Saturday 08 Aug 2020 | 22:38 | SYDNEY
Saturday 08 Aug 2020 | 22:38 | SYDNEY

Our foreign policy should focus on ends, not means

31 March 2008 17:15

Guest blogger: Andrew Shearer is the Lowy Institute's new Director of Studies. He was previously foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Howard. 

At the risk of being accused of partisanship again, I’m pretty sure I would have described the Howard Government’s foreign policy as ‘active’ rather than ‘activist’. The difference is more than semantic. An active foreign policy is a good thing, particularly if it is tightly directed at pursuing our national interests, guided by clear priorities and supported by adequate resources. Activism, on the other hand, carries the inherent danger that activity becomes an end in itself, unbounded by interests, unresponsive to priorities and voracious of resources. That’s where the priorities come in.

Similar risks arise from setting out to become more multilateralist. Multilateralism shouldn’t be seen as an end in itself, but rather as one of the instruments of policy available to achieve a particular international goal. Choosing the best instrument will depend on the circumstances. Where it works, multilateralism is great. Successful WTO rounds are the best way to maximize the benefits of trade liberalization. And who doesn’t love the World Food Program? But the higher the stakes and the more countries involved, the harder it gets. Sometimes it makes sense to move forward with fewer countries even when the results would be optimized by waiting for others. Or, in some cases, our valuable diplomatic resources may be better employed elsewhere. Policy makers have to make real-world judgments about the point at which the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. And sensible policy makers hedge: does anyone seriously suggest we shouldn’t keep open the possibility of bilateral FTAs with our major trading partners in case the Doha Round fails?

I’m all in favour of an active foreign policy, and I’m certainly not opposed to pursuing multilateral solutions where they make sense. But we are entitled to more than slogans, irrespective of their derivation. It is early days, but that excuse doesn’t last for ever. We need to hear from the Government in much more detail about its new multilateral agenda. Which international policy interests does it intend to pursue using which multilateral processes? How will these be prioritized? And how does the Government intend to resource each major multilateral effort? If it intends to pursue new priorities, where will the new resources come from, or what gets dropped?

Otherwise we’ll see more of the confusion represented by cutting our diplomatic representation overseas and then announcing a campaign for a UN Security Council seat — requiring much more, not less, effort by our diplomats. One of the first actions of a Government that has pledged to be more active internationally was to slash DFAT’s funding by $57 million, including 19 positions overseas. (Ironically, given the Government’s very public indignation about lack of access to NATO planning for Afghanistan, one of those positions was responsible for covering strategic planning at NATO headquarters in Brussels.) To secure strong community support for the Security Council bid, the Government needs to tell us how much that major diplomatic effort will cost, how it will be funded, and how Australians will benefit.