In Australia it’s now less about Geneva, more about Jakarta

Author: Michael Wesley, ANU

In a conversation with Arthur Tange, head of the United Nations Division in the Australian External Affairs Department in January 1950, incoming external affairs minister Percy Spender said that he was ‘determined to pursue Australia’s security interest and scrap [former external affairs minister H.V.] Evatt’s intervention in remote issues through the United Nations’. Sixty-three years later Australia’s new Coalition foreign minister, Julie Bishop, will enter office having proclaimed that Australian foreign policy will be ‘less about Geneva, more about Jakarta’.

The Liberal Party’s first foreign minister and its most recent share a remarkable similarity of views: a belief that their Labor predecessors spent too much time thinking about multilateral institutions and too little time thinking about the practical foreign policy issues in Australia’s region. The distinctive Coalition approach to foreign policy described in my book on the Howard years derives logically from the conservative approach to politics: a habit of mind suspicious of grand synthesising schemes, ready to work pragmatically with the natural tendencies of society. It is an approach which, translated into foreign policy, puts much greater emphasis on bilateralism and uses multilateral institutions, whether global or regional, selectively, when they are likely to be useful policy levers.

As prime minister, Tony Abbott is likely to share some strong similarities with the former Liberal prime minister John Howard. Howard shared Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies’ belief that society consists of two ‘natural’ groupings, the family and the nation, rather than ‘contrived’ formulations, such as social class. This led Howard to see politics as a system of ‘moral communities’ shaped by long-held traditions and cultures. In foreign policy terms, Howard spoke with particular fondness about countries with which he believed Australia shared ‘fundamental values’ — particularly the United States and the United Kingdom. Tony Abbott similarly wrote about the particular comity of the ‘Anglosphere’ in his 2010 book Battlelines.

The Howard government showed clearly that a belief in national values as the foundation of foreign policy, and the congruence of these values as the basis of international comity, was not at all incompatible with an effective foreign policy in Asia. There was never an attempt to downplay Australia’s cultural differences with some countries in Asia, or even the differences in values. Rather, the Howard government’s approach was labelled by the foreign minister Alexander Downer as ‘positive realism’ — meaning that the Coalition government would approach Australia’s regional relations on the basis of (in Howard’s words) ‘mutual respect and shared interests’. Howard argued that ‘Asia’ itself is highly diverse in cultures and values systems, and that Australia is just another element of diversity in a highly heterodox region.

The result was a foreign policy in the region that twinned a simple acknowledgement of Australia’s cultural and values differences with some of its neighbours with a businesslike refusal to allow such differences to interfere with the building of pragmatic, interest-based relationships. The Howard years saw Australia build arguably its closest-ever bilateral relationships with China, Japan, India and Indonesia

I believe there are three strong reasons why Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop will return to these traditions of foreign policy making. The first is that both were senior cabinet ministers under Howard, and have repeatedly while in opposition held up the Howard government as a model for strong, accountable, effective policy making. It would be inconceivable that they would not look at foreign policy as one of the Howard government’s proudest achievements, and seek to emulate its approach.

Second, this approach to foreign policy is rooted in conservative traditions and understandings of politics: moral community, pragmatism and a suspicion of grand sweeping schemes.

Third, politics is about product differentiation. The Coalition has just won an election on the back of painting the Labor government as chaotic, inconsistent, wasteful and prone to grand ‘thought bubbles’. Its messaging on foreign policy has played along similar themes: the pursuit of Security Council seats and nuclear disarmament at the cost of letting Australia’s regional relations drift. A return to pragmatic bilateralism — perhaps even ‘positive realism’ — in foreign policy will chime seamlessly with Abbott’s post-victory statement that Australia is once again ‘open for business’.

One question that remains to be answered is how Abbott and Bishop divide up the foreign affairs jobs. Traditionally, Australian prime ministers handle the big relationships and one or two pet issues, and leave the rest to their foreign minister. For Howard, it was the United States and China, while Downer did the rest. Keating did the United States and Indonesia, leaving Gareth Evans to manage everything else. Abbott’s signalling suggests he may be closer to Keating than Howard on his choice of foreign policy emphases. The Washington relationship will engage him by inclination and necessity; the Jakarta relationship by sheer strategic insistence.

Michael Wesley is Professor of National Security at the Australian National University

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  • To argue that Australian prime ministers “handle the big relationships …and leave the rest to their foreign minister” doesn’t really capture the operational needs of maintaining important bilateral relationships. For example, if it is true that Mr Keating “did Indonesia”, it is just as true that the then Senator Evans “did Indonesia” as well. In fact, it is hard to think what more Foreign Minister Evans personally could have done to add “ballast”, as he used to say, to the relationship with Indonesia. His Indonesian counterpart, Ali Alatas, was never known to complain of being neglected by Senator Evans. Australia’s relations with our major partners have become so complex that a Prime Minister cannot manage them without the full participation of the Foreign Minister (and other ministers). Ms Bishop’s activism on Indonesia in recent years suggests she too will play a major role in the relationship, whatever Mr Abbott does.