Divining the National Interest

Appeals to 'the national interest' have captured centre stage in the discussion of Australian foreign policy over the past decade. By including the term in the titles of both of its foreign and defence policy White Papers, the Howard government sought to differentiate its diplomacy from that of the Labor Party, which the Coalition accused of pursuing 'grand constructs'. In reply, the ALP has adopted the language of the national interest to mount attacks on the government's handling of several foreign policy issues.

Renewed attention to the national interest is a good thing, particularly in an era of international change and uncertainty. But there is a danger that the use of the term in political debate risks debasing its value as an objective anchor of foreign policy making. Observers of the government and opposition lambasting one another, each using the national interest as its debating standard, must begin to doubt whether the term actually means anything. The real danger of the national interest becoming part of the domestic political debate is that Australia's foreign policy will begin being pulled along by the contradictory urges of partisan electoral advantage.

The term 'national interest' is nowadays much maligned by many progressives, who see it as elevating narrow interests and power over general ethical duties to humanity. But the national interest first evolved as an heuristic device designed to keep the ship of state off the shoals of short-term expediency and away from the siren calls of emotional commitments. National interests should advance the good of the entire community rather than that of sectional groups. The appeal to national interests was an urge to focus on the middle distance: further than the temporary preferences highlighted by specific situations, but not as far as to tie one's diplomacy to an idealised vision of world order.

The challenge in a democracy is stark. The temptation to make foreign policy on the basis of elite concepts of what's good for the country is powerful, but can be punished electorally. On the other hand, no government will be prepared to tie its foreign policy to the gusts and calms of popular opinion. The two parts are potentially contradictory: the appeal to the national good demands democratic accountability; while the real challenge of determining interests should be left, in the words of John Locke, 'to the prudence of those who have this power committed to them, to be managed to the best of their skill, for the advantage of the Commonwealth.'

Although both sides of politics are rhetorically committed to managing Australian foreign policy according to the national interest, neither has demonstrated a commitment to using the concept properly, as an exacting guiding star. Australian governments have avoided the hard thinking about national interests, hiding behind a mixture of ambiguity, incrementalism, and a benign regional order. But these mechanisms will be of declining utility, particularly as new great powers begin to define the rules of the game in Australia's region. The national interest needs to be used as a device for intellectual discipline that mandates clear, long-term thinking about the national good in a changing international context.

The challenge for Australian foreign policy makers is two-fold. They must begin to think in a sustained way about the future regional and global orders, and design foreign policies that will maximise Australia's interests within these. The government has already shown that it is willing to look into the future domestically, as the Treasurer's enthusiasm for demographic modelling demonstrates. The second challenge is to build public understanding of the coming changes, and public support for the foreign policies they mandate. One effect of globalisation is that the levers of foreign policy are no longer solely in government hands; a fully effective foreign policy will be one that has broad public support.

These are tasks that none of the foreign policy institutions of government are currently configured to play. Budget cuts and the growing load of consular work have slowly eaten away the capacity of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to engage in sustained, long-term planning. Parts of the defence and intelligence communities produce research into future international developments, but nowhere are these co-ordinated into an overall picture of Australia's coming environment. And nowhere is there ongoing consideration of how Australian foreign policy should be shaped to respond to future trends.

These tasks require the re-forming of a Policy Planning Unit within DFAT. It must have a co-ordinating function among the foreign affairs, defence and intelligence agencies, as well as its own substantial research capacity. It must be given carriage of developing long-term policy thinking, conducting an ongoing strategic review of Australia's foreign, defence and trade policies, and developing a continuous public information campaign on the directions of Australian foreign policy.

By far the most work needs to be done on the task of divining the future shape of our region and the world, and designing policies to respond effectively. This is more difficult than simply compiling a national wish list: the national interest must be based on a sober appraisal of national capacities and international opportunities, as well as national preferences. Determining national preferences is the easy part. It is tough to improve on the formula suggested in the two White Papers: the national interest consists of security, prosperity and values (meaning upholding certain normative principles in international relations). The hard part is working out how an evolving international context will affect these, and the way in which Australian foreign policy should respond.

Consideration of our future security environment needs to focus on three sets of issues: changing power relativities, patterns of order and disorder, and transnational flows. Changing power relativities directs attention to the rise of regional great powers – China, India, Japan, perhaps Russia and Iran – and their complex relationships with each other and the United States. Patterns of order and disorder refers both to different governance capacities within regional states and to the likely contests over regional institutions (eg. the East Asia Summit) and norms of behaviour (eg. non-interference in regional states' affairs) that are likely to follow the development of regional multipolarity. The two will be linked: ways of responding to weak governance capacities will probably be circumscribed by compromises over regional norms of behaviour. Transnational flows draw attention to the changing patterns of societal vulnerabilities to threats ranging from terrorism to environmental degradation to pandemic diseases.

The requirements for future prosperity also dictate three broad questions, concerning the acceptable rates and durabilities of wealth expansion, the consequences of different relativities of economic fortunes, and the likely trajectories and consequences of globalisation and technological innovation. Rates and durabilities of wealth expansion refers to the capacity of Australian society to endure various rates of economic success, the sustainability of our economic institutions in the face of different types of market shocks, and the national economy's ability to adapt to take advantage of new forms of economic growth. Relativities in economic fortunes returns attention to an issue raised in the first White Paper: the inevitability and consequences of Australia being surpassed in economic weight by many of its neighbours. The third question about prosperity asks whether and at what rate the processes of globalisation and technical innovation will continue, or whether they will reach certain inherent limits, and the likely consequences for Australia's prosperity.

Pondering the future role of values in our foreign policy asks three questions too: what values confrontations are likely in the future multipolar regional order; what will be the likely extent and consequences of ongoing values and regime pluralism in our region; and what role will values play in the coming regional and international orders? Confrontations over values are likely to accompany the rise of regional great powers, which have already signalled their intention to accept certain Western values as the attributes of modernity, but reject others in favour of their own. And in recent years we have begun to see increasingly acrimonious confrontations over values within the West. Both will affect Australia's foreign policy options. The extent and consequences of regime and values pluralism asks a different set of questions: will there be greater liberalisation, democratisation and values convergence in our region, or will the broad heterogeneity (even within forms of democracy) endure? And what will be the role of 'values messianism' – the tendency of great powers to advocate uptake of their values – over the coming decades? Consideration of the role of values in foreign policy raises questions about the weight that should be given to particular values in our foreign policy, and what influences they will have on the long-term effectiveness of Australian diplomacy.

The next sets of questions are perhaps the hardest: how will each of these values complement or conflict with each other in the context of the coming changes, and what long-term foreign policies will best advance Australia's national interests? To what extent can economic prosperity be curtailed to ensure security, and how negotiable should our values commitments be? And what should we be planning now to best position ourselves to deal with these conflicts and complementarities in the future? These are hard questions, but they demand attention. And they demand a dedicated Policy Planning Unit to begin working on them.

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