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May I begin by saying how much I appreciate the courtesy extended to me by the Minister for Foreign Affairs by inviting me to speak to you this morning.
Both the Minister and I operate in a democratic system where governments come and go. It is your role, and one on which we both depend, to provide continuity both in policy advice to government and the execution of government policy. That continuity is a function of your experience and your expertise – without which governments of any political hue cannot function.
As senior representatives of our nation overseas, it is very important that all of you here have a good relationship with both the government, and those who could at any time be the next Australian Government. And I would note that, in my dealings with our High Commissions and embassies both as a member of the government, and as a member of the opposition, I have been impressed by the unfailing courtesy and helpfulness of all our representatives abroad.
So I thought that the best way for me to spend my time with you this morning would be to set out some of the considerations that will inform Labor’s approach to foreign policy and, as Allan Gyngell so eloquently terms it, the operating system that we call diplomacy.
And I hope, of course, that my thoughts might resonate sufficiently with you to inform your deliberations and advice to the Foreign Affairs White Paper drafters.
First, I would like to frame my suggestions to you this morning with a few observations on the international operating environment in which we currently find ourselves.
It may be something of a truism to say that we live in more than interesting times. What we are facing now is quite different from the kind of discontinuity with which our international system has long been familiar. Indeed, it would be fair to say we are witnessing a period characterised by widespread disruption.
One of the most reassuring characteristics of the international system that has operated for the past seventy years is its resilience, which is a function of its complexity and its multi-dimensional character, along with the rules both written and conventional that have governed it.
The disruption that we currently face is of an altogether different complexion. It is driven by a range of structural factors, ranging from the economic and social inequality of which Piketty writes, refugee flows resulting from civil war and societal breakdown, consequent ethnic tension in neighbouring countries, the reappearance of nationalism, and the alarming re-emergence of national politics driven by ideology rather than good policy.
This disruption is exacerbated by new tensions in the basic operating system underpinning the traditional competition for position and power. For the best part of half a millennium, we have become all too familiar with the way in which nations face off militarily, building empires that rise and fall as a reflex of their military strength – or lack thereof. The Cold War taught us what happens when one power bankrupts itself in competing with another for military dominance.
What we are now dealing with is both subtle and disruptive. While economic strength has previously been more or less convergent with strategic strength – that is, economic power has represented itself as military power – we are now confronted by a situation where economic power and strategic power offer divergent means of jostling for pre-eminence.
The emergence of geo-economic power as an alternative to geo-strategic power rather than its complement challenges traditional mindsets and traditional ways of doing business. Comfortable assumptions that military strength constrains global strategic ambition are challenged by the way in which economic power is being focused and organised.
While the forces driving this challenge have been growing for a number of years, it is only now that they are coming to a head. Indeed, had we all been meeting here this time last year, few if any of us would have anticipated the Brexit vote or predicted Donald Trump would be the Republican candidate, let alone President.
And even less, I suspect, would we have recognised the momentum behind the deep and disruptive political movements that have generated such outcomes.
Any White Paper produced this time last year would already be redundant in many respects.
One has only to look at the Brexit vote and its political aftermath in both Britain and the EU to see that Europe is headed for completely uncharted waters. As The Observer commented just last Sunday, the prospective political, diplomatic and reputational cost is daunting.
The early moves by the Trump administration include marked departures from traditional US governmental and diplomatic practice.
China’s military build-up in the South China Sea heralds a new set of difficult issues in an area where we have enduring economic, political and strategic interests.
North Asia confronts the intransigence and belligerence of North Korea as it continues to demonstrate its fundamental political weakness by developing nuclear weapons and their associated delivery systems.
And all of this is exacerbated by fundamental political, social and ethnic fault lines stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan where civil war, enormous refugee flows, suffering on a scale we have not seen since WW2 all combine to threaten not only the nations of the Middle East but the social cohesion of European countries as they respond to the humanitarian disaster on their doorstep.
In circumstances like these, it is easy to give in to uncertainty, become defensive and timid, keeping the head down so as neither to give offence nor be offended.
This would be exactly the wrong response. In times of uncertainty, first mover advantage lies with whoever sets the agenda. And that is exactly what we should seek to do, practically and confidently.
That’s why it is so important that you all push yourselves hard to fashion the kind of advice that will assist the government to address the divergent and disruptive global forces currently at play.
Fear generates ‘the cringe’, if I can channel Paul Keating for a moment. So I would like to think that your deliberations and advice, on the White Paper as on everything else, is considered, confident and in that proper sense fearless.
This is also the way in which I hope that you communicate your views – clearly, directly, objectively, confidently.
It extends to the tone that I would hope you adopt – again confident, engaged, and proud of the kind of nation that we are and the values we hold.
And it extends, too, to the way in which I hope that you continue to represent us internationally.
I mention these issues of representational style, not because I am concerned that you operate in any other way, but to remind you that to build the constructive, innovative and properly transformational foreign policy that the disruption I have mentioned demands, you need confidence in yourselves and confidence in your ability to negotiate a way forward in a disrupted world.
It is important, however, that we all recall that disruption generates innovation – it creates unimagined opportunities. Our challenge is to identify them.
In my view, policy documents that are simply responsive to events are of little value. Apart from your collective experience and wisdom, there are many sources for you all to draw upon. I would single out The Asian Century White Paper launched by my friend former Prime Minister Julia Gillard almost five years ago. Although it has nearly disappeared from the public discourse, it remains relevant and offers many worthwhile ideas. And it will certainly inform a future Labor government’s approach to a contemporary foreign policy.
And if first mover advantage lies with whoever sets the agenda, here are a few items that you might consider putting on it.
First, there needs to be renewed energy and vigour in negotiating international agreements to address the consequences of climate change reflecting a clear and evidence-based national policy. As the global community becomes increasingly aware of the security dimension to changes in our climate due to global warming, Australia needs to work with insight and determination if our own long term security interests are to be protected.
Second, we need an Asia policy more in tune with the confident and optimistic approach of The Asian Century White Paper than one which is diminished by trepidation or a preoccupation with the more transactional features of day-to-day diplomacy.
In this regard, we need a China policy that begins with what China actually is, rather than through the lens of risk management. And we need a policy that looks at the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with an eye to identifying points of mutual interest and complementarity rather than reflexive negativity.
Third, we need an alliance policy built around shared interests in global stability, peace and security. Our relationship with the US is of paramount importance to us. We need to ensure that it is both sensitive to the changes underway in the Asia Pacific region and conducive to creating a more confident, vibrant and robust regional security dialogue.
Finally, we need to revisit our aid policy, re-instating and, more importantly, refunding development assistance programs that deliver real benefits to nations that are struggling, especially in our own region (Timor Leste, PNG and the South Pacific)
So, I hope that your overall focus will be on what a confident and forward-looking Australia can do in the Asia Pacific region.
Your former secretary, Peter Varghese, put the task very neatly when he said:
We cannot afford to be too narrow in where we put our foreign policy focus. Australia is not a global power but we do have interests across the globe. Asia and the United States will always be central to our interests but we also need to spread our risks and seek out other opportunities.
And may I conclude by saying that, had I been the person commissioning a White Paper to deliver a foreign policy in a time of disruption, I would certainly have invited you all to be here, as Minister Bishop has.