It's rare for Australian politicians to wrestle publicly with the roots of their party philosophy, so it was encouraging to read Shadow Foreign Minister Andrew Robb's speech to the Australian Institute of International Affairs, which promised a close examination of how Liberal foreign policy is shaped by the the Party's values and traditions.

Robb's intro covers well troden ground. The notion that the Liberal Party is devoted to individualism and Labor stands for big government is a bit of a caricature. But like any caricature, it carries a grain of truth, and I was interested to see how Robb was going to apply this schema to foreign policy. What can a commitment to small government and individual autonomy actually mean for our external relations?

For Robb, the link seems to be that we should regard sovereign states in the same way we regard individuals. So respect for sovereignty is the foreign policy equivalent of respect for individualism. An interesting idea, but it's not really developed. Indeed, at this point in the speech the attempt to link Liberal foreign policy with Liberal philosophy is pretty much abandoned, as Robb segues into the familiar case that the Liberal Party traditionally favours bilateralism and Labor leans toward multilateralism. He argues that the Liberal approach is more realistic and gets better results.

That's a defensible argument, but it is not clear that it has any specific links to Liberal philosophy. Sure, Liberals have traditionally favoured bilateralism, but why do you need to be a Liberal to believe that bilateralism better serves Australia's interests? Robb's speech has no answers, and in fact, Robb's defence of the Liberal approach is an entirely practical one: it gets better results. 

As a practising politician, results are what should matter to Robb, but as observers, we are still left with the question of what marks a distinctively liberal-conservative foreign policy.

It's very hard to find a good foreign policy 'fit' for Liberals who believe in free markets and small government. When it comes to economic and domestic politics, such people can be easily categorised as Hayekians or Friedmanites. Such Liberals see the role of the state as largely to preserve the freedom of the individual, and they resist the idea that governments should have grand designs which they impose on society. But foreign policy is the one unique area of public policy where government acts as a representative of the collective, rather than just an arbitrator among individuals. That in itself makes free market Liberals uneasy, and makes foreign policy an uncomfortable fit in their world view.