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Foreign policy: Guided by the masses or the elite?

By Daniel Flitton - posted Friday, 17 June 2005

Reflecting on the ideal civil government, the 17th century philosopher John Locke concluded that a country’s foreign policy is better left to the professionals. “What is to be done in reference to foreigners, depending much upon their actions and the variation of designs and interests, must be left in great part to the prudence of those who have this power committed to them, to be managed by the best of their skill for the advantage of the commonwealth.”

International affairs are too complex, delicate and long-term in nature to be safely exposed to vulgar public sentiment.

Locke’s view on the mystical aspect of international relations still persists today. A recently published review of the challenges for Australia’s foreign policy professionals puts an emphasis on the need for sensitivity and particular skills in decoding language.


“Diplomacy attends to words and gestures and moods far more carefully than ordinary exchanges,” it argues. “For this is an area in which a misjudged word, or a misinterpreted message, can have disastrous consequences.” Critics of Australia’s recent foreign policy employ a similar rationale when attacking the government.

According to Professor Stephen FitzGerald, head of the Asia-Australia Institute, Prime Minister John Howard has pandered to the worst elements of common prejudice in his belief that foreign policy stems from ‘‘ordinary Australians’’ - the people.

‘‘But the people,’’ says FitzGerald, ‘‘even if their support was not fickle, don’t make foreign policy. It’s made by people with power or influence: political, bureaucratic, business, professional, academic and other elites.’’

All of this suggests that Locke’s prescription for expert management over the affairs of state has yet to be fulfilled. So, in a democracy, how much public input is welcome into foreign policy?

Schapelle Corby’s conviction for smuggling marijuana into Indonesia has sharpened this question, thanks to the foaming wave of public indignation that has since covered Australia. Corby’s trial brought out the most regressive elements of White Australia’s chauvinism. A radio commentator decried the three wise monkeys ‘‘who don’t even speak English’’ yet serve as learned Indonesian judges.

Her supporters blamed the Balinese court for unfairly taking the word of a ‘‘liar’’, ‘‘one of your people’’. Defence commentator Geoffrey Barker appropriately described these as ‘‘offensive and banal displays of the great Australian awfulness’’. He also warned this public outpouring was ‘‘potentially damaging to long-term Australian regional interests’’.


Other thoughtful observers concurred. It would be ‘‘very unfortunate’’, said the Australian Financial Review editorial, if Corby’s conviction were ‘‘elevated through government intervention or media hysteria on either side’’ to threaten Australia-Indonesia ties.

This betrays a fear that if foreign policy decisions were put to a vote in Australia, the SAS would by now be skipping back across the Arafura Sea, after mounting a daring break-in to rescue our Schapelle from the squalid Bali prison.

Some analysts feel the media coverage is largely to blame for the emotional public reaction. ‘‘Marshalled’’ by the Australian popular media, wrote RMIT academic Jeff Lewis in a Melbourne newspaper recently, the governments of Indonesia and Australia have been ‘‘lured’’ and the public ‘‘seduced’’ by simplistic polemics and myth-making, under a sinister ‘‘motif of nationalism and xenophobia’’.

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Article edited by Tanvi Mehta.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in The Canberra Times  on June 2, 2005.

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About the Author

Daniel Flitton is a Visiting Research Associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and works at the Australian National University, Canberra.

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