Time for a Larger Australia

March 20, 2014 Topic: Great PowersSecurity Region: Australia

Time for a Larger Australia

An underestimated country needs to live up to its potential and become a great power.

Our large expatriate community should be a source of strength and confidence for us. Yet sometimes I detect a new strain of the tall poppy syndrome—let’s call it “foreign poppy syndrome”—in which we bristle whenever expatriates express an opinion on our country. This is infantile. We should celebrate the successes of Australians wherever they live. We should use our expats as instruments of our soft power. We should draw them more fully into the mainstream of our national life. Creating a global community of Australians would help to make us a larger country.

A Larger Tool Chest

A large country needs a big tool chest, including an extensive diplomatic network and a capable military.

However Australia suffers from what we have called a “diplomatic deficit.” Over the past two decades, DFAT has been run down and hollowed out. In the late 1980s, the Australian foreign service fielded more than nine hundred highly trained diplomats overseas. Today, the number is one-third less.

Now more than ever, we need a first-rate foreign service. Our economy relies on trade and foreign investment. Our region is changing before our eyes. And the demands for consular assistance are multiplying.

All this requires energetic and creative diplomacy. Yet Australia has the smallest diplomatic network of all the G20 nations, and close to the smallest in the developed world. Our network of 95 diplomatic posts looks puny compared with the OECD average of around 133. We have fewer posts than Norway, Sweden and Belgium, even though these countries are smaller and located more securely than we are.

It is madness for Australia to starve its diplomatic service. For the past five years, the Lowy Institute’s arguments that Australia needs a larger and better-resourced foreign service have met with vigorous and bipartisan nodding. Now we need action from the Government.

Let me make one suggestion. The Government’s decision to merge AusAID into DFAT and align our foreign-policy and development interests more closely has much to recommend it.

The resource split between the two organizations had become unbalanced. The Government should preserve some of the savings generated by the merger and the aid reductions within the foreign affairs portfolio—so that it makes our diplomatic tool chest larger, not smaller.

Australia also needs a more capable military. Australian defense spending is too low given our strategic circumstances. Indeed, our defense spending has scaled down at exactly the moment when other countries in the region are scaling up.

In the past few years, defense expenditure slipped way below 2 per cent of GDP, reaching a level not seen since before the Second World War.

This did not reflect a view that our neighborhood is getting any safer. It was not accompanied by any reduction of the expectations placed on our defense force. Both the 2009 and 2013 Defence White Papers sketched out ambitious goals for the ADF, but as the Government reduced spending and deferred acquisitions, a gap opened up between Australia’s ambitions and our capacities. This signaled a lack of seriousness—a dangerous signal for a nation to send.

A more capable defense force would better enable us to protect our territory and our citizens and hedge against the alarming scenarios I mentioned earlier.

It would lend us weight in the eyes of potential adversaries and earn us influence in the minds of friends and allies. It would allow us to contribute effectively to the stability of the South Pacific.

Two per cent is not a magic number. Apart from everything else, the money needs to be well spent—outputs matter as well as inputs. However, both political parties recognize that the current inputs are too low and promise to increase spending to the 2 per cent mark.

What matters here is numbers, not words. If the Abbott Government is to live up to its promise of achieving 2 per cent within a decade, it will have to make hard choices. The sooner the journey back to 2 per cent starts, the more likely it is that we will reach our destination. If the Government starts to bend the trend line upwards now, then the slope of that trend line will be realistic. If it waits for more propitious financial circumstances a few years down the track, then the trend line will look unrealistic and unbelievable.

A Larger Debate

In addition to a larger tool chest, we also need a larger debate about our country’s role in the world.

Let’s start with the media. The coming changes will affect all Australians. They’re not just for policy wonks. Yet the quality of Australian media coverage of international issues is drooping.

Just as it is important for Australia to have a voice in world affairs, it is important to have Australian eyes on the world. Unfortunately, Australian eyes are closing. Australian news organizations are shutting foreign bureaux, including in Asia. The number of Australian foreign correspondents is small and shrinking. All the commercial TV networks cover the British royal family slavishly, for example, but none of them has a full-time correspondent in Beijing.

If foreign coverage is getting thinner, the debate at home is getting flatter. Much of our international debate is deeply unserious.

For example, the routine criticism of overseas travel by senior ministers is an epic example of small-country thinking. I know that some politicians have poisoned the well with pleasure trips. But it’s a sign of our immaturity that we assume that senior ministers travelling abroad are either big-noters or rorters. It reveals a depressingly shrunken opinion of Australia’s possibilities.

Other countries do not distract themselves with this kind of nonsense. Hillary Clinton was celebrated for the fact that she travelled a million miles as Secretary of State.

If this remains the standard of our debate, then we are in trouble as a country. But we can do better. In the 1980s, Australians conducted a lively and intelligent debate on economic reform.

We can have a similar conversation this decade on Australia’s place in the world. As a small contribution to the debate, the Lowy Institute established a new Media Award last year to recognize excellence in Australian coverage of international affairs.

It’s time to put aside childish things. Let’s focus Australians’ minds on the world and tilt the national mood toward a larger foreign policy.

A Larger Foreign Policy

A larger foreign policy is one that combines two qualities: ambition and coherence.

Ambition indicates a willingness to see ourselves as players not commentators and to take aim at the really big issues. Coherence indicates an ability to match ends and means, to use our limited resources in ways that can really make a difference.

Ambition is about imagination; coherence is about execution.

Achieving both ambition and coherence is difficult. There have been hyperactive periods when Australian foreign policy was ambitious but incoherent, when we had big ideas but little ability to bring them off. During these periods, we were quick to urge countries to do things we were unprepared to do ourselves. Teddy Roosevelt spoke softly and carried a big stick. We spoke loudly and carried a small stick.

But perhaps the default mode for Australian foreign policy is the opposite—periods characterized by policy laziness, in which we rested on our laurels, fell back on old relationships and old slogans and pursued a small-target strategy.

There are, of course, outstanding examples of ambition meeting coherence: the initiatives of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating to stand up APEC and then upgrade it to a leaders’ summit; John Howard’s crucial intervention to help East Timor on the path to independence; Kevin Rudd’s contribution to the G20 during the global financial crisis; and the new ballast Julia Gillard brought to the China relationship. These initiatives were both creative and credible. They required policy creativity and flair along with hard work, persistence, focus, pragmatism and attention to detail.

Most importantly, they took leadership. In foreign policy, as in life, the tone is set at the top.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have established between themselves an effective working rhythm. The PM is fortunate to have a foreign minister who is hard-working and energetic and prepared to depart from outdated policy, as she did on Fiji. It remains for Mr Abbott to decide on the couple of issues or countries he wishes to focus on himself. My suggestion to the prime minister is that one of these—although certainly not the only one—should be Indonesia.

Our relationship with Indonesia will always be difficult—we are so close and yet so different. Often it seems transactional and fragile, hostage even to the whims of the Corby family. In recent months, it has foundered under the weight of spies and people smugglers.

Yet both nations have an interest in refloating the relationship. And Mr Abbott has a few advantages on this score. In opposition, he put Jakarta at the center of his foreign policies; in office, it was his first port of call. If his government can stop the boats, it will earn him credibility in Indonesia. And focusing on Jakarta rather than the Anglospheric capitals of Washington or London would give the PM the advantage of surprise.