Longer term national interests in foreign, defence and security policy demand a more informed public debate

With the Government returned to power and the Opposition under new leadership it is time for a more informed and constructive debate about the future directions of our foreign, defence and security policies – something sadly lacking in the hype of last year’s Federal election campaign. The platforms and speeches of both major parties did not lack for words but, with a few conspicuous exceptions, both were confined to a defensive mode on these vital national issues in the campaign. The need for discussion now is further underlined by the ridiculously short election cycle we have in this country.

This is not a call for more Government White Papers on foreign and defence policy. These typically have become exhaustive bureaucratic exercises in which vision is swamped by the reality of the present – or worse, justification of existing policy. Anyway the Minister for Defence has indicated that he sees no need at this stage to revise the last White Paper on Defence. Rather there is an imperative to encourage wider and more representative public discussion leading to the identification of signposts for the future directions Australia should be seeking to pursue.

As in many other modern democracies, sadly policy development in this country all too often has been reduced to a chain of incremental and reactive changes rather than the development of broader visions for our longer term interests. Policy debate in these areas, as in others, frequently has been reduced to a series of ‘door stop’ interviews or ‘quick grabs’, Dorothy Dix set-ups in parliamentary question time, inspired leaks (especially of the ‘trial balloon’ variety), instantaneous views of the excessively influential ‘shock jocks’ on talk back radio and so on. Modern day life leaves little time in the media for considered policy pieces. Headline driven news leaves the general public at the mercy of media managers concerned more with ratings than with analysis or objectivity. In turn, this usually ends up driving policy development on the run. Little wonder that what goes for public debate these days in Australia is usually at the margins.

Policy development has become excessively dependent on the plethora of opinion polls – some good but many not so. Advances in IT and mass media technology have seduced politicians of most persuasions (as it has corporate leaders) into the belief that opinion polls can plumb with precision the opinions of the public on any given issue on any given day. So now we witness regularly rapid shifts in policy stemming from the messages political leaders perceive they are receiving from the polls – to wit recent ‘back flips’ on refugee policy. But much of the polling is policy driven with spin doctors very much involved in the crafting of questions designed to produce outcomes to support political objectives. As, ironically, government spokespersons and supporters (who rely so heavily themselves on less public polling) were quick to point out in their attacks on the valuable survey conducted recently by the Lowy Foundation, the devil is usually in the question – not the answer.

Reactive policy making is a poor prescription for long term policy development which requires not only vision but leadership. All the more where polling indicates a lack of public support for a long term policy direction – and where it needs to be brought along to understand the national interest for this country. Witness the debate once again in Australia about immigration policy which incidentally also cuts across party political lines.

At the same time, and in part as a concomitant of the growing dependence on polling which is seen as providing quick intelligence to leaders on public attitudes, decision making has become far more centralised. Governments – Federal and State – have been far less successful than the corporates in preventing decision-making from being forced up the hierarchical scale by modern communications. This has been reinforced by the media continually seeking instant policy comment from the Prime Minister on issues which previously would have been handled by the relevant minister or even senior civil servant. All of which has been in the obvious cause of damage limitation. The Corby and Rau cases were classic illustrations of this trend. Inevitably all this has personalised policy development in Australia and polarised debate into an ‘either you are for or against us’ pattern with little grey area between.

We need to step back from much of this and ask what constitutes Australia in 2005? How much have we changed as a nation and society in the past 50 years? What are our national values? In a modern-day democracy the touchstone for foreign, defence and security policies is that they must protect and project the national interest. Far more difficult to agree is what constitutes ‘national interest’ – with a spread from those who define it in the narrowest of terms of defence and the economy to those extending well beyond to encompass longer term and more indirect interests – the ‘softer’ or moral issues. National values and identity sit squarely in the middle of this debate.

It would be unrealistic, of course, to project any discussion of these important and complex issues as a ‘zero sum’ game. In practical terms, the environment, political and beyond, in which Australia might head in the future is determined not only by geography but also by history. Not only by our colonial past, but also by the key alliances, commitments and concessions we have made along the way in the development of our nation and which have been widely accepted within the Australian community as vital for our national interests. These may not be immutable but managing any fundamental alteration in direction- or even some tweaking – will require very sensitive touch.

