Rethinking Australian foreign policy in a post-Bush world


On November 15, the National Press Club held its election debate on
foreign affairs between Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and ALP
spokesman Robert McLelland.

It was a disappointingly narrow debate, which Hugh White on Sky News
later described as "a draw, with both candidates playing for a draw".
Indeed it was, with Downer toning down his customary rhetorical bluster
and McLelland doing his best to appear conservative and safe.

It comes as no surprise that Downer maintains a re-elected
Government will stay the course on Australia’s involvement in Iraq and
that Labor, having opposed the invasion all along, remains committed to
withdrawing Australian combat troops (our largely symbolic commitment
of 1,000 troops in the relatively safe province of al-Muthana). Beyond
this one key difference, it was difficult to detect much
daylight between the major parties’ position on a range of important
foreign policy issues.

But even the easy banter at the debate couldn’t conceal the elephant
in the living room of Australia’s foreign policy: our relationship with
our "great and powerful friend", the United States of America.

Under John Howard, Australia has moved closer to partisan US foreign
policy than any administration since Harold Holt (or even John
Curtain). Meanwhile, the ALP, perhaps remembering the fearful criticism
Mark Latham aroused for his supposed "anti-Americanism", seems
determined to demonstrate a Rudd Government will would keep the US
alliance strong, stay in Afghanistan, and continue to fight the "war on

Unfortunately for Australia, both sides are so far refusing to
acknowledge the reality of the declining reputation, popularity and
"soft power" of the United States in world affairs. Whether we like it
or not, Australia is soon going to be faced with some very difficult
strategic foreign policy challenges in relation to our American

The reason can be summed up in one phrase: the Bush Administration.

The disastrous foreign policy blunders of President George W. Bush
and his top advisors are now too legion to discuss in a short article.
They include, in chronological order, the decision to pull special
forces assets hunting Bin Laden out of Afghanistan in December 2001 to
prepare for the invasion of Iraq; the establishment of military
commissions at Guantanamo; the campaign of disinformation on WMD in the
lead-up to the Iraq war; the folly of the Iraq invasion and the
incompetence of US transitional administration; the decision to abolish
the Iraqi Army; the Abu Ghraib scandal; the corruption and mendacity of
US reconstruction efforts; and the United States’ signal failure to
achieve a workable "what next" strategy in the face of its increasingly
obvious defeat.

And yet, during one of the worst periods of US foreign policy
failure in modern American history, Australia has remained the United
States’ most steadfast ally, while also stepping up to the plate as an
intellectual cheer-leader, apologist and self-declared member of the
Coalition of the Willing.

The question Australian foreign policy makers must now answer is
whether this unwavering support has actually damaged Australia’s
interests. There are many reasons to suggest it has.

Firstly, and most importantly, Australia’s willing participation in
the invasion of sovereign Iraq eroded decades of Australian commitment
to the instruments of collective security enshrined in the United
Nations. This is an especially melancholy fate for a nation like
Australia that played such an important role in the drafting and
establishment of the UN itself after the Second World War. This
long-term collateral damage to Australia’s reputation, which dovetails
in impact with our refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol, may well be as
significant for our own interests as the unpopularity of the US in much
of the world will be for its own.

Secondly, the years of the Bush Administration have marked a clear
and growing divergence between America’s interests and our own. The
most urgent example is our membership of the "war on terror".

It is surprising how seriously many parts of Australia’s defence and
foreign policy establishment believe in the existence of the "war on
terror". For instance, the Australian Strategic Policy Institutes’s Dr
Rod Lyon has been an enthusiastic cheer-leader for this so-called
"generational conflict", in which the armed forces and police services
of "the West" are supposed to be engaged in a decades-long,
cross-national, asymmetric conflict against the forces of Islamic

But from the perspective of foreign-policy sceptics or even great
power traditionalists, the "war on terror" looks not so much like a
vast inter-connected theatre of war as a neat brand for a marketing
campaign. Future historians looking back on the rhetoric of western
democracies during this period may well describe the various
insurgencies and conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the
Middle East in the far more prosaic terms of a series of sub-national
rebellions, sporadic bombing campaigns and movements of national

In Afghanistan, for instance, it is not easy to discern to what
degree the various factions of tribal warlords, organised crime
operations and even the Taliban are really participating in the "war on
terror". A simpler explanation is that, even for the Taliban, these
groups are fighting foreign occupiers for largely local reasons and
with few supra-regional agendas.

In our region, it is clear that while the actions of Jemaah
Islamiyah were indeed intended to harm Australian interests, the key
targets of its terrorism campaign were always domestic. Like the
Marxist insurgency that has been raging in Mindanao for three decades,
JI’s most salient impact was in its home country, and the most
effective counter-measures taken against it have been policing, not
military action.

At home in Australia, there is simply no evidence for a domestic
terrorism movement, in spite of the at-times hysterical rhetoric used
by the Prime Minster and Attorney-General to justify the introduction
of draconian anti-terror laws. As recent actions by ASIO and the
Australian Federal Police show, Australian citizens probably have more
to worry about from the botched operations of these domestic
enforcement agencies than the so-called “terrorist threat.”

If the war on terror is a convenient fiction, than the reality of
Australia’s foreign policy choices are confronted in our relationship
to China. Indeed, if there can be said to be one key plank to what
might be called a "realist" Australian foreign policy, it surely must
be to grapple with the shifting influences and great power relationship
of the US and China. Yet even here, Australia has increasingly thrown
in its lot with the US during the Howard years. Our recent decision to
sign-up to a four-power defence treaty with Japan, the US and India was
not warmly welcomed in Beijing, for which such a treaty must clearly
appear to be a policy of containment.

Earlier this year, writing in foreign policy journal The American Interest, French political scientist Pierre Hassner
argued that while "American power is vast and may yet grow by many
measures . . . the legitimacy of that power is waning, and with it the
authority of America’s word and its model". Hassner is right. The
question for Australia is when we will be prepared to abandon the
discredited neocon fictions of the "war on terror", and how we should
respond to the declining legitimacy of the United States.

In a prescient recent article in the same journal, noted Australian analyst Owen Harries
from the Lowy Institute examined the problems that Australia will face
in coming decades as the influence of the US wanes. Acknowledging the
problem, he argued that the issue is more pervasive than one of mere
perception: "the failure of the can-do country to cope even with the
effect of a hurricane on one of its great cities has suggested a
weakness that goes beyond Iraq".

Harries observes that if American influence really is on the
decline, then "if so, it is a cause of concern not only for Americans
but for the international system". He then proceeds to explain why,
offering a laundry list of problems which will require international
leadership – "globalisation; global warming; mass uncontrolled human
migration; nuclear proliferation, extending to weak states with poor
security and control systems; and, of course, terrorism". It looks as
though the reign of the US as the world’s only "hyper-power" has been

Back at the National Press Club, Robert McLelland castigated
Alexander Downer for his government’s refusal to formulate an exit
strategy for our forces in Iraq. But Australia now needs more than an
exit strategy from the Coalition of the Willing. It’s time to seriously
rethink the bedrock of 60 years of our foreign policy and move towards
a more regional, more internationalist and less hegemonic policy
agenda. Engaging or re-engaging with international collective security
endeavours (like the UN and NATO) and environmental security treaties
(like Kyoto), would certainly be a good place to start. Most
importantly, we need to stop acting to support the moral legitimacy of
US entanglements.

As US foreign policy inevitably shifts after March 2009, Australia
will find we will have to change ours, whether we like it or not. A
new, more independent foreign policy is not only likely post-George W.
Bush. It’s almost certainly required.

This article was first published by 

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