BACK IN 1988, I was working on the Soviet Union in Australia's national intelligence-analysis organisation, the Office of National Assessments (ONA). After a decade-long caravan of the comatose and the incompetent through the Kremlin's key positions, the field of Sovietology had been glavanised by the emergence three years earlier of Mikhail Gorbachev, with his policies of glasnost andperestroika (openness and reform). Like all Soviet analysts at the time, I was preoccupied by the question: 'What does Gorbachev mean?' Clearly something new was happening but what was it exactly? A genuine internal reform of the Soviet system? A sneaky ploy designed to lull the West into a false sense of security? A sign of a fatal systemic weakness? Many people had views, but no one could be sure.
In November that year I was due to visit Washington for a meeting about the subject with our American intelligence partners. I had discovered, to my pleasure, that the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies – the umbrella group covering United States scholars working on these matters – was holding its annual three-day conference in Honolulu that year. (The organisers had a keen sense of how to attract Slavic specialists during the northern winter.) I persuaded my boss of the importance of my attending this conference and checked into the vast Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel where hundreds of academics, government officials and intelligence analysts milled around for three days of intense panel discussions. The political future of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was earnestly debated.
The astonishing thing in retrospect was that not one of us came close to predicting that just 12 months later the Berlin Wall would be torn down and its fragments sold as souvenirs and that within three years the Soviet Union itself would cease to exist.
This left me more sceptical than ever about foreign policy's predictive possibilities. Behind my desk at ONA I had pinned Lord Melbourne's doleful words after the failure of the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act to bring lasting peace to Ireland: 'What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said has come to pass.' It is a salutary reminder for intelligence analysts.
The end of the Cold War caught pretty much everyone working on it by surprise. One of the world's two superpowers collapsed and then vanished, undermining the whole framework of the bipolar international system into which diplomats and policymakers of my generation had been born and which had shaped our thinking. All the key institutions of the global order, from the United Nations and its Security Council to collective security institutions like NATO, to the World Bank and the IMF, had been set up to serve, or had moulded themselves to cope with, a bipolar world. They now faced fundamental questions about their purpose, structure and operations. The underlying tidal pull of globalisation, which had contributed so powerfully to the end of the Cold War, was further transforming the international economy and culture.
It was no wonder that for the next decade we were unsure what was coming next. President George Bush snr proclaimed a new international order; Francis Fukuyama the end of history.
DESPITE THE REMARKABLE scale of events, surprisingly little changed during the nineties. Papers were written about the reform of the United Nations, NATO was expanded to take in some of its former adversaries in Eastern Europe and the governance structures of the IMF and World Bank were debated, especially after their spectacular failures of policy prescription during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. But by the end of the decade, global structures and relationships (the US and Russia apart) were largely unaltered.
Then came the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September 2001. These were less important in bringing something new into the world than in closing off the past. By cementing a national consensus around a more assertive and unilateralist American view of its role in the world and resolving decisively the question of whether the US might respond to the end of the Cold War by stepping back from active international engagement, the attacks finally brought down the curtain on the Cold War.
ISSUES OF THE most fundamental sort were thrown up by this transition. They included all the unfinished business of the 1990s. How were multilateral institutions like the United Nations to operate in a unipolar world? Did we need to rethink the framework of international law in order, for example, to address issues like pre-emptive strikes against terrorists? What was the continuing purpose of the privileged position of the nation state in a world in which so many of them were failing? What, if any, new philosophical framework would replace the liberal internationalism that had inspired some of the best statecraft of the 20th century, including America's role in building the now dangerously tottering international institutions? Could American exceptionalism provide an adequate central organising principle for such a world? Presumably not, but would the greatest power in the world sign on to anything different? Would, as traditional realist international-relations theory supposed, a new balance of power now coalesce to address the overwhelming power of the US or had the fundamentals of the international system now changed?
With events of such moment you would expect something significant to be happening to Australian foreign policy, but you can listen carefully without hearing much evidence. A constant element in the rhetoric of Australia's external policymakers is the regular assurance that the country faces a rapidly changing and unusually fluid external environment. The first-ever annual report of the Department of External Affairs noted it back in 1938 and it was there again last year. I drew on the phrases myself in the years between. Geography, the structure of its economy and its world view all seem to make Australia unusually sensitive to global change. But this time, the familiar phrases seem to ring with a sharp new relevance.
