Middle Power Dreaming: Australia in World Affairs, 2006-2010
James Cotton and John Ravenhill (eds.)
(Review first published in Australian Army Journal • Volume IX, Number 1)
Of what do middle powers dream? This is the intriguing question at the heart of this excellent addition to the Australia in World Affairs series. Like its predecessors (this is the fourth edited by James Cotton and John Ravenhill), Middle Power Dreaming is a must have reference for any serious student of Australian foreign policy. It provides an authoritative account of Australian foreign policy during the last years of the Howard government, the full Rudd government, and some early thoughts on the Gillard government, and is written by many of the most respected observers of the Australian political landscape. One advantage of a whole book on a short period of time is its ability to delve into the machinery of Australia’s foreign policy. For instance Michael Wesley carefully charts one of the most significant changes of the last five years, the move by the Australian Government from what Alan Dupont and William J Reckmeyer have termed a ‘narrowly construed, siloed approach to national security planning towards a genuinely whole-of-government stance’. 1 Likewise James Cotton’s discussion of the United States–Australia relationship details the specific events and institutions that keep the relationship humming, while Tanya Lyons gives much needed attention to the growing Australia–Africa relationship. Garry Rodan also has an artful chapter on Australia’s relationship with South-East Asia, especially when discussing asylum seekers, an issue which has generated so much heat, but so little light in Australian scholarship over the last decade.
As always with multi-author books about recent events, the tension between recording and reflecting does raise some issues. One notable tension is that the term ‘middle power’ is used in a variety of different and somewhat contradictory fashions. The editors begin, stating that ‘the close identification of the country’s foreign policy with that of the United States during the Howard governments, and their contempt for many of the activities of the United Nations (UN), rendered any middle power ambitions that [Foreign Minister Alexander] Downer might have harboured unlikely to be realised’ only to write a few lines later that ‘The “middle power” concept refers principally to aspects other than size, but most definitions refer, in one way or another, to capability or “capacity”’. 2 Neither contempt for multilateral institutions, nor close relations with a great power affect the size, capability and capacity of a state. While the later definition is likely drawn from Ravenhill’s excellent 1998 article on middle power activism, 3 the book Middle Power Dreaming seems guided by the literature’s traditional definition of middle powers as states which ‘pursue multilateral solutions to international problems … embrace compromise positions in international disputes and … embrace notions of “good international citizenship” to guide their diplomacy’. 4 This focus on multilateralism helps explains why the editors suggest Australia under the Howard Government wasn’t a middle power, but was under the Rudd Government. Not because Australia had suddenly changed, but because the Government was now more open to multilateral institutions.
Yet surely the co-editors of this volume were deliberate in their title choice of Middle Power Dreaming instead of ‘Multilateralism Dreaming’. Rudd wanted a larger role for Australia, but so did John Howard and Alexander Downer. The Howard Government’s record of activism and global influence might have been less than their political opponents, but their build-up of Australia’s defence capability, deployment of these forces in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq, and their regional leadership of the Proliferation Security Initiative all suggest a middle power in action. Can we really dismiss all this simply because of their ideological dislike of multilateral forums? The confusion over what defines a middle power demonstrates Cooper’s claim that the literature has reached an ‘impasse’. 5 Fortunately, the title of this volume may identify a way out of this conflict. Of what do policy makers in middle power countries dream? The best answer is influence in matters that affect their nation’s interest. While multilateralism might be the forum in which these policy makers tend to operate (as do most states on most issues), we need another definition of middle powers that gets at the systemic role these states play in international affairs that is free from the normative judgements found within behavioural definitions. 6 After all, the real value of terms such as middle powers is not their classification of power, but their explanation of it. Such as, what is the impact of middle power states on the international and regional system? Can they overcome the wishes of a great power on an issue of utmost significance? A systemic definition might help answer these questions, and provides a greater predictive power than other approaches. Some initial work in this vein was undertaken by scholars such as Robert Keohane, 7 but it needs updating for the modern era.
Another difficulty faced by the editors and authors of this volume is the disruptions for Australian foreign policy from the three changes of government between 2006 and 2010. Discussions of Howard and Gillard sit slightly uncomfortably in the book—one tired but well established, the other yet to begin. The real question is what to make of Kevin Rudd’s Government—a government that started so many projects, but completed few of them. Andrew O’Neil in the final chapter is right to argue that first term governments always struggle, but inexperience doesn’t quite explain the Rudd Government’s tendency to drive in circles. Prime Minister Rudd not only had major problems of process and decision making, it wasn’t always clear which way Rudd wanted to go. He was both a ‘true friend’ and a ‘brutal realist’ on China. He launched an anti-nuclear commission and then embraced the US nuclear umbrella. He worked himself to exhaustion in support of a climate change agreement at Copenhagen, yet quietly dropped his own emissions trading scheme at home. Even important and worthwhile initiatives such as the Asia-Pacific community were derailed over Rudd’s initial confusion over whether the European Union was, or was not, a model. While Kevin Rudd is a careful student of Australia’s place in the world, his constant, crippling demands for more information and delayed decisions suggests a man who didn’t yet have a course in mind when he took over the country. Of what did Kevin Rudd dream on behalf of Australia in the Asian century? Middle Power Dreaming suggests even he didn’t quite know. Rudd wanted activism and change for the better certainly, but struggled to limit his ambitions to either the few really big issues or select from the niche opportunities where Australia could have the most influence. So, he tried to do everything, but ended up giving proper attention to nothing. The complexities of this fascinating Prime Minister and period in Australian foreign policy are nowhere better covered than this latest edition of the Australia in World Affairs series.
1 Alan Dupont and William J Reckmeyer, ‘Australia’s National Security Priorities:
Addressing Strategic Risk in a Globalised World’, Australian Journal of International
Affairs, Vol. 66, Iss. 1, 2012, p. 35.
2 James Cotton and John Ravenhill, ‘Middle Power Dreaming: Australian Foreign
Policy During the Rudd–Gillard Governments’ in James Cotton and John Ravenhill
(eds) Middle Power Dreaming: Australia in World Affairs, 2006–2010, Oxford
University Press, South Melbourne, 2012, p. 2.
3 John Ravenhill, ‘Cycles of Middle Power Activism: Constraint and Choice in
Australian and Canadian Foreign Policies’, Australian Journal of International Affairs,
Vol. 52, No. 3, 1998, pp. 309–27.
page 142 • Volume IX, Number 1 • Australian Army Journal
Book review • Andrew Carr
4 David Cooper, ‘Challenging Contemporary Notions of Middle Power Influence:
Implications of the Proliferation Security Initiative for “Middle Power Theory”’,
Foreign Policy Analysis, Vol. 7, Iss. 3, 2011, p. 319.
5 Cooper, ‘Challenging Contemporary Notions’, p. 323.
6 Cooper, ‘Challenging Contemporary Notions’, p. 321.
7 Robert W Keohane, ‘Lilliputians Dilemmas: Small States in International Politics’,
International Organisation, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1969, pp. 291–310.