The Perils of an Atlantic Outlook – John McCarthy AO
May 16, 2022

The international prime minister

By John McCarthy AO, Former Australian Diplomat

Anthony Albanese is right to be taking time to meet key international leaders in his early days, writes John McCarthy. But he faces a bigger task at home to create awareness of the growing challenges Australia faces in its immediate region.

An Australian Prime Minister who travels is always fair game, a target for those who argue that the leader’s job is to keep the home fires burning and the foreign stuff a glamorous distant second.

It may once have been thus. No longer. In spending many of his early days in the job meeting other global leaders, Anthony Albanese has got his priorities right.

Albanese must be an international prime minister.

He is faced with several stark realities.

The first is that global tensions and uncertainties — stemming mainly from China-US competition since about 2015 — have accelerated since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This is not only because of the destabilising effect on Europe of the invasion itself. It is also because it was accompanied by a strengthened linkage between China and Russia and by the disinclination of most of the developing world to follow NATO’s lead in sanctioning Russia.

The invasion also stimulated fears — whether justified or not — about China’s designs on Taiwan. Hence Albanese was right to visit Ukraine. He has to develop a first-hand understanding of the issues.

The second reality is that as the world awakes from COVID-19, it faces an array of economic problems, largely unforeseen before the disease. The Ukraine war has exacerbated these problems, particularly by cuts to energy and food supply.

Third, when international issues are big enough, they also become domestic issues. Most obviously, this occurs in the case of war or the threat of war, but it also is true in circumstances such as global economic downturn, climate change, and, of course, pandemics. The international issues we now face are on a scale that pushes them unequivocally into the domestic basket.

These realities are just for starters. The long-term challenge for Australia is to adapt to them and to future global and regional shifts.

Since we developed our own foreign policies after the Second World War, we have never been lazy as international players. But even in our most active period of external endeavor — essentially the late eighties until the late nineties — the big decisions on our security were made in Washington. We have bathed in the reassuring waters of an alliance with the most powerful country in the world. We now have to think beyond that comforting bond.

The political divide in the US is turning into a chasm. Will internal turmoil lead to the sapping of its appetite for external engagement? Many in Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere the region, fear just this.

What are the consequences for us of NATO’s preoccupation with Ukraine, notwithstanding its new strategic interest in China?

What will be the longer-term impact of the reluctance of the developing world to support western sanctions against Russia? Could these further stimulate a recrudescence of the Non Aligned Movement? Could such a revival complicate our dealings with countries in the Sub-Continent and Southeast Asia whose perspectives on Russia and China are different to our own?

Then, there is the question of what China will do on Taiwan. And whatever it does, how will we deal with China in the future?

In managing our external challenges, Albanese is fortunate in having a competent cabinet. But it is incumbent upon it quickly to develop its links into the region and to sustain them, building on the good start he and foreign minister Wong have made.

Albanese should also look hard at the public service, encouraging the internationalist pragmatists and questioning those ideologues who are most comfortable in the confines of the Anglosphere.

But the hardest task is once again to breed in Australia a more profound consciousness of the region in which we live.

Despite our aboriginal heritage and the inflow of immigrants from Asia and elsewhere, in terms of governance and mores, Australia remains at bedrock an Anglophone European country.

Yet unlike almost all other countries of comparable size and similar systems, like Canada or the Netherlands, the countries within our primary foreign policy focus have very different beliefs and systems. Hence it is for us that much harder to develop a national understanding of our surrounds comparable with our needs. A cogent foreign policy depends not only on a competent cabinet and public service, but on a well-informed public.

Suggestions to build greater external consciousness in Australia will produce a few groans.

We have tried. Keating pushed Asian engagement with vigour but in so doing allowed his opponents to suggest he was meddling with the amorphous but politically sacrosanct concept of Australian identity.

Gillard worked up the “Asian Century” White Paper, but declined to fund any of its suggestions. It was in any event canned by the incoming Coalition Government.

Howard pushed the economic benefits of regional consciousness and in 2013 the Abbott Government fostered the New Colombo Plan.

But we have always tended to run out of puff. Our school system has hesitated to develop syllabi which teach more about Asia. Universities have moved away from language and area studies, citing lack of demand. Anecdote suggests a tendency in this country to leave dealings with much of the region to the Asian diasporas here. And on the economic side, it can be hard to produce solid examples of where Asia consciousness has delivered the goods in concrete terms.

But try again we must. If we are to be astute international players, we need a domestic base which is regionally savvy.

There is no magic formula. Australians are tired of grand plans. But if we are to have new policies, we need to get on with them. Given current economic challenges, we must be conscious of cost. But much can be done with modest expenditure. It will be crucial to get the states onside and to forge as much bipartisanship as possible in the federal parliament. There will have to be grassroots work with the universities, schools, business and the media.

In the past our efforts to create greater external awareness made sense. Given current global and regional circumstances, they are not only sensible, but essential.