Australian Foreign Policy after Bali

 Australians are famously uninterested in foreign affairs.


Australians are famously uninterested in foreign affairs. For many post-war Australians, life has been characterized by a rather insular and innocent hedonism untroubled by the problems that afflict other, less "lucky" countries. Current Prime Minister, John Howard, came to power in 1996 promising to reinforce this good fortune by focusing overwhelmingly on domestic affairs and making Australians feel "relaxed and comfortable" about themselves and their place in the world.

Any lingering hopes that such a goal was achievable, or that Australia could remain insulated from the conflicts and convulsions that have gripped other parts of the world were brutally snuffed out by the bombing in Bali. As Australians attempt to come to terms with a post-Cold War order in which they find themselves exposed to random, unfathomable acts of violence, a major domestic debate has been sparked about the adequacy of Australia's preparedness for such events and the basis of future foreign policy, especially toward the United States and its more immediate neighbors in East Asia.

For the Howard government, the Bali bombing is especially troubling because it raises awkward questions about the nature of Australia's relations with the region generally and Indonesia in particular. Australia's prominent role in helping East Timor achieve independence may have been applauded internationally, but it was widely resented in Indonesia. Likewise, the Howard government's response to the problem of illegal immigrants and/or refugees transiting through Indonesia helped precipitate a major bilateral crisis as Australian electoral imperatives were seen to trump longer-term foreign policy interests.

The one positive emerging from the Bali bombing may be that Australian-Indonesian relations will become a good deal closer and more cooperative as both nations grapple with the strategic and economic implications of the tragedy. While the Howard government may not feel the same sort of warmth and identification toward Indonesia as it does toward the United States and Britain, it has become painfully apparent that-like it or not-the effective security of Australians at home and abroad is increasingly dependent on the cooperation of regional governments. Whether Indonesia's political elites have the capacity to act effectively, even if they want to, is a moot point and one that threatens to make relations between the disparate neighbors a continuing source of anxiety for both sides.

Yet even if bilateral ties with countries like Indonesia do improve, critics contend that questions still need to be asked about possible intelligence failures, Australia's overall strategic and foreign policy priorities, and about the basis of its future relationship with the region. In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, the Howard government had to fend off criticism that it had seriously underestimated the importance of available intelligence, both its own and detailed warnings from American sources, which suggested that Indonesia generally and Bali in particular could be terrorist targets.

As in post-9/11 America, there is now much talk about the need for a specific domestic-security coordination agency. There is, however, one big difference between the post-attack debates in Australia and America: in Australia, it is not simply Australia's own actions that are under the microscope, but the wisdom of identifying Australian foreign policy so closely with that of another country.

For Howard, this is an especially uncomfortable question. For a prime minister with no great personal affinity for East Asia, and who deliberately set out to "reinvigorate" ties with the United States upon coming to office, the suggestion made by Australia's Anglican Primate, Peter Carnley, that Australia's close identification with the United States and its enthusiastic support for the latter's "war on terror" actually led to Australians being targeted, is deeply resented. Although Carnley's comments were dismissed by the government and many other commentators, anecdotal evidence and talk-back radio suggest they reflect the views of a majority of the general population.

The Howard government has generally been acutely conscious of popular sentiment and, as the recent "refugee crisis" demonstrated, quite prepared to manipulate it where possible. Given that there is significant popular support for the strategic alliance with the United States, there ought not to be much long-term fall-out from the Bali bombing as far as U.S.-Australia bilateral ties are concerned. Yet, the possible costs of close Australia-U.S. ties, especially in the wake of an increasingly unilateral American foreign policy, have provoked a critical re-examination of this pivotal relationship among Australian opinion makers and special interest groups.

While much of this criticism has emerged from the usual suspects on the left (environmentalists and peace activists), some of the most telling criticism of American policy has come from conservative ranks. Australian farmers and manufactures have complained long and loud about discriminatory trade policies and the difficulty of accessing American markets. Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser highlighted the potential conflicts of interest and strategic dangers of close strategic ties with the United States long before Bali. Opposition leader Simon Crean has warned of the danger of becoming an American "lap dog". Indeed, in the wake of the Bali attack a widespread chorus of concern has been raised about the optimal use of Australia's limited defense capacities, already stretched by continuing commitments in Timor and Vietnam.