Melissa Conley Tyler is National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
For years I've considered Australian foreign policy analysis to be a purely domestic industry. It has been hard to identify a receptive export market.
For example, when I was a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the 1990s, it was difficult to discern any interest in Australia's positions. I remember a quick discussion of Australia's role in the Cambodian peace settlement. There was a slightly piqued interest in response to the footnote (yes, the footnote) in Samuel Huntington's blockbuster The Clash of Civilizations describing Australia as a 'torn country'.
But apart from these instances it was evident that the topic was not of general interest. Australia was entitled to its own foreign policy, sure; it's a free planet. But no one else would be likely to see it as very relevant to them.
What a difference two decades make.
In the past couple of months I've been asked to prepare pieces explaining Australian foreign policy to readers in the US, India and Brazil – with every indication of genuine interest. You can see my attempt to explain Australia's relationships with the US and China here and its new use of the term 'Indo-Pacific' here. The Australian Institute of International Affairs has been kept busy organising dialogues with sister institutes worldwide interested in Australian foreign policy.
Much as everyone loves attention, I've been thinking about what it suggests.
The first possibility is that Australians should take it as a compliment. Australia has weathered financial storms and has boasting rights for 21 years of uninterrupted growth. We are in the 'Australian Moment' or the 'Sweet Spot'.
So maybe, as a success story, Australia is getting its dues? Nice as it sounds, I don't buy it. Usually, places in turmoil get more foreign policy attention.
The second possibility is that Australia is being used as a cautionary tale. Unbeknown to its citizens, everyone else has decided that Australia's foreign policy choices are leading it to certain doom and they are trying to understand (with an element of schadenfreude) just how Australia could be falling into such obvious traps. Again, I suspect no one would be much interested if this was all it was.
Most likely, Australia is being watched with interest because it is seen as having greater impact on other countries' choices, including as a predictor of trends or even for symbolic value. While I don't yet see Hugh White's scenario of Australia being viewed as a prize in the strategic competition between the US and China, there is certainly an element of reading the tea leaves throughout the region.
How else to explain the reaction to the announcement of the rotation of 2500 US Marines through Darwin as 'escalating a major power rivalry from down under', from an observer who knows Australia well. In the 60th year of the US-Australia alliance, it is hard to see why anyone should be surprised by continuing military cooperation (for purposes of scale, the biennial Talisman Sabre joint military exercise involves more than 20,000 troops). What has changed is the regional context – the prism through which Australia's foreign policy is now viewed.
One description I've used is that Australia is being treated as a regional bellwether by other states grappling with the challenge of balancing their relationships with the US and China. The problem with this metaphor is that a bellwether state is ideally one that shares the median profile of the group in question (think the 'litmus test' electorate of Eden-Monaro in Australian election lore).
In Australia's case, it is the differences from others that are more apparent: Australia has no history of conflict with China, no continuing territorial disputes and even a trade surplus.
A better way to see Australia may be as a weather vane: that is, as giving early indications of which way the winds are blowing and thus how others are likely to react. Such a metaphor would suggest that Australia is subject to the same forces as others but in a more visible and exposed position, which is exactly how it feels at the moment.
While it is nice to have attention, it is difficult to live with scrutiny. It heightens the need to make wise policy choices and be careful in the way Australia signals to the region. For example, it means that Defence White Papers cannot be about domestic signaling; they send a message to the region about Australia's view of strategic risks and may create a security dilemma if others take Australia at its word on its capability plans.
When the next request comes from overseas to explain Australian foreign policy, I'll be pining for the lost easy days of obscurity. Welcome to being in vogue.
Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Beawiharta.