A Recipe for Do-nothing Foreign Policy

By Greg Sheridan

This is a terrible election result for Australian foreign policy.

That is not a comment on either Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard, both of whom could possibly become a good foreign policy prime minister. But a hung parliament and a minority government is a recipe for risk averse, do-nothing foreign policy. It will be a great challenge for Abbott or Gillard to transcend that situation. This is not just your columnist's view, but pretty much the consensus among Washington officials, think-tankers and commentators, many of whom have watched our election closely.

The Australian election got a lot of coverage in the US. It is bizarre that the Western world is producing so many very close electoral outcomes. With an electorate of more than 11 million, that Australia was split so evenly between its centre-left and centre-right groupings replays both British and American experience.

At the same time, all over the West the centre is bleeding to both Left and Right. Discussing this with a senior American the other night, I was surprised when he expressed envy for the Australian situation.

"In our country the centre is not so much bleeding," he said, "as flooding away in great rivers."

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Nonetheless, the Americans are both fascinated and somewhat disappointed in our election result. At the official level, most of them liked Kevin Rudd. They do not express a preference between Abbott and Gillard because they do not know them that well.

But they are worried that the equivocal election result might mean at least a temporary end to Australian activism and leadership in foreign policy.

You can see why. A depleted Gillard government, mortally wounded, internally divided, dependent day-by-day for its survival on the vote in the House of Representatives of the far-left Greens and a far-left independent, is hardly likely to be an enthusiastic free trade proponent.

Nor is such a government likely to answer any possible need for security back-up for the Americans in contingencies we can't yet imagine.

But this is not just a problem on the Left. Bob Katter is like the American Tea Party on steroids. The far-right shares with the far-left -- Katter shares with the Greens -- an extreme aversion to free trade, modern economics and realistic foreign policy, more or less on principle.

It's difficult to see Abbott enthusiastically pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade initiative endorsed by both Washington and Canberra, if Katter can destroy his government any day of the week.

Similarly, the Greens are less fussed about Afghanistan than they were about Iraq, and it's highly unlikely that they could convince a Gillard government to leave Afghanistan suddenly. But they might make the difference in dissuading it from offering any increased help there, or undertaking any new security role either.

Whoever is prime minister, one of their first big international gigs will be an AUSMIN meeting between the foreign and defence ministers of Australia and the US, probably to be held in November. The location is not quite sorted out but I now think it will be held in Australia. This will be a very big deal, and the presence of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, will be the first such visits to Australia under the Obama administration. Clinton and Gates, two very high-powered individuals, are associated with meetings that produce substantial outcomes. There is a big ongoing agenda of defence and intelligence co-operation involving the US and Australia, with New Zealand now more than half-rehabilitated in intelligence sharing. The Defence Trade Co-operation Treaty, dating from the Howard years, is just now winding its way through to final ratification in the US Congress. What will the Greens make of this? Similarly, what will Katter?

Sometimes when American officials talk of relying on Australian leadership, Australian listeners are inclined to think they are either gilding the lily, or actually having a lend of us. After all, if we are leaders, who are the followers? In truth, at least since the East Timor episode in the Howard government, Australia has been a leader and an activist in foreign policy, with a strong regional focus but also a willingness to share burdens globally.

When Washington talks of Australian leadership it has several things in mind. One is a willingness to publicly support a US forward military presence in Asia. Virtually everyone in the region except the Chinese (and the North Koreans) supports the US military presence, but not that many political leaders are prepared to say so. Australia is willing to stand up publicly for human rights in a way that a lot of Asia-Pacific nations are reluctant to do. When necessary, Canberra will hold a line against China. Canberra also is very active in the debate over how regional institutions should evolve. This is important to the Americans as they try to re-position themselves in Asia.

Rudd was an especially close ally on a number of issues that are important to Obama personally, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation, Ditto global financial governance as exemplified in the development of the G20 group as the primary, global, macro-economic policy co-ordination body.

At the end of the day it's unlikely that either the Greens or the right-wing independents will fundamentally change Australia's formal positions on these issues. But at the very least, the new prime minister is likely to be domestically preoccupied and consumed with maintaining their numbers in parliament. At the very least, Australian positions are not likely to be articulated as strongly, as often, on the international stage by the new prime minister, as they were by Rudd or by John Howard before him. The focus in foreign policy may very well shift away from the prime minister's office and back to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Institutionally, that is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is just the way of the world these days that a nation's positions on the biggest issues are essentially spelled out and sold internationally by the government's leader. An inward-looking Australia, led by a government hanging by a thread, forever under the sword of Damocles, is not an obvious recipe for a bold and effective foreign policy. It will be up to Abbott or Gillard to transcend this gloomy formulation.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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