Foreign Policy Studies in Australia

By McDougall, Derek | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Foreign Policy Studies in Australia


McDougall, Derek, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The Australian study of foreign policy has always been part of the broader field of international relations in this country. By foreign policy I mean the ways in which governments have attempted to achieve their objectives in relation to the international environment. Foreign policy by definition focuses on the behaviour of states, although students of foreign policy can give attention to the impact of domestic politics on such behaviour. Similarly, if one focuses on the global environment more generally, foreign policy analysts will certainly emphasise the role of states but can also take account of the whole range of political actors. (1)

In examining Australian contributions to the study of foreign policy it is important to be aware of how those contributions relate to and were influenced by what was going on in the field of international relations more generally, both within Australia and abroad. In this discussion I will make some reference to this context but to avoid overlap with other contributions will mostly take this as a given and concentrate on foreign policy as such. In reference to foreign policy there are two broad areas that need to be considered. One is the Australian contribution to the study of foreign policy as a general phenomenon; the other is the contribution to the study of Australian foreign policy as such. Here it will be argued that while there have been some notable contributions to the former aspect (often in the context of the study of international relations more generally), the main focus has been on the latter aspect. In relation to the study of Australian foreign policy, contributions have come not just from political scientists, but also from historians, journalists and practitioners.

Insofar as the study of Australian foreign policy as such has been the main focus, contributions to this field have not been strongly theoretical in emphasis but have attempted to give more depth to the debate that has been occurring within the public arena. The range of positions within the Australian community has generally been reflected in the range of academic contributions. While it might be contended that historically the study of Australian foreign policy was implicitly realist, this would be an oversimplification. There was a focus on "power realities" but generally within a context where governments had an element of choice. "Power realities" meant developing a better understanding of Australia's Asia-Pacific environment while also focusing on links with Britain and later the United States. There were arguments about the nature and consequences of the regional environment, and also about the direction of Australian policy in relation to its "great and powerful friends". More recently there has been greater theoretical awareness in studies of Australian foreign policy, but from a situation of theoretical pluralism. There are still plenty of studies that are implicitly realist but there has also been more scope for liberal and critical approaches to develop.

The argument is developed by focusing in the first instance on the historical perspective, covering the pre-Second World War and Cold War periods. Attention then turns to the post-Cold War era, and to the issues that seem most important in the contemporary Australian study of foreign policy. In all three periods it will be observed that the Australian study of foreign policy has focused most particularly on the issues and relationships that have been of most concern to Australian governments and the Australian community as a whole. At the same time it is important to give due recognition to those Australian scholars who have contributed at the global level to the study of foreign policy. In going forward there are opportunities for linking the more theoretical analyses of foreign policy to the study of Australian foreign policy. At the same time the role of academics in contributing to debates on Australia's foreign policy direction needs to be maintained and developed.

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