The Australian Greens have long staked their political credibility on being realists when it comes to the hard limits of the natural environment. An uncompromising defence of 'ecological sustainability' is the foundation for the party's broader agenda of establishing social and political justice.

In a major speech at the Lowy Institute earlier this week, Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale sought to demonstrate the party's maturity in extending the same realistic appraisal to foreign affairs. Yet, in analysing the Senator's words, it appears the championing of evidence-based thinking on ecology has not yet extended to the geopolitical environment.

The Greens core principles of international relations do not proceed from standard conceptions of national or security interests, but rather from moral ideals: that 'Australia must act diplomatically to promote peace, democracy, ecological sustainability, equity and justice, and human rights.' Yet sound foreign affairs requires more than a desire for perfected outcomes and the avoidance of moral contradiction. Foreign policy making is more often a process of negotiating least-worst outcomes that preserve core Australian interests while accepting sometimes far-reaching compromise on others.

Much media attention has focused on Di Natale's disparagement of the US-Australia alliance for drawing Australia into the 'horrific consequences' of US foreign policy. The Senator is surely correct that the alliance has drawn Australia into fraught foreign policy situations, not least of which was the ill-conceived and catastrophic 2003 Iraq War. Conversely, the alliance has also underwritten the better part of a century of regional stability, with benefits that are both less conspicuous but more consequential. It is in the preservation of regional stability that the limitations of a Greens foreign policy are most clearly demonstrated.

It is notable that Di Natale’s office briefed the media in advance that he would articulate a view of growing tensions in the South China Sea as a 'proxy war between two of our largest trading partners' far from Australia’s shores, but that direct reference to this pressing issue was omitted entirely from the delivery of the speech.

A follow-up question did prompt the Senator to argue that Australian policy had 'not pursued aggressively enough the option of arbitration and a diplomatic resolution to that specific conflict', and was instead 'largely focused on the military response' in line with US strategy.

These claims were made despite Australia endorsing the Philippines' ongoing challenge to Chinese territorial claims in a high profile case before The Permanent Court of Arbitration. Of equal prominence has been China's refusal to recognise the court's jurisdiction, and systematic attempts to undermine the legitimacy of any ruling. The case is a reminder that international law is no alternative to power, but rather a process that depends on power to make the international system more stable and predictable. This dynamic is nowhere more clear than in the Asia Pacific, where the American system of military alliances has thus far ensured substantial adherence to the 'rules-based international order'. 

Greens policy seeks guidance from 'the United Nations Charter and international law', yet is devoid of any conception of how or why such a legal order is to be established and maintained. Indeed the only official reference to security in the region is an 'ongoing commitment to the demilitarisation of the Asia-Pacific region and the development of a regional non-aggression pact.' Yet it is military capability that permits peaceful legal enforcement mechanisms, such as the freedom of navigation operations undertaken by the US to uphold the universal maritime rights that Australia so depends on.

Even on the Greens own terms, Di Natale's speech fails to indicate how environmental law will be upheld, including claims in the South China Sea arbitration that Chinese fishing activities have contravened the Convention on Biological Diversity with impunity. Foreign policy requires more than strong moral convictions. The failings of the 2003 Iraq War owe much to moral certainty combined with inadequate strategic insights about realistic means and ends.

Di Natale repeatedly appealed to former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and his deep scepticism of the US as a 'dangerous ally'. Fraser's position had its limitations, but was at least internally coherent in accepting that a more independent strategic posture entails significantly increased defence expenditure – in the realm of '2.5 percent or 3 percent'. Di Natale, by contrast, called for a reduction of spending below current projections of 2%, in part because the response to Sino-US tensions is not yet 'clear'. In effect, the Greens choose to 'do nothing and hope for the best', and thereby relegate Australia to a mere observer of the most consequential foreign policy challenge of a generation.

Understandably, the central theme of Di Natale's speech remained climate change as a 'threat multiplier', capable of exacerbating traditional global security concerns. This is almost certainly true, and yet by necessary implication, also an acknowledgment that longstanding challenges borne of power politics will remain at the heart of international relations. The Greens should revisit their own advice: the key to preserving Australia's environment is an evidence-based appreciation of history, and a realistic appraisal of the hard limits set by a changing regional climate.