As power shifts in Asia, Australia faces big new foreign policy challenges. Getting them right is vital to Australia's future security and prosperity. But the way we do foreign policy in Australia these days is not up to the task. We have to do foreign policy better.
This is the central argument of Peter Hartcher's new book, The Adolescent Country, which gives a fresh and well-framed take on the way Australia tries to position itself in the world. Peter is an indefatigable reporter, and he has garnered many interesting and important views from many interesting and important people. He is also an accomplished author who assembles his material into a fluent and accessible story.
It is also, at heart, a distinctly optimistic book, for two reasons.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. (Flickr/CSIS.)
First, although Peter finds much that is wrong with the way Australia approaches foreign policy, he tends not to blame governments for that. Mostly – there are a few exceptions – he argues that successive governments in recent years have got things right and that it is the media, successive oppositions and the wider public who fail to understand how important their work is, and sometimes get in the way. The key message seems to be that all would be well if the media and the public would only take what their governments are doing more seriously.
Second, Peter seems broadly confident that good solutions to Australia's foreign-policy challenges are going to be relatively easy to find. His shares Julie Bishop's conviction that Australia is and will remain a 'top 20' power, and that as such we will be able to shape the international system to preserve our prosperity and security without having to make too many uncomfortable choices.
Alas, I'm not sure it's that easy.
First, how should we score recent governments' foreign policies? Peter gives high marks for Rudd's G20 initiative and UN Security Council bid, for Gillard's support for Obama's Pivot, and for the Abbott Government's responses to MH17, ISIS and Abe's changes to Japan's defence posture. This is not the place to argue the toss about all these policies, but there are solid arguments that each of them was either largely irrelevant or actually damaging to Australia's core interests. The more of those arguments one accepts, the weaker our governments' recent performances look.
These examples also cast some doubt on Peter's diagnosis of the problem with our foreign policy. The media warmly applauded each of these policies, and those in opposition only overtly criticised one of them. A more critical observer might therefore argue that our media and opposition are too lenient on governments rather that too tough on them. More stringent scrutiny might produce better outcomes.
Second, I think we have to be a little more cautious about the seriousness of the problems we face and the choices they will impose on us. Peter's book discusses the strategic shifts in Asia and the need to respond to them, quoting with approval Michael Thawley's view that Australia has to 'take the lead in creating an agenda'. But he does not discuss in any systematic way what our response should actually be.
In fact Peter seems to accept the widely shared assumption that these responses need not involve any very hard choices for Australia, because US leadership will continue to provide the foundation of regional order. But that is not something we can simply assume, and one might argue that the real weakness in Australian foreign policy is that so few in government, the opposition or the media and commentariat are willing seriously to debate it.