asked about their identification, we must assume they had some reasons for not selecting realism. It is also likely that many realists have shifted over into security studies rather than IR, narrowing the pool of IR realists, without affecting the number of realists who study international affairs. Still, it's noticeable that while realists dominate the big names in public, they are not doing as well inside the disciplinary walls.

* In Gyngell & Wesley's 2007 book 'Making Australian Foreign Policy', they found 68% of DFAT staff identify as realists.


One of the signature foreign policy moves of the Rudd Government was carried out in Canberra. Rudd centralised foreign and defence policy creation, not just into his department (PM&C), but in his office, including creating a new National Security Adviser as the PM's point man. Yet it seems his successor, Julia Gillard, isn't so taken with the changes:

The position of National Security Adviser has been vacant since early August, when the former SAS commander Duncan Lewis stepped down to become Secretary of Defence. And it is only one of six positions within the departments of Defence and Prime Minister and Cabinet that are being filled by acting staff.

The other five are: the two newly created associate secretary positions within Defence; the chief executive of the Defence Materiel Organisation; the deputy NSA; and DPMC's National Security Chief Information Officer.Mr Lewis' deputy, Margot McCarthy, has been the acting National Security Adviser since he left. Some believe that Ms Gillard and the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Ian Watt, believe the role should not have the power it had during Kevin Rudd's prime ministership.

While sometimes there are inevitable delays, Gillard has run a more efficient ship-of-state than her predecessor, leading me to believe that it is a disinclination for a centralised security office in PM&C that better explains the delays. This not only fits with Gillard's lower level of passion for foreign policy than Rudd, but hopefully also a recognition that the system Rudd established didn't work.

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For all his many strengths as a policy thinker (I still defend the APc concept), Rudd ended up a lone ranger, with poor implementation, organisation and paper flow leading to delays and missed opportunities. All PMs might wish to focus on foreign policy, but there are always going to be too many distractions in the domestic sphere for foreign and defence policy development to be the PM's role.

While it would be a shame to lose the NSA role, if Gillard really is moving policy creation and management back to DFAT and Defence (leaving PM&C to coordinate), it will be to the benefit of Australia's foreign policy. PMs are always tempted to centralise, so it's to Gillard's credit that she's reversing the trend in this area.

Photo courtesy of PM&C.