In November 2011, Mark Beeson asked ‘Can Australia save the World?’. He noted that former Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s efforts as Prime Minister and then Foreign Minister were devoted to re-establishing Australia as a distinctive and ambitious ‘middle power’. This ambition harked back to the days of former Foreign Minister Gareth Evan’s leadership and engagement with multilateral diplomacy. Examining the fields of security, international economy and the environment, Beeson is sympathetic to Rudd’s ambitions but laments their practical applicability.
This is a valid point. Australia’s security ambitions are at odds with reality. While Rudd spoke of cosmopolitanism his foreign policies actioned realism. Investment in ‘old war’ weapons such as an expanded submarine fleet is a case in point given the Navy’s struggle to have field two seaworthy vessels to carry out coastal patrols in bad weather on the West Australian coast. Any perceived threat to maritime interests stemming from the rise of China will not be addressed by the few submarines that Australia could muster even if the class were able to surpass the Collins Class capacity to put one submarine on coastal patrol, one under repair in Perth, and one doing who knows what in the South China Sea. Nor does Australia’s claim to be promoting nuclear non-proliferation through, among other things, an international commission chaired by Evans himself sit comfortably with its refusal to criticise some proliferating states and in principle decision to sell uranium to a state that withdrew from the non-proliferation regime in order to pursue its own nuclear weapons programme (India).
The contradictions are also evident closer to home. While Australia’s stated policy focuses on strengthening cooperation with the ASEAN political, security and economic communities, in practice it has pursued bilateral and multilateral initiatives outside of ASEAN. Rudd’s call for a ‘new security architecture’ in the Asia Pacific region was just one example of Australia’s confused approach to regional diplomacy that served mainly to baffle our neighbours.
Perhaps the sharpest contradiction, though, lies in relation to the issue of refugees. Here the disconnect between Australia’s human rights rhetoric and its actual policy is stark. In the context of people smuggling, Australia systematically fails to acknowledge the reality that the number of asylum seekers it receives are very low compared to similar developed countries elsewhere and tiny compared to the numbers taken in by Indonesia and Malaysia. Even at the height of boat arrivals in the previous decade, the total number of asylum seekers only barely touched a tenth of Indonesia’s . Yet despite the fact that Australia is wealthier, more stable and has much greater capacity than our neighbour to the north, its foreign policy has been driven by a keen interest of passing off even this modest problem to our neighbours. Moreover, Australia’s response remains rooted in horse trading connected to a small part of the puzzle – pushing boats back and arresting people smugglers.
Regarding Australia’s (fleeting) ambition to creating a new financial order in the wake of the GFC, particularly through realignment towards G20 over the G8 as the powerhouse for regulating the international financial sector, Australia simply overreached into areas in which it could not possibly hope to compete with the American and Chinese juggernauts. There was never much hope of Australia persuading the US and China to abandon the pursuit of their own narrow self-interests. Likewise, Australian interventions in European debates about bailouts and fragile economies was always unlikely to be seriously influential. The area where Australia has had some impact is in its bilateral pursuit of free trade agreements with ASEAN member states. But even this laborious process was put in the shade by the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, including 12 states (and 6 ASEAN members) in a regional free trade agreement. Of course, this begs the question of why Australia was not pursuing a regional economic agreement? It does not bode well for Australia’s claim to be a gateway to Asia if the US can do better by itself.
Finally, Beeson laments that ambition in the area of climate change at the international and domestic levels was Rudd’s ultimate unravelling – the failure of Copenhagen led to the failure to achieve passage of the carbon trading scheme through Parliament. This started the downfall of his Prime Ministership. Once again, Australian aspirations were simply out of touch with reality. US and Chinese support was always needed for a global compact on the environment and Australia was hardly likely to persuade these countries to change cause and adopt economically risky measures in the midst of a global financial crisis.
Since Beeson wrote his article, however, much has changed in Australia. First and foremost,Australiahas a new Foreign Minister, Senator Bob Carr. With a passion for climate change science, US history, art and literature, Carr too brings anambitious view of how the office of the Australia foreign ministry may contribute to our international society:
Can a Carr Doctrine save the world?
First we need to identify what Australia wants to save the world from and why it would want to be the super-heroine in the story. Carr has set out an ambitious goal – another Labor Foreign Minister seeking to punch above Australia’s geopolitical weight. To understand how to do this, it might be worth looking at other middle powers that have had some success – most notably the Scandinavians. Over the past few decades, these small countries have developed a strong profile of leadership on a range of security issues that has made a difference in the lives of many. They invest in strong quality measures to ensure aid delivery, peace building and conflict resolution deliver for both the people receiving this assistance and their tax paying citizens. As a result, few deny goodwill towards Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. As a result, these states achieve international leverage well beyond their material power. Note, for example, the recurrence of Scandinavian countries on the UN Security Council and the prevalence of Scandinavians in top UN posts. Diplomatic aspirations should be grand, perhaps more humbly spoken, but as Carr notes above – foreign policy is about a realisation we are part of a broader humanity than the community in which you live. Indeed, the community in which we live can only be safe, harmonious and prosperous when we endeavour to make it that way for everyone else.
In the next part of the blog, I will offer some personal reflections on what a Carr Doctrine might look like…I look forward to seeing our readers contribute their own views.
Sara Davies – Human Protection Hub