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Rethinking Australian foreign policy in a post-Bush world

By Ben Eltham - posted Tuesday, 20 November 2007

On November 15, the National Press Club held its election debate on foreign affairs between Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and ALP spokesman Robert McLelland.

It was a disappointingly narrow debate, which Hugh White on Sky News later described as "a draw, with both candidates playing for a draw". Indeed it was, with Downer toning down his customary rhetorical bluster and McLelland doing his best to appear conservative and safe.

It comes as no surprise that Downer maintains a re-elected Government will stay the course on Australia's involvement in Iraq and that Labor, having opposed the invasion all along, remains committed to withdrawing Australian combat troops (our largely symbolic commitment of 1,000 troops in the relatively safe province of al-Muthana). Beyond this one key difference, it was difficult to detect much daylight between the major parties' position on a range of important foreign policy issues.


But even the easy banter at the debate couldn't conceal the elephant in the living room of Australia's foreign policy: our relationship with our "great and powerful friend", the United States of America.

Under John Howard, Australia has moved closer to partisan US foreign policy than any administration since Harold Holt (or even John Curtain). Meanwhile, the ALP, perhaps remembering the fearful criticism Mark Latham aroused for his supposed "anti-Americanism", seems determined to demonstrate a Rudd Government will would keep the US alliance strong, stay in Afghanistan, and continue to fight the "war on terror".

Unfortunately for Australia, both sides are so far refusing to acknowledge the reality of the declining reputation, popularity and "soft power" of the United States in world affairs. Whether we like it or not, Australia is soon going to be faced with some very difficult strategic foreign policy challenges in relation to our American alliance.

The reason can be summed up in one phrase: the Bush Administration.

The disastrous foreign policy blunders of President George W. Bush and his top advisors are now too legion to discuss in a short article. They include, in chronological order, the decision to pull special forces assets hunting Bin Laden out of Afghanistan in December 2001 to prepare for the invasion of Iraq; the establishment of military commissions at Guantanamo; the campaign of disinformation on WMD in the lead-up to the Iraq war; the folly of the Iraq invasion and the incompetence of US transitional administration; the decision to abolish the Iraqi Army; the Abu Ghraib scandal; the corruption and mendacity of US reconstruction efforts; and the United States' signal failure to achieve a workable "what next" strategy in the face of its increasingly obvious defeat.

And yet, during one of the worst periods of US foreign policy failure in modern American history, Australia has remained the United States' most steadfast ally, while also stepping up to the plate as an intellectual cheer-leader, apologist and self-declared member of the Coalition of the Willing.


The question Australian foreign policy makers must now answer is whether this unwavering support has actually damaged Australia's interests. There are many reasons to suggest it has.

Firstly, and most importantly, Australia's willing participation in the invasion of sovereign Iraq eroded decades of Australian commitment to the instruments of collective security enshrined in the United Nations. This is an especially melancholy fate for a nation like Australia that played such an important role in the drafting and establishment of the UN itself after the Second World War. This long-term collateral damage to Australia's reputation, which dovetails in impact with our refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol, may well be as significant for our own interests as the unpopularity of the US in much of the world will be for its own.

Secondly, the years of the Bush Administration have marked a clear and growing divergence between America's interests and our own. The most urgent example is our membership of the "war on terror".

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About the Author

Ben Eltham is a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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