For more than 50 years – for as long, indeed, as it has existed in a fully independent sense – Australian foreign policy has had a dual focus. One strand has been regional, the other has focused on the search for support, in Menzies' famous words, from 'our great and powerful friends'. Both major political parties claim roots in both camps. The battle standards of the Coalition fly the symbols of the ANZUS Treaty, Colombo Plan, the commerce agreement with Japan, East Timor and (prospectively) the free-trade agreement with the US. Labor's proclaim Curtin's turn to America, Australian support for Indonesia's independence struggle, Whitlam's recognition of China, Hawke's reinvigoration of the US alliance and establishment of Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) and Keating's engagement with Asia.
Despite the Government's strong denials, it seems to me that the two horses to which Australian foreign policy is harnessed are now pulling in different directions
This ought to be a good time for Australian foreign-policy debate. But compared with Washington, where hawks and doves peck and claw at each other through the
op-ed pages of the newspapers and the television talk shows, surprisingly little noise emanates here about these fundamental questions in Australia.
Some discussion is taking place, of course, but it is narrow in both scope and participation. The mix contains too few views and too little that is fresh. (Fresh, mind you, is hard to come by in foreign policy and needs to be examined carefully when it turns up.)
At the political level, the debate has addressed some of the broad issues, often at a high standard, but political discourse seeks to fight its battles on terrain of its own choosing, usually preferring to make specific differences sharper and general differences blunter in order to close off areas of possible weakness. (A recent example has been the way in which the debate on terrorism in the region has focused on the accuracy and timeliness of Australian Government intelligence warnings.)
For its part, the media needs drama and conflict. Differences of view within government or opposition quickly become splits or policy weakness. It is pointless for policymakers to wish it otherwise, not least because this is obviously the easiest way for most people to address these issues, but this tendency further draws the public debate from broad directions to specific issues – terrorist threats, border protection and the war in Iraq.
And if the media preference for conflict limits Australian debate, so does the bureaucracy's preference for consensus.
FAR MORE THAN in the US, Australia's Westminster-based bureaucratic policy machine operates with a deep collegiality. In research for a book on how Australian foreign policy is made, Michael Wesley and I surveyed Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) policy officers. Nearly 90 per cent of them described their professional contacts with officers in other departments and agencies as invariably or mostly collegial. The fights about resources and influence certainly take place but the policy disputes, where they exist at all, are far more muted. DFAT, Defence, ONA, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and Immigration are all headed by former Foreign Affairs officers – each of them exceptionally able but none bringing the clearly different take on the global scene that was seen, for example, from senior members of the US State and Defence departments over the use of United Nations forums in the lead-up to the Iraq war.
DFAT is a tightly disciplined organisation these days. Unauthorised comment is discouraged. No separate policy-planning function exists inside the department to question current policy doctrine, while traditional political reporting from overseas posts has been pared back by staffing cuts and a shift of focus (for the most part sensible) to advocacy work.
ONA provides some alternative analysis but not alternative policy advice. The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet has its international areas, which are often staffed by seconded officers who hope to return eventually to home departments, and the department now focuses on policy implementation. Defence has an important influence on external policy but generally avoids policy debates on DFAT's central turf.
In any case, for 20 years or so, the Australian bureaucracy has been steadily losing power to the executive. Within the executive, the influence of the Prime Minister has been growing at the expense of his ministers. No Australian prime minister has rivalled John Howard for power in the area of external policy. This is partly for reasons of internal politics. The Prime Minister's electoral success has given him enormous authority: on no major foreign policy issue during the Howard years has there been any obvious political debate within the Coalition. Structural changes to the machinery of government after 1996 (such as the creation of the National Security Committee of Cabinet and the broadening of prime ministerial involvement in ambassadorial appointments) further strengthened the Prime Minister's position.
THE EXPANSION OF the Prime Minister's role in foreign policy also reflects broader trends – the impact of America's assertion of its unprecedented power after September 11 and the extent to which, in a globalising world, the gap between domestic and international issues is getting harder to draw.
