Principles not platitudes: contemporary foreign policy with vision

The foreign policy white paper announced by Julie Bishop is an opportunity for the government to shape a legacy by articulating the contemporary Coalition view of Australia’s place in the world.

The first foreign policy white paper in 13 years will be a substantial task for the new, but very able, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has pointed out that the new white paper will be a “philosophical framework to guide Australia’s engagement, regardless of international events.” This causes one to wonder exactly how the white paper will guide Canberra’s foreign engagement and just why we have waited so long to release a new one. Indications are that it will be a white paper with a distinct political flavour, which is no bad thing. Bishop has already stated that “this will be a government generated document, it will go to Cabinet” suggesting that it will represent the world view of the Turnbull government. It will presumably have significant input from the foreign minister and will therefore comprise a large part of her personal legacy.

The white paper is an opportunity for the government to outline in detail the Coalition’s vision for Australian foreign policy in the 21st century. We already have a sense of this from Bishop’s various initiatives like the New Colombo Plan, an enterprise directly inspired by that pioneered by the Menzies government. Even a quick study of Bishop’s speeches, such as one she gave to the Lowy Institute in June, and her writings, like her article for the current edition of the Australian Journal of International Affairs, reveal the importance that she places on what she calls “economic diplomacy”. Bishop cites a raft of free trade agreements already in the bag (with more still in negotiation) as examples of this. While Bishop often refers to the importance of a stable global rules-based order for providing the necessary conditions for economic diplomacy, she has had less to say on the challenges that this order faces.

The white paper then is an opportunity to see if the government can outline in greater detail a set of guiding principles on foreign policy. It will also be a test to see if Australia’s interests can remain paramount in an environment dominated by an aggrieved China and a US potentially walking away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and retreating into protectionism. The foreign policy white paper will also be a test for how Australia thinks about its alliance with the US. It would be encouraging to see a statement that manages to move beyond the mere platitudes that the recent defence white papers have offered. Moreover, it would be right to assert that while ANZUS is central to Australia’s foreign and strategic policy, it is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. All alliances are predicated on national interest; ANZUS is no different and articulating that won’t diminish its value.

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