There was a rare foreign policy moment in the election yesterday, with the ABC's Kerry O'Brien quizzing Opposition Leader Tony Abbott on themes that will be familiar to those following the Australian foreign policy debate: Abbott's invocation of the 'Anglosphere' and his claim that the Howard Government 'ran a kind of neighbourhood watch scheme in support of Western values.'

Judging by Abbott's bland answers, he seems slightly uneasy about those remarks now. From a purely presentational point of view, this is welcome. Critics such as Michael Fullilove and Greg Sheridan have argued that 'Anglosphere' is an unnecessarily exclusivist term, and the 'neighbourhood watch' remark is surely, as Kerry O'Brien said, rather condescending.

Still, there's something to be learnt about Abbott's foreign policy disposition from the fact that he used these phrases at all. To understand them and to make some sense of the potential of an Abbott Government foreign policy, it is worthwhile to firstly take a step back to examine Tony Abbott's political philosophy.

It seems to me that Abbott's political philosophy is a blend (and, on important occasions, a clash) of the cultural and civic forms of conservatism.

Cultural conservatism is concerned with the defence (and at times the spread) of a particular national or civilizational legacy, which has political, religious, social and even artistic elements. It sees those traditions a being the defining elements of a particular society, and argues that their erosion would lead to a loss of identity. Cultural conservatism is also marked by a sense of siege — the idea that Western civilization is at constant threat from progressives and (these days) Islamist extremists.

My guess is that Abbott's cultural conservatism is heavily informed by the stance the American right took in the culture wars (with its themes of anti-relativism; suspicion of academic and cultural elites; the pugnacious defence of traditional religion), and by the neoconservative reaction to the 9/11 attacks, which painted the threat of Islamist terrorism in civilizational terms.

Civic conservatism, by contrast, is less about defending a particular cultural legacy and more about a country's political identity; it is a more liberal form of conservatism, in that it is partly concerned with preserving and defending personal freedoms rather than a particular culture, but it also focuses heavily on the benefits of a rules-based order.

In Abbott's case, I think this 'civic conservative' tendency is on display in the way he describes, in Battlelines, his gradual embrace of Australian multiculturalism. After initially seeing multiculturalism as a threat to Australian identity, he came to see that Australia's civic and political institutions could cope and even flourish while incorporating substantially differing cultures.

The question here is, which form of conservatism will win out in Abbott's foreign policy?

The 'Anglosphere' and 'neighbourhood watch' comments suggest a narrow and defensive cultural conservatism. Abbott's claim that he would abandon Australia's UN Security Council bid if he becomes Prime Minister imply that he might be sympathetic to the suspicion and derision of the UN that is popular among American cultural conservatives. He has also defended the Iraq war on cultural conservative lines.

Yet all of this might merely be the product of very limited academic and professional exposure to foreign affairs — in the absence of any deep exposure to foreign policy, Abbott has reached for a convenient and familiar ideology. His evolution on the question of multiculturalism suggests it might not be a permanent condition.