Reflections on the Australian Foreign Policy White Paper: Facing the Challenge of Global Engagement, Conflict and Realignment


2017-12-05 By Robbin Laird

During my last visit to Australia, I spent time with colleagues in the Australian government discussing various aspects of the strategic environment in flux and what the impact of such an environment has on Australian interests.

The newly released Foreign Policy White Paper provides a public statement of how to look both at the environment in flux and the challenge of defining, and protecting Australian interests.


Because of how dynamic the environment is, what can be shaped is an optic or a template at best to look at the environment and to focus on how best to navigate the way ahead.

The White Paper provides some insights into how Aussies are doing so.

We are in as profound a period of historical change as we faced with World War II and its aftermath, but hopefully not as deadly. In that transition, the Australian leadership moved from being a key part of the British empire and providing forces for the defense of the empire and its interests, to self defense and working with the strongest democratic ally in the region, namely the United States.

Now Australia faces a China, which fits no easy formula as either a mercantile or strategic military power, and an America which is facing significant pressures for change at home and abroad. How stable China will be is an open question and how America will navigate the new cold civil war it is going through domestically is an open question.

With regard to the defense of Australia, there is little question that the solid relationship they have had with the US military is the foundation of shaping their approach to deterrence in depth. At the same time, it is crucial to ramp up capabilities to work with other powers in the region, such as Japan and to find ways to deepen the ability to provide defense against the Chinese push and the second nuclear age North Korean nuclear power.

Will American nuclear deterrence remain credible enough to deal with China, Russia and North Korea?

What will Australia need to develop and deploy to make a significant impact on the perceptions of a China or North Korea?

At the same time, the prosperity of Australia rests on a global order where trade is open and fair.

The coming of Trump has jolted the broader liberal democratic discussion of what is open and fair, and what trade orders will emerge.

The Chinese have played the global trade game significantly unfairly with a clear strategic interest to build political influence on trade, but not as if they were 18th Century Dutch traders.

They are playing the game to expand the unique vision of Chinese communism.

How best to define a rules based order?

How to intertwine security and trade interests in the shaping of an evolving or perhaps new version of what that means in the shift from liberal globalization to a more conflictual global order where defining the rules is precisely in play?

The Australian Prime Minister put it well in his introduction to the White Paper:

“We are creating the competitiveness and flexibility our economy needs to thrive in an interdependent, fast-changing world. But we must also acknowledge we are facing the most complex and challenging geostrategic environment since the early years of the Cold War. We cannot assume that prosperity and security just happen by themselves.”

What Turnbull calls for is enhanced Australian sovereignty in a world in flux.

“More than ever, Australia must be sovereign, not reliant. We must take responsibility for our own security and prosperity while recognising we are stronger when sharing the burden of leadership with trusted partners and friends.”

“As this White Paper makes clear, in a complex and uncertain environment we will have to work harder to maximise our international influence and secure our interests.

“We will need to keep reforming our economy, boost our competitiveness and resilience, and invest in the other domestic foundations of our national strength.”

This is more eloquently said than has been articulated by President Trump without the histrionics and tweeting but this is clearly resonant with a core instinct in the effort to enhance national competitiveness in a global order in significant flux.

“We must guard against protectionism and build robust support for open economic settings by ensuring all Australians have the opportunity to benefit from our growing economy. Our trade and investment agenda will assist by boosting jobs and supporting higher living standards.”

This would seem to be at odds with Trump’s stated agenda but what is in play is how the Chinese have distorted the global trade agenda and how best to respond to that distortion. It is not so much simply keeping in place an inherited rules based order, but shaping a realistic one for the period ahead.

The White Paper lays out a number of key attributes of how the Australian government sees the current global competition as well as ways to better achieve Australian sovereign outcomes.

The dichotomy of hard and soft power has often been used to describe the tools to be used, but if the 21st century order is fundamental flux, there will be no dominant rules based order unless liberal democracy can defend its values and its interests.

A key part of shaping the way ahead is finding ways to expand Australian cooperation within what the White Paper calls the Indo-Pacific region, which makes a great deal of sense as both China and the United States are undergoing fundamental change.

A good statement of where we are currently is made on page 21 of the White Paper.

“Australian foreign policy in recent decades has focused on advancing our interests as globalisation deepened and economies in Asia grew strongly. In the decade ahead, both trends will continue profoundly to influence our prosperity and security.

“Other major trends will shape our world, including the pace and scale of technological advances, demographic shifts, climate change and new global power balances. The threats posed by North Korea and terrorism and other transnational issues will require resolute, long-term responses.

“The United States remains the most powerful country but its long dominance of the international order is being challenged by other powers. A post-Cold War lull in major power rivalry has ended.

“These trends are converging to create an uncertain outlook for Australia.”

The challenge will be to shape a template, which allows Australia to shape a sovereign solution in a world in conflict, a world in flux, and a world in which the rules of engagement, including trade are in fundamental flux.

The White Paper provides some statements of principle with regard to shaping the way ahead, but the antinomies of a number of these principles are clearly the challenge.

How to navigate what kind of future for Australia in a world which is neither dominated by China nor the United States, but in part by their competition and by the fundamental shifts in both of these societies as well?

It is difficult as well to understate the impact of the second nuclear age crisis evident with the nuclear force being built by North Korea. The North Koreans are not pursuing a deterrent force in a cold war sense, but an operational force to reshape the Pacific order.

How will Australia deal with this challenge?

In short, we have to deal with the world as it is becoming, not the world simply we would like to see.

Australia faces the challenge of shaping a sovereign way ahead in a world which does not easily fit into the templates of the past twenty years, but in which global conflict and struggle over the global rules of engagement are defined not in the think tanks, but on the global plane of struggle and cooperation.