Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper: How does it stack up?

Launch of the Foreign Policy White Paper in Canberra

Rebecca Hamilton and Alice Ridge

23 Nov, 2017

Today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull along with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade Minister Steven Ciobo launched Australia’s Foreign Affairs White Paper – the first paper of its kind in 14 years – outlining Australia’s foreign policy priorities for the coming years. In our submission to the White Paper ACFID contended that to tackle global threats indifferent to state borders, military might and economic power, Australia must radically rethink traditional principles of foreign policy.

So, has the Government hit the mark? Has this White Paper done enough to recognise the economic and security costs of climate change, water and food shortages, shifting disease patterns and the profusion of pandemics, natural disasters and isolationist sentiments? Let’s take a look at how the White Paper stacks up against ACFID’s priorities:

1) Taking a values-based approach to foreign policy

The adoption of values-based diplomacy within Australia’s foreign policy architecture is evident throughout the paper, aligned with ACFID’s vision that Australian values provide the framework for an open-minded, generous and outward-facing approach to the world.

From the outset, the Prime Minister’s introduction (“the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper is grounded in our national foundations of freedom, equality, the rule of law and mutual respect”), guides the reports’ acknowledgement of the opportunities which exist for Australia to shape responses to global challenges which are reflective of Australia’s values - consideration of equity for those ‘doing it tough’; a democratic structure in which the concentration of power is limited; and working with other countries to promote a rules-based international order. We can leverage the reputation of these resilient values to influence an international system predominantly shaped by much larger powers.

As a liberal democracy founded on the rule of law, with a long tradition of national social policy focused on addressing the circumstances of people in need, ACFID agrees that Australian aid is a key tool in both reflecting and projecting Australian values. However, the precedence the Government places on national interest as the leading test applied when allocating development assistance continues to prevail over the values message.

2) Building peace and human security

Strengthening borders will never be a panacea to climate change, pandemics, disease threats, humanitarian conflicts, people movement or migration. It is for this reason we need to widen our concept of security to include the security of individuals within States and the extent to which they live free from fear and violence.

While the White Paper addresses the need to ensure regional security, the overreliance on a narrowly defined conceptualisation of security based on the sovereignty of borders and robust border policies is a missed opportunity. Equally critical is the role of women in conflict prevention and peacebuilding, but despite a strong focus on gender overall, the White Paper fails to affirm Australia’s commitment to the women, peace and security agenda. ACFID looks forward to a further articulation of a human security focus across Australia’s international engagement, which centres on human development, the security of individuals within States and the extent to which those individuals live free from fear and violence.

3) Deliver sustainable and inclusive growth

On sustainable and inclusive growth, the key questions are whether the White Paper has sufficiently recognised the threats to long-term prosperity posed by rising inequality, and growth models that do not adequately manage our demand on finite resources.

The White Paper affirms that Australia’s development assistance is crucial to our global influence. ACFID’s submission highlighted the role of aid in addressing social and economic inequality, addressing women’s participation and inclusion, reducing vulnerability to crises and addressing climate change. The White Paper affirms these as critical enablers of inclusive growth and poverty reduction, noting that “growth alone will not guarantee poverty and stability.”

Chapter 6 acknowledges our obligation to “protecting the international environment in a way that also allows for sustainable growth of the Australian economy,” and notes that a review of climate change policy will be undertaken to achieve Australia’s 2030 emissions reduction target and Paris Agreement commitments. The White Paper recognises that environmental challenges like climate change will continue to shape our world, and demand policy responses – ACFID is pleased to note the White Paper lends credence to the economic and security costs of these drivers, including poverty as a driver of vulnerability to climate change effects.

ACFID endorses the commitment to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, framing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as contributors to holistic foreign policy. However, says ACFID’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, Joanna Pradela “…this recognition of how our aid program contributes to delivering on the overall goals of our global engagement needs to come with a revitalisation of resources for its implementation. We need to rebuild the funding for Australia’s aid program to bring it in line with our global commitments, commensurate with our status as a wealthy nation”.

4) Promoting multilateralism and human rights

The White Paper notes that “we have entered a period of sharper challenge to the rules and principles that underpin international cooperation. Anti-globalisation, protectionism, changes in the balance of global power and geopolitical competition are testing the international order.” ACFID’s submission called for this global context to be addressed through a renewed commitment to multilateralism and human rights, which we are pleased to see embodied in the White Paper. Through Australia’s forthcoming term on the Human Rights Council, Australia will advance the rights of women and girls, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, as well as promoting democratic institutions and freedoms, national human rights institutions and advocating for the global abolition of the death penalty. The White Paper also highlights the importance of protecting and strengthening civil society; this is critical because a free and vibrant civil society is both a human right in itself, and a mechanism to secure rights.

5) Better communicating foreign policy

ACFID’s submission called for better communication of Australia’s foreign policy and the values that underpin it. The White Paper emphasises the importance of soft power to Australia’s foreign policy objectives, and the particular role of digital communication in today’s fast paced and interconnected world. However, while the White Paper couches our international engagement in terms of values like “political, economic and religious freedoms, democracy, the rule of law, racial and gender equality,” it consistently returns to national interest as the primary motivator of our trade, aid and diplomatic engagement. ACFID’s submission argues that the concept of national interest is too amorphous and undefined to be useful for communicating why we chose to engage with the world. Further work will be needed to communicate the importance of Australia’s international engagement to the public.

  • Rebecca Hamilton and Alice Ridge
    Rebecca Hamilton and Alice Ridge

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