The prestigious bipartisan Commission on America’s National Interests in 2000 (which included Condoleezza Rice) identified a serious risk for the United States to lose its way in the post-Cold War era. Much of which still rings true for Australia today:
The fatigue of many, and distraction of some with special interests, leave American foreign policy hostage to television images and the momentary passions of domestic politics. Lacking basic coordinates and a clear sense of priorities, American foreign policy becomes reactive and impulsive in a fast-changing and uncertain world…
Clarity about American national interests demands that the current generation of American leaders think harder about international affairs than they have ever been required to do. During the Cold War we had clearer, simpler answers to questions about American national interests…

This will not be automatic or easy, and answers will not come from public opinion polls or focus groups. Our leaders will have to define our national interests; persuade fellow citizens; and then exploit the unique leadership capacities of the United States among the major power centers of the world. American leaders of every kind must accept the challenges of building domestic foundations for foreign policy in an America where social stability, public confidence, and a sense of common purpose are in short supply…

Before we track through a more conventional assessment of ‘national interest’, we need to start by looking at Australia in 2005 and its identity. In the coming months New Matilda will be attempting to promote serious and genuine public dialogue on these issues commencing with an examination of what is the Australia of 2005 – and where is it headed? This will point towards the national interests we should be seeking to protect and project and this will also provide the necessary backdrop for examining the place for moral values in formulating Australian foreign and defence policies. Is ‘fair go’ or ‘I’m all right Jack’ the prevailing mood of Australia today? Do we lay too much blame for poor policies at the feet of the politicians when our community values have changed? Are we basking too much in the warm glow generated by the speed and charity which Australians displayed over the Tsunami disaster when our attitudes on a range of other humanitarian issues appear to have hardened? Much more than our physical image has changed in the past 20 or 30 years.

We will then proceed to look at Australia’s position in a globalising world as well as in our region. Can true globalisation ever be achieved while it is restricted to the movement of capital and resources and not labour? Or is what we are seeing emerging a unipolar world? Where does the balance of Australian interest lie in such a global scene? How are our strategic, economic and social interests impacted? And what can we do realistically to influence these developments in ways which will benefit, or at least protect, our position? Can we pick and choose in which of the global agendas we want to participate?

In our region, the canvass is equally demanding of closer attention. The implications for Australia of the emergence of China and India as regional and world powers – particularly the latter – is only beginning to sink into the Australian psyche. How will this sit with our alliance with the United States? Is our relationship with the United States more one of compliance than alliance? Are we putting too many eggs in the China basket? Is Japan, far and away our largest trading partner, being ignored in all of this? Not to mention our other key regional partners such as Korea – with whom we still have a massive bilateral trade balance in our favour – or Indonesia and other major ASEAN members. And how should we view efforts by the United States to push Japan into becoming more active on the defence front? What do China and Korea think of that? The South Pacific also will merit examination – is the ‘arc of fire’ an overdrawn cliché?

Is Australia punching above its weight in the region? And if so is that an entirely good thing – especially as seen by our regional partners? While Australia has changed so a key factor in our relationship with the region is the enormous political, social and economic changes which have occurred there over the past 20 years – and which are accelerating. Most of our regional partners have moved to a point where trade not aid is the key to our relationship. As in Australia, inter-generational change is rapidly altering those societies – to a point where their younger people have much more in common with their peers in Australia than ever existed in earlier generations. As many of them move down the democratic path they are not only becoming less easy to govern, our relations with them are growing far more complex. It was a lot easier to do deals with authoritarian leaderships who did not have to answer to emerging political constituencies; as our relationship with Indonesia is bound to illustrate in the coming months and years. And so goes on the list of key policy issues for Australia in the coming decade or so.

Naturally, there will need to be discussion of a variety of more generic issues such as: terrorism (Are we allowing counter-terrorism needs to distort long term defence needs?); the environment (If not Kyoto, how can we really do something genuinely practical about global warming as a major fossil fuel producer?); population and immigration (Is skills based immigration the way to go? Our brain gain from their brain drain? And who is going to do all the dirty, difficult and dangerous work in Australia?); development assistance (Will the unprecedented level of public support for tsunami victims boost or reduce Australian interest in the wider development needs of the world?). The key role of people-to-people programs remains but how best to develop them? There will also be some discussion of whether bipartisanship in foreign and defence policy is to be encouraged in the interest of long term objectives or whether we need a more lively debate on some of those issues?

We will conduct the dialogue through the foreign and defence policy portal of New Matilda. In so doing we will be breaking new ground in Australia with an entirely web-based discussion. We will be seeking actively contributions and comment from a wide range of Australians both here and abroad as well as from key observers and policy formulators in our region. We do not want this dialogue to become a captive of the usual array of bias on both sides of the Australian political spectrum as we are aiming to provide the basis for a constructive contribution to forward looking policy development in Australia.