Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:48 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 01:48 | SYDNEY

Little scope for Rudd radicalism


Rory Medcalf


14 December 2007 11:22

Some clarification is warranted on my apparent suggestion (Sam's original post here; Bill Bowtell's follow-up here) that the Rudd Government’s foreign policy might seem more ‘radical’ than it actually is.  To keep the discussion more analytical than normative, I’ll start by dispensing with that problematic word ‘radical’, and instead say that it still appears on balance likely that a Rudd foreign and security policy will be marked more by broad continuity with Howard-era policies than by dramatic and sustained departures from them. A revolution in Australian foreign and security policy remains a remote prospect, particularly in terms of effects rather than tone.

Yes, the headlines from Bali smack of change. But the Prime Minister’s public, and quite correct, statement that being a US ally does not mean automatic complicity with every step that Washington takes is one thing. Australia’s simultaneously siding with US, Canadian and Japanese efforts to keep firm commitments out of the post-Kyoto negotiating mandate on climate change (if today’s Sydney Morning Herald is to be believed) is another.

On security policy more particularly, there are several strong reasons why the Rudd Government might opt for a large measure of continuity rather than a distinct and sustained agenda of change. (This is not to deny that Australia’s new Government won’t sensibly strive to avoid the blunders of the last, like invading Iraq, but then the same obvious judgment can be made about the next US Administration too, which makes another US-led folly of those proportions unlikely for years at least.)

One reason is simply the constraints of operating in an international environment crowded with potential security problems, where so much is beyond Australia’s control and where Canberra’s capacity for independent action is far outweighed by the extent of its global and regional interests. Another is that in 11 years of opposition the Labor Party probably did not realise quite how intimate the US-Australia alliance had become, and thus how difficult it will be to loosen without affecting Australian defence capabilities or causing real consternation in Washington. 

And a third reason is simply, as Harold Macmillan reputedly said in describing the greatest challenge for a statesmen, 'events, my dear boy, events.' John Howard did not become Prime Minister with dreams of liberating East Timor or bringing Australia much closer to the People’s Republic of China. Instead, these, perhaps his most enduring foreign policy legacies, were essentially responses (and probably reluctant ones) to new situations. Likewise, some of the security challenges that could confront Mr Rudd and his colleagues in the years ahead — including if Australia were ever forced to choose between the US and China, or if Afghanistan became a deeper quagmire than Iraq -- have every chance of driving Australian policy in directions at odds with Labor inclinations. Australian defence personnel may well face greater risks for the sake of the US alliance in the next decade that they did in the last.

None of this means that some serious change in Australian security policy is not to be welcomed. A truly root-and-branch review of defence needs and capabilities is overdue. And if on the diplomatic front there is scope for Australia to make major contributions to global security and stability in an independent-minded, multilateral and creative way, while an ally of the United States, I for one will be pleased. Australian policy-makers and think tank analysts should be looking hard for these openings. Already some interesting ideas, like a new Canberra (or Brisbane) Commission on East Asian security are starting to emerge. 

But we should not raise expectations by assuming that opportunities for Australian middle-power multilateral breakthroughs are plentiful or ripe for the picking. Nor should we expect to pursue them without cost or without exposing to intense international scrutiny the unpleasant contradictions (a coal exporter claiming leadership on climate change, a nuclear disarmament advocate cloaked by the US nuclear umbrella) that are for the time being a part of Australia’s place in the world.