Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Defence

Tony Abbot’s Foreign Policy Speech

Tony Abbott is a smart man, but he has something of the the optimists essential flaw of believing there is no trade off between outcomes for different policy options. In his book Battlelines he advocates free market economics and big spending social conservatism without ever noting that they could contradict. Likewise in his speech today for the Lowy Institute, he takes inspiration from the Howard government to argue that Australia should actively promote its values overseas, (and that this is intimately linked to our national security) however he then uses a standard realist framework to reject almost every action of the Keating & Rudd governments as a waste of resources in favour of utopian ideals.

Take this key quote early on in the speech:

There was the massive aid and relief effort to Indonesia in the wake of the East Asian tsunami. All of these were evidence of Australia‟s determination to be a force for good in the wider world and resolve not to leave to others the high task of working for the betterment of mankind wherever we could lend a helping hand….The Howard Government appreciated that Australia‟s national interest could not be pursued oblivious to the big issues of the wider world. It understood, as I‟m sure the Rudd Government does too, that Australia has a clear interest in advancing freedom and decency and in eradicating poverty. One country can hardly transform the planet but, especially in our immediate region, we have a particular obligation to conduct our national security policies consistently with our values. Australia‟s recent work in East Timor not only exemplifies this approach but also illustrates how perceptions of our international role have changed. This would have been a mission inconceivable in the period from Whitlam to Keating, when we were much more equivocal about standing up for our values on the global stage.

While there was a rhetorical shift from the late 1990’s where the Howard Government talked of selling Australian values, while the Keating Government talked about supporting universal values (that were not coincidently also Australian values), at a more fundamental level Abbott’s statement is hard to justify. Leaving East Timor aside for the moment, the previous Hawke-Keating government was consistently attacked by the Coalition for spending too much time promoting “values” overseas, rather than focusing on core national security. The Hawk-Keating Government made the promotion of Australian values central to its foreign policy. It secured restrictions on chemical weapons, launched a major anti-nuclear proliferation campaign, played a fundamental role in the resolution of a peaceful, and eventually democratic government in Cambodia, developed Cairns and APEC to promote free trade, lead & achieved a ban on mining in Antarctica, and Hawke played a big role in getting the Commonwealth to act to overturn apartheid in South Africa. Phew! No wonder Howard came to office promising a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ style of government in response.

So then is Abbott suggesting these acts were not supporting Australian values? While he is clearly trying to be bipartisan in including Fraser in his attack, his comments seem less about partisanship than simply not knowing/ommitting the history. As an aside all the examples he praises seem to involve military troops at work, are they the only tool Australia can use to promote it’s values?. Though quickly after the above quote there is also the equivocation by Abbott that (when speaking about Iraq & Afghanistan) “In neither intervention was Australia seeking to “export democracy” although the removal of abhorrent regimes necessitated the establishment of freer and fairer societies. So was Howard creating a new tradition of activism to support Australian values or was he following a traditional Australian realist path ?(As for East Timor, Howard did the right thing when the opportunity came to promote an independent East Timor arose after Suharto left power in 1998. Before then he followed the same path as his predecessors, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke & Keating. Australia reacted to help secure East Timor’s independence, it is flat out wrong to suggest we initiated their independence.)

Yet despite this priority in favour of values, Abbott takes a standard realist line when it comes to Rudd’s activism:

it‟s hard to see much taxpayer value in the Rudd Government‟s anti-nuclear and Security Council membership campaigns. Over this year and next, the Government is spending $9.2 million to promote nuclear disarmament, much of which will be spent on the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) which Mr Rudd set up in 2008. Of course, anything Gareth Evans and his fellow Commission members could do to prevent the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran or North Korea would be welcome. That prospect, though, seems unlikely and, meanwhile, the Commission uses taxpayer dollars to promote the improbable notion of a world free of nuclear weapons. It‟s largely a replay of the Keating Government‟s futile Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. A Coalition government would re-consider whether this body makes any useful contribution to Australia‟s non-proliferation objectives.

Abbott’s last sentence “Australia’s non-proliferation objectives” seem an endorsement of the goal, but he regards the Canberra Commission as futile and the new ICNND little better. Yet Australia really doesn’t have many other good options if it is to actually pursue such an objective. Abbott shouldn’t be expected to have read the ICNND (I havn’t fully!), but his Foreign Minister & advisors ought to know that the idea of a nuclear free world is a very minor part of a report whose main focus is on action in 2010 and through till 2020. Likewise Abbott correctly notes that the Howard Government, like Rudd today, made a bid for a UN seat (he deserves brownie points for leaving this in) however he derides it as “all for an uncertain purpose other than a nebulous sense of temporarily enhanced international status”. Surely if Australia is to ensure we are not “oblivious to the big issues of the wider world” and going to link our national security interests with our values a UN seat is a valuable opportunity to do so.

While the opposition is unlikely to try and use foreign policy as part of their election campaign, there are two differences between Rudd & Abbott where I think Abbott has the better position: First Abbott should be applauded for calling for the Rudd government to increase its troops in Afghanistan if only to take responsibility for our own security in the Oruzgan province. Secondly, Abbott rightly chides the Rudd government for its refusal to sell uranium to India. Though this is offput by the claim that: ‘The Obama Government in America has accepted that India could not sign the NPT (because it possesses nuclear weapons)’. In fact all five security council nuclear states, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China, have signed the NPT. Possessing nuclear weapons doesn’t prevent you signing, but rather not accepting the verification & audit process. Still Abbott should be applauded as India is a careful, non-proliferating country and selling uranium to India is not only good business, but will help patch over an important but troubled relationship between our two countries.

As The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen notes, this was a ‘safe’ speech which seemed largely dedicated to defending the Howard government. Very rarely did Abbott venture to say how a Coalition government would do things differently to Rudd, and where he did, it was entirely in line with Howard’s previous choices. Pleasantly this seems to have lent the speech a positive tone (at least in the reading), with Abbott almost unwilling to criticize Rudd. Certainly the harsher lines of his foreign affairs ministers were absent. And to his great credit, he actually tackled foreign policy issues, instead of just using the speech to talk about boat people (as happened while Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was present in the House of Representatives).

It’s great to see Abbott finally talking about foreign policy and security issues, and I recommend everyone interested takes the few minutes to read it in full. But you can sense his discomfort with some of the material, and the inherent contradiction between wanting an Australia that involves itself in global issues and promotes its values, while denigrating anything that goes beyond a cautious realist framework is never addressed. Like Howard in 1995 or George Bush in 2000, you can win office without a strong background in foreign policy, but both men quickly appointed expert advisors to help them through it. That act of delegation, rather than knowing the unner details of the NPT treaty will be the real test of Abbott’s leadership in foreign policy in the lead up to the 2010 election.

Update: Peter Hartcher stresses that now both parties are committed to promoting values ie norm entrepreneurship, while Danniel Flitton argues Abbott’s talk of an anglosphere is outdated and presents a false choice between bilateral and multilateral ties.