A curious sort of reversal has taken place in the declaratory language of Australian foreign policy. The Howard Government came to office accusing its predecessor of being 'obsessed' with Asia. (As an adviser to that government, I might plead guilty to preoccupation, not obsession.) The Howard Government promised a more interests-oriented foreign policy, in implicit contrast to Labor's values-infused goals of engagement with Asia. Keating, for example, spoke of a vision of Australian foreign policy in which 'our national culture is shaped by and helps to shape the cultures around us', while, for former foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans, 'all Australians ... must understand that we are not only in this region but of it'.
In contrast, the Howard Government declared in its first foreign policy White Paper, In the National Interest: 'Preparing for the future is not a matter of grand constructs. It is about the hard-headed pursuit of the interests which lie at the core of foreign and trade policy...'
Yet apart from a declared preference for bilateral over multilateral relationships, the content of that White Paper was in broad line with the consensus position of its predecessors. 'The continuing economic rise of east Asia' was singled out, with globalisation, as one of the 'two most profound influences on Australian foreign and trade policy over the next fifteen years'. But In the National Interest was released in August 1997, just before the full force of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis came crashing down on the economies of Indonesia and the rest of South-East Asia, leading to Suharto's fall, the political uncertainty which followed and East Timor's brutal transition to independence.
By the time of the second White Paper, Advancing the National Interest, in 2003, the world had changed and, with it, the language of Australian foreign policy. Although the word 'interest' was in its title, the language used was overtly about values. The document seems a far more authentic and confidently argued account of the Howard Government's international views.
The analyses of Australia's relations with the US on the one hand and Asia on the other are revealingly different. While Australia has 'close ties and affinities' with North America and Europe, it has simply a 'history of active engagement' with Asia. The 'vital' relationship with the US – the only country about which that telling word is used – is underpinned by the fact that Australia and the US 'share values and ideals'.
This point was made directly by John Howard in his press conference with George W. Bush at the President's Texas ranch in May 2003: 'Australia and America are close friends because above all we have similar values. In the end, the thing that binds nations together more than anything else is the commonality of their values and we have a view of the world that puts freedom and individual liberty, a belief in market outcomes where appropriate, at the centre of the activities of both our nations.'
In comparison, the references to Asia in the White Paper are pared down and practical. They are couched in the careful, businesslike language of reciprocity: 'The Government's commitment to Australia's relationships in Asia proceeds on the basis of mutual respect. It focuses on the common interest between Australia and the countries of Asia while acknowledging our differences ... [The Government] will focus on those relationships and issues that matter most to Australia's interests.'
The emphasis is on mutuality and on practical outcomes – what Foreign Affairs Minister Downer has referred to as 'practical regionalism'. The references have, too, an instructional tone about them: 'Regional governments have made significant progress in remedying shortcomings ... but more needs to be achieved ... It is important that the Indonesian Government use the opportunity ... to press ahead with domestic economic reform.'
THIS CONTRASTS NOT only with the rhetoric of the preceding Labor government but also with some of the earlier language of Howard Government ministers, like Tim Fischer. The emotional burden of the language of Australian foreign policy, and its underlying dynamic, has shifted sides more substantially than is acknowledged in the public debate. Values are back again but with a different focus.
At the core of the Howard Government's foreign policy from the beginning was an insistence that Australia did not have to choose between its geography (read Asia) and its history (read Europe and North America). This conviction is now being articulated, at least privately, in a slightly different way. After September 11, 2001, it is argued, the world itself changed in ways so significant that such choices are not just unnecessary for Australia but, in a very real way, no longer relevant.
Fifteen years after that Sovietologists' conference in Honolulu, the international landscape is unimaginably different. It may well be time to abandon the legacy of Asia-Great Power dualism in Australia's foreign-policy thinking. But these are large issues with serious consequences and the limited scale and allusive tone of much of the debate so far is not reassuring.
It seems to me, for example, that any new approach for Australian foreign policy needs to contain more than just a shrugging acknowledgement that we find ourselves in a one-horse global race. It needs to be more comprehensive, more active and much more specific than any currently on offer. However we redefine the issue, we arrive back at much the same point: we must still find ways of addressing with new energy and a fresh voice the areas where the immediate tasks of, and opportunities for, Australian diplomacy lie – in the fragile, complex region around us.