Human rights

Foreign Policy

How Gillard Sees the World: Australia’s foreign policy

World leaders at the 2010 G-20 Seoul summit, 11 November 2010. © Presidencia de la Nacion Argentina

Until a month ago Julia Gillard appeared a prime minister with little interest in or knowledge of foreign affairs. Like both John Howard and Bill Clinton she came to office with a long domestic agenda, much of which consisted of refining and implementing the policies of her predecessor. And like both Howard and Clinton she has discovered that government leadership brings with it the glamour and also the jetlag of frequent international gatherings.

In the last two months we have seen Gillard as gracious host to the Queen, President Obama and 50 heads of government from across the Commonwealth. She has been at summits in Bali, Cannes and Honolulu, and engaged in an exhausting series of bilateral discussions with some grace and panache. Media coverage is poor, so how this may have changed her perception of the world, which leaders she may have struck up new links with (as Rudd was reported to have with former President Lula from Brazil) and how it might affect her views of Australia’s place in the world have been basically unreported.

Instead the media has been almost totally fixated on Gillard’s clear admiration and empathy with Obama, and the less convincing attempts to reassure China, Indonesia and India that they still matter. At the same time Gillard has asked Ken Henry to head up an inquiry into Australia’s relations with Asia, which suggests she sees these as largely matters of economics. With the United States Gillard seems ruled by her emotions, with Asia by calculation.

But if this is the case Gillard is merely reflecting the world views conveyed to Australians by the media. Most of our view of the rest of the world comes through American and British eyes (the stories from Al Jazeera now part of SBS News are a rare exception), and accepts a script whereby the world is unproblematically divided between ‘the West’ (good) and everyone else (if not bad, questionable). Thus our politicians still speak of the US as the “leader of the free world”, using language that dates back to the Cold War.

There are predictions of a new Cold War emerging between the United States and China, and there is clear ambivalence in Australia about how we should manage rising tensions between the two dominant Pacific powers. Certainly there is cause for concern about potential military clashes over Taiwan or the South China Sea, just as there are good grounds for concern about war between India and Pakistan, or, more likely, the collapse of meaningful state control in Pakistan with a whole string of unpleasant consequences.

But the major challenge of foreign policy in the contemporary world is to envision a far more complex set of problems than possible warfare between states. On the one hand there is a major shift going on as economic growth is raising the power and ambition of a set of countries outside the traditional powers, symbolised in the replacement of the G8 by the G20, and the increasing cooperation between the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), to which one might add new contenders such as Turkey, Indonesia and Nigeria. All of these countries are becoming significant global players, with far greater presence than Australia.

At the same time the growth of new sorts of security issues means that the divide between foreign and domestic politics is increasingly shrinking. Issues such as climate change, food and water security, mass movements of people across frontiers, new epidemic diseases and transnational crime threaten security in different ways to military build-ups or nuclear proliferation.

It is this loose conglomeration of global issues that make up what is often termed ‘human security’ (in East Asia the term ‘non-traditional security’ is preferred, probably to avoid any connection to human rights). This is the area where Australia is increasing its overseas development assistance to a point where we are significant globally in ways we cannot be militarily. And given our proximity to parts of the world that are experiencing many of these new threats it is the area where Australia could forge a clear international role that is neither in conflict with our traditional allies nor necessitate hard choices between the US and China.

Kevin Rudd has tied his political future to a successful Australian bid for membership for the Security Council in 2013. To win the seat Australia needs to defeat either Finland or Luxemburg – not, one might think, a huge challenge. That it is should remind us of the relative isolation of Australia in the world, but it also makes sense of the heightened attention to Africa particularly during Rudd’s prime ministership.

For Australia to take the lead on redefining security so that human welfare mattered more than spiralling preparations for warfare would require an adjustment in how we view the world, and a move towards a far more independent position vis-a-vis the North Atlantic powers with whom we identify. (One of the more bizarre aspects of our current foreign policy is our involvement in Afghanistan under the umbrella of a treaty signed by North Atlantic powers.) It would not mean either abandoning a commitment to western values of human rights and democracy, but it might require greater recognition that such concepts are not seen in the same way in countries with very different historical and cultural backgrounds to ours.

This would mean breaking with the US, at least while Obama and Hillary Clinton are in charge of foreign policy, but it would mean a less automatic assumption that our concerns necessarily align with American interests. The pressure of electoral politics and Congressional majorities hamper an American government in ways that do not apply to Australia, and much of Obama’s current tough line against China is in part a response to his Republican rivals. That is hardly a good basis upon which to build Australian foreign policy.

As Julia Gillard becomes more comfortable with foreign policy, is it too much to hope that she might imbue her statements with some vision of a fairer and more just world, rather than one in which we are only comfortable as a minor player in an American script? If Australia has ambitions to be a middle power it needs to assert its own interests, which are more closely linked to better global cooperation around the looming issues of global justice than they are to preserving US military supremacy.

Dennis Altman
Dennis Altman is Director of the Institute for Human Security LaTrobe University.

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