Issues in Australian Foreign Policy: July to December 2007

By Clarke, Michael | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Issues in Australian Foreign Policy: July to December 2007


Clarke, Michael, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The final six months of 2007 were eventful ones in both Australian domestic politics and foreign policy. Inevitably in an election year foreign policy became intertwined with the contest for political power in Canberra. While some observers have since asserted that foreign policy and "international" issues played no role in the election campaign, the following review of Australian foreign policy will demonstrate that foreign policy issues played a significant role in both the pre-election and election campaign jockeying for position between the incumbent Liberal-National government of Prime Minister John Howard and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) opposition under Kevin Rudd. (1) Over the July to December 2007 period six foreign policy issues dominated both government and Opposition attention and had significant resonance for the domestic political contest: (1) terrorism; (2) Iraq; (3) Afghanistan; (4) instability in the South Pacific; (5) climate change; and (6) the future of the US alliance and great power politics in the Asia-Pacific. These issues largely fall within two broad trends of the contemporary strategic landscape that confronts Australia: the increased importance of non-state, sub-state and trans-national threats for Australian security and the reality of a changing distribution of power in the Asia-Pacific. (2)

How Australia most effectively responds to these challenges was the central question at issue in foreign policy debates between the incumbent Howard government and the Opposition during the second half of 2007. Indeed, this question has arguably preoccupied not only Australian policy-makers but also Australian scholars of international relations and foreign policy since the events of 9/11. (3) Ultimately, 9/11 resulted in debate as to whether or not the terrorist attacks had ushered in a period of fundamental strategic transformation and what this might mean for Australia's security. On the one hand scholars such as Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer and Hugh White for example, maintained that 9/11 did not constitute a fundamental transformation of the international strategic environment which remained defined by the distribution of power between states in an anarchic system. (4) For such "traditionalists" the enduring strategic worry for states would concern the possibility of great power conflict, while the "new" strategic threats such as terrorism will prove to be transitory. In Australia's case, White for example, maintained that the defining features of our security environment would remain the balance of power in Asia and developments in our immediate region. (5) For others, such as Rod Lyon and Alan Dupont for example, 9/11 was the harbinger of a strategic transformation on a par with that which took place after 1945 in that the fundamental structures of the international system and understandings of security are shifting. (6) This view is succinctly summarised by Lyon who argues that the "war on terrorism" has ushered in an era where "conflict will be typified by virtually open-ended, asymmetric conflict" as actors other than states "become more able to exploit the interconnectedness of globalisation". (7) While this dichotomy may over-simplify the debate, it nonetheless highlights that 9/11 presented not only Australian scholars but also policy-makers with a challenge to "the hegemony of Australia's pre-11 September geographically-focused strategic doctrine". (8) Moreover, it is a tension that continues to be relevant, with one observer suggesting that the Howard government's "Defence Update" of 5 July 2007 outlined a position closer to the "traditionalists" in which terrorism took "a back seat" in Australian strategic priorities to the question of relations between the Asia-Pacific's great powers. (9)

Both sides of federal politics across the July to December period, however, appeared to accept the core arguments of the "transformationalists" regarding the major contours of the strategic environment that confronted Australia. …

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Issues in Australian Foreign Policy: July to December 2007
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