Issues in Australian Foreign Policy: July to December 2002

By Gurry, Meg | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Issues in Australian Foreign Policy: July to December 2002


Gurry, Meg, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


By any measure, the last six months of 2002 was a big half-year for Australian foreign policy, Indeed, it is ironic to recollect that early in his tenure, Prime Minister John Howard was criticized for his lack of interest in foreign policy. Now he is firmly in control, marching down a path well-trodden by former Australian Prime Ministers, who also began tentatively but quickly took to the role of international statesmen with considerable enthusiasm. Before long most Australian Prime Ministers eclipse the public profile of their Ministers for Foreign Affairs and become the voice of international relations for the nation. John Howard is certainly no exception. As Geoffrey Barker noted about the conduct of foreign affairs in July, "not a sparrow falls without the Prime Minister or his praetorian guard knowing, watching and noting". (1)

War on Terror: USA, Iraq and Bali

A speech by President George W. Bush in June 2002 mooting a new military doctrine for the United States (US) set the mood and strategic direction for the period under review, if not for years to come. Bush told a military audience at West Point that the US would not wait for the next terrorist strike to emerge, but would strike first. The speech, essentially endorsing the concept of the pre-emptive or first strike, was given greater substance on 20 September when, in a hefty document entitled The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, the Bush administration declared that not only can the United States not "rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past", but "we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defence by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country". (2) Marking the end of decades of containment and deterrence, the policy's bold commitment to pre-emptive unilateralism received considerable publicity in the United States, but surprisingly little in Australia. (3)

The Bush doctrine, as it became known, combined with the President's earlier references in his January 2002 State of the Union Address to the "axis of evil" confronting the world--the "rogue" states of Iraq, North Korea and Iran--has since underpinned much of the foreign policy direction of Australian leaders. As the world has watched the Bush administration move steadily towards war with Iraq, in Australia the community has remained divided over several aspects of American policy. Reflected not only in the emerging lack of bipartisanship between the political parties, but also surfacing in an increasingly questioning electorate, the arguments turned on the role of the United Nations (UN). Should Australia support the US in an invasion of Iraq without a mandating UN resolution? Also debated, though less widely, is the question of whether this is a "just" war, with or without UN approval. (4)

The Prime Minister left no doubt as to where his sympathies lay. He had stated his belief in the importance of the US alliance to Australia in most unambiguous terms when he addressed the Joint Meeting of the US Congress in June: "America has no better friend anywhere in the world than Australia", he declared. (5) Indeed, in the months following this visit, up until September 12 when President Bush took his case to the United Nations, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, received criticisms in some quarters that the government seemed even more determined than the United States in their intent to confront Saddam Hussein over his alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction. In July, Downer accused Opposition leader, Simon Crean, of sounding like Saddam Hussein, of supporting "appeasement"; he declared the world would pay a "very high price [...] for just turning our back on Saddam Hussein". (6) Although Downer toned down his language, the dangers of appeasement came to underpin a large part of the strategy of the Howard government over the next six months. …

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