The big picture: Australian foreign affairs and defence
9 Sep 2013|

Coat of Arms at the Australian embassy in Washington DCThe defence and foreign relations debate in Australia is bedevilled by several entirely obvious flaws. In the first place, foreign affairs people very seldom mention defence while the defence people seldom emerge from technical assessments to discuss the larger and usually imprecise foreign and often global circumstances on which their planning and eventual operations must depend. Yet even a cursory reading of ancient or modern history demonstrates that the utility, not to mention the details, of defence policy always depend on the larger foreign affairs context, while the foreign affairs posture of any nation depends to a marked extent on the assessment by others of its capabilities in defence as well as in other areas, including economic stability.

As a subset of this there is a continuing dispute between those who—usually in the context of that meaningless verbal construct, of an ‘Asian Century’—give overriding priority to Australian concerns in ‘our region’ in Asia, especially Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific, and others who take a more international or global view. That discussion has all the hallmarks of an unhelpful inter-departmental dispute. It is true that the problems of the Solomons and Papua New Guinea are closer to Australia’s shores than those of Portugal or Poland. But the financial problems of Portugal have a far greater influence on the Eurozone, the decisions of the International Monetary Fund and therefore on Australia’s economic security and global standing, than the financial fate of East Timor or even Malaysia.

There are other and contingent questions. One is: if our foreign relations are to be limited, whom in our increasingly interdependent world are we able and willing to ignore? If an Australian citizen, even someone who has only acquired an Australian passport last week, is accused of, say, drug smuggling in Peru or Thailand, the media will instantly demand that the federal government should intervene on his or her behalf. So is there any country, anywhere, which the government can afford to disregard?

Similar questions arise in the realm of defence. Presumably any Australian government should defend us. But against what? Invasion obviously. But by whom, how and when? Noone seems prepared to hazard a guess. Is there more, such as safeguarding Australian citizens and firms against foreign cyber hackers? If so, exactly who should do what? What effect should ‘cyber protection’ have on our relations with, say, China? Or with the US, the core power of the so-called ‘five eyes’ intelligence alliance, of which Australia is a senior member?

Or do Australian territorial waters need defending against foreign fishing boats? If so, do the Navy and Air force have enough ships and aircraft to do that?

Altogether, other countries can count quite as well as Australians. They will draw their own conclusions from the fact that Australian defence spending is at the level of 1937/38, or from the slenderness of Australian foreign affairs and even commercial representation in parts of the world. It is true that modern technologies in transport, communications, surveillance and robotics have brought huge changes in defence preparations. Mass armies and fleets of aircraft have been replaced by smaller, highly-trained ‘special force’ type groups and small numbers of hugely capable (and expensive) planes.

Whether all these developments represent an ‘advance’ in effectiveness or reputation remains to be seen. Instant and global communications allow high political authority to intervene in small actions. President Obama’s role in the killing of Osama bin Laden is an example. But is that capability always an advantage? There are also the psychological and political links between the public and soldiers or airmen in the field. In recent times these have been close and intimate. But in the new conditions might public support for military norms fall away? Similar changes might affect the foreign service. Not long ago such folk were regarded as something of a social and intellectual elite. Now, given the tendency of Ministers to travel everywhere themselves, might their officials come to be seen as little more than another lot of government clerks? That could have predictable effects on morale and effectiveness.

It is true that we have Prime Ministers and Cabinets to control public services, reconcile departmental views and correct weaknesses of personnel. But departmental parochialism can, altogether too easily, produce government by a small clique of unelected advisers clustering around the Head of Government. That is rarely an optimal arrangement.

Harry Gelber is emeritus professor at the School of Government, University of Tasmania. Image courtesy of Flickr user KMJPhotography (TillyDog).