Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Purging Howard's national insecurity

1 Comment

Ungerer, Carl (Ed.), Australian Foreign Policy in an Age of Terror. UNSW Press, 2008. RRP: $49.95. ISBN: 9780868408156

Foreign Policy in the Age of Terror At first sight this book is more about national security than foreign policy. The collection of essays by defence and international relations scholars examines the central claim: 'After 9/11, terrorism became a central and defining issue in Australia's domestic policies and foreign relations.'

The first half of the book considers global and strategic dimensions. Carl Ungerer looks at Australia's place in the international system. Rod Lyon addresses Australia-US relations and ANZUS. Andrew O'Neil, non-proliferation strategy. Richard Leaver, trade. Melissa Curley, new threats to security such as unregulated migration and pandemic diseases.

The second half addresses regional dimensions. David Martin Jones and Ungerer review the Australian intelligence community. Martin Jones, China. Andrea Benvenuti, South Asia. Christian Hirst, the South Pacific.

It is claimed the book 'will provide students with an up-to-date analysis of the issues and concerns which are driving contemporary Australian foreign policy'. But the agenda is unbalanced. No chapters on climate change, energy and peak oil, human rights, the UN, Australian aid programs, our relations with ASEAN (whose leading member country is the world's most populous Islamic country and our closest neighbour), or with the Middle East (the major source of our oil, buyer of our wheat, and where our troops are engaged).

The world evoked in this book is one of selected bilateral friends and general threats — mostly from Islamic terrorism. It is an 'us and them' world. If the terrorists don't get us, illegal immigrants, pandemics or disease-carrying migratory birds will.

It is John Howard's fearful world. Not surprising, because the book grew out of a workshop held in 2006, when Howard's power over Australian perceptions of the world seemed unassailable, and his fears had become Australia's fears. It is a pity it took so long to publish this book — under the Rudd Labor Government, the international agenda is moving in less fearful directions. For Australia to be a good international citizen is once again a major aim of foreign policy.

The book does have instructive value. First, it reminds us how domestic politics and the Coalition's neo-conservative ideology unbalanced foreign policy discussions in Australia over the past 12 years.

The most profound shock to Australian foreign policy was not 9/11 but our change of government in 1996. Multilateralism, good international citizen language and honouring UN obligations were out. Bilateralism, assertive coalitions of the willing, and a more proactive approach to the US alliance were in. Foreign policy was now about national interest and power. Security agencies were to play a much bigger role, and DFAT had to learn to talk their language. The Australian Federal Police became an active arm of foreign policy implementation.

This new form of foreign policy was well entrenched by September 2001. Tampa, Operation Relex, the people smuggling disruption program and the Pacific Solution all preceded 9/11, and all had a national security focus. Australia's anti-UN rhetoric, singing from Washington's songbook, was underway well before 9/11. The book's main thesis is wrong.

Second, this book reminds us that there is a generational issue in Australia's foreign policy discussion. Our multilateralists are ageing. Younger people who have become used to working in Howard's neo-conservative policy environment still have years of teaching and writing ahead of them.

Where will the Rudd Government find its foreign policy advisers? In the generation of Bruce Grant, John Langmore, Carmen Lawrence and Dick Woolcott? Or in the generation of David Martin Jones, Carl Ungerer and Michael Wesley? Are 'young fogeys' taking command of the heights?

Ungerer writes, 'The new international environment will also require a greater degree of interoperability between diplomats and security forces.' We saw this in Indonesia and the Solomons, where AFP and ADF became the operational arms of foreign policy, and DFAT diplomats merely its presentational face. Increasingly, Australian police and soldiers are doing the kind of work abroad that diplomats used to do.

How long will it take for Rudd to turn this kind of thinking around? Does Rudd really want to, or have he and his ministers got used to national security agencies' dominance of Australia's foreign policy?

It won't be so easy to restore an open foreign policy debate in Australia. Sadly, we have become used to operating in ideologically defined silos.


Australian Foreign Policy in the Age of Terror at UNSW Press

Tony KevinTony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department. He was Australia's ambassador to Poland (1991-94) and Cambodia (1994-97).



submit a comment

Existing comments

Tony Kevin points out that the main thesis of this book, namely, that "the world changed forever on 9/11" is wrong. In this, he is absolutely correct.

The world did not change. On 9/11, mass murder was committed, just as it was on 11 September 1975, and on any selected day in the Middle East.
Ungerer et al. would do well to read Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation, Fourth Estate, 2005.

David Arthur | 04 April 2008  

Similar Articles

Finding humanity in the book of lies

  • Tim Kroenert
  • 10 April 2008

Norma Khouri's fraudulent account of a friend's honour killing became a bestseller before her lie was exposed. Forbidden Lies also considers the way media spin facts into versions of the truth, and how artists use licence to carry their cause.


Eureka Street loses two friends

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 10 April 2008

The Australian Catholic Church and public life are the poorer for the passing of John Button and Archbishop Frank Little earlier this week. They both knew much about winning, but more about losing, and treated all they met with great respect.