Who drafts the foreign policy white paper?

By David Donaldson

September 15, 2016

epa04953675 Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop delivers her address during the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit which is taking place for three days before the start of the 70th session General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 27 September 2015. EPA/MATT CAMPBELL

Australia’s first foreign policy white paper in 13 years is on its way, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said last month, adding meat to an election promise to deliver a “contemporary and comprehensive foreign policy strategy within 12 months of the election”.

At this point it’s unclear who will be leading the process, and thus how it should end up looking. The Sydney Morning Herald says it’ll be driven by Bishop and her new head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Frances Adamson. But that could mean anything.

Will it end up being a beast more reflective of Liberal Party values or the preoccupations of the DFAT? It’s likely the document will include plenty of references to free trade and so-called economic diplomacy — the hallmarks of Bishop’s foreign policy so far — but what should we expect beyond that? It’s hard to say at this point.

Traditionally foreign policy white papers “tend to be the work of a small focus group of people working on it and usually a single drafter within the Department of Foreign Affairs,” argues Professor Michael Wesley, director of the recently launched Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at The Australian National University.

The process would do well to follow in the footsteps of the Defence white paper, which included “a broad process of public engagement and consultation”, Wesley says in a podcast for the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society Policy Forum.

“I think this is a real opportunity now for the government to engage with the Australian public and take it into its confidence and listen to the Australian people about what they want in Australian foreign policy,” he states.

He is concerned, however, that whatever strategy is decided upon might be difficult to properly implement given the ongoing cuts to DFAT, explaining that the 2.5% efficiency dividend required for each of the next two years could “definitely” hamper the department’s work.

Do we even need a white paper?

But what’s the point of a foreign policy white paper? In the minds of many, it’ll end up as another report sitting on a bookshelf (don’t mention the Asian Century).

To Wesley it’s about having a plan, so you’re not responding to every event ad hoc.

“The problem with not having a white paper or a framework is that you become inherently reactive. You tend to respond to events as they’re occurring. You don’t tend to look for the connections between specific events you’re reacting to and broader interests that you might have,” he thinks.

The lack of a clear idea of what we want to achieve in relations with the South Pacific and South East Asia has meant we’ve “drifted off course”, he argues.

“There’s a sense of foreign policy drift I think that occurs in the absence of an overarching framework. There’s a sense that we’re managing the world but we are not moving forward in the world in any particular direction or any particular way. I think a country in our location and of our size needs to have a sense of where it’s going and needs to marshal the small resources we have and get the biggest outcomes from them.”

Syria a policy failure?

On the subject of making plans — another podcast, this one by the University of Melbourne’s the Policy Shop, looks at the question of whether the Syrian civil war is the result of a global policy failure.

Crossing your fingers and hoping problems go away isn’t a very effective strategy, as it turns out. “There was an emerging conflict and everyone stood back on a wait-and see basis”, international lawyer Professor Guy Goodman Gill tells Melbourne Uni vice-chancellor Glyn Davis.

“That surprises me — well it doesn’t really surprise me, because it’s happened too many times before. The UN has struggled over many years to put in place early warning systems that will look at what’s going on and see incipient conflict … and then step in to do something to mediate the conflict if that’s what it is, or otherwise to address the causes.”

Governments’ responses to the refugee crisis have also been very much on a wait-and-see basis too, he says. Yet this approach is not supported by the evidence — the average length of a protracted refugee crisis is 26 years, so hoping the next one will be temporary flies in the face of experience.

In foreign policy as in other areas, like health, governments often end up spending vast resources dealing with crises, but prevention gets short shrift. Baroness Valerie Amos, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, explains:

“As somebody who worked at the United Nations I can tell you for example that we spend about $8 billion on peacekeeping missions. We spend about $600 million on what we call special political missions. Included in that is work that is done on mediation and prevention. The human cost, economic cost, and other costs of conflict are so much greater that it’s really, really important that we put the resources that we need into prevention.

“… This is a conflict now that has spread and has had an implication and is continuing to have an impact in so many countries across the world, it’s something that, right at the beginning, we should have been able to say to each other, we cannot afford for this to spiral out of control.”

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