The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP


Sydney, 10 July 2006

Centre for Independent Studies: The Policymakers Forum

Should Australia Think Big or Small in Foreign Policy?

Earlier today we saw one of the biggest sporting events on the planet. It was the pinnacle match for a game played by more people than any other. And for us, the 2006 World Cup will be remembered as the year when Australia finally joined the big league, becoming a significant player in world football.

The result saw Australia placed as one of the top 16 teams and the top team in Asia - neither Japan nor Korea qualified for the second round. The Socceroos won high praise not only for their skills, but for their determination and fighting spirit.

I also admire the tenacity with which the soccer community has tried to lift its profile in Australia. Frank Lowy and John O'Neill have shown great vision and drive in turning around the fortunes of the game.

Tenacity, competitiveness: striving for results. These qualities stand out in our sportsmen and women.

At the Sydney and Athens Olympics we were fourth on the medal tally. We're number one in test and one day cricket. We vie for top spot in netball and swimming. We constantly have top ten ranked tennis and golf players. We've had world champion surfers, snooker-players, Grand Prix drivers and motorcyclists.

Australia performs at the top level in most any sport you can name. Our sunburnt country has even produced world champion snow skiers and, yes, we all remember this one, an Olympic gold medallist ice skater.

A significant country

This shouldn't surprise people as much as it does, because by any measure Australia is a significant country. We're the world's 6th largest country by land mass. We have the 13th largest economy and the 10th largest industrialised economy. We're the 8th richest nation in per capita terms (Excluding tax havens). We have 10 per cent of the world's biodiversity. Even on population size we rank just in the top quarter of the world's 200 or so countries.

We have government institutions of which we can be rightly proud. We are the 6th oldest continuously operating democracy in the world. We're in the ten countries which have the lowest levels of corruption. We have the world's most liveable cities.

Our armed forces are significant. We have military expenditure that is the 12th largest in the world and the 4th largest in Asia. We have an ability to secure our defensive interests, deal with crises in our immediate region and make commitments further afield.

Australia contributes enormously to a wide variety of endeavours. We have produced scientists, inventors, doctors, writers, musicians, actors, businesspeople and artists that have won recognition and fame around the world.

We all know that the former Australian, Rupert Murdoch - who began with one newspaper in Adelaide, South Australia, has now turned his corporation into one of the largest and most influential media empires on the planet. And the mining company that began life as "Broken Hill Propriety" has now expanded and merged to become one of the world's largest and most successful resources companies.

We should not be surprised by any contribution Australia seeks to make in any field.

Strong identity and big foreign policy

Australia's identity is strong. We have developed our own distinctive culture and people recognise in Australians a no-nonsense attitude that enables us to master any challenge we set our mind to. We have responded with great success to the challenges and opportunities of globalisation.

Australia has a choice when it comes to foreign policy. We can take these strengths and use them to advance our interests on the global stage. Or we can be less ambitious, less self-assured - and narrow our focus to our immediate region. We can shrink into ourselves because thinking big is too hard or because we somehow don't believe we belong on the global stage.

I call this the "little Australia" approach and it has been the driving force of Labor Party foreign policy. My predecessor Gareth Evans talked about Australia as a "middle power" and Labor seems to have a middle child complex when it comes to our place in the world. We are not "middling" or "average" or "insignificant" - as I have outlined earlier, we are a considerable power and a significant country.

Labor's current Leader, Kim Beazley, told the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1998 that Australia needed to be innovative, and I quote; "to compensate for what we lack in competitive clout by being a small nation." This "small nation" line has been parroted by Kevin Rudd and, unsurprisingly, by the Greens Leader Bob Brown.

Australia as a "small nation"! What a mistake, what an insult, what an under-estimation and fundamental misunderstanding of your own country. Those who suffer this misunderstanding argue that we have little to offer or contribute globally. In effect, they argue for a retreat to regionalism.

Rather than see the old "tyranny of distance" as an historical (although outdated) disadvantage, they would seek to use distance and isolation as a tool for Australia to remain unnoticed and untroubled in our region. This would be a foolish and, in the end, futile tactic because in the modern age no distance is great, no nation is isolated and no major international challenge lacks a global dimension.

Some who argue for this approach, such as Kim Beazley's Labor, would have us back away from the US alliance and keep a lower profile. But they fail to recognise that the alliance brings enormous benefits for Australia. It gives us more weight in the region. And we gain from the fact that the US underwrites global security. We also believe that the US should not have to shoulder the burden alone.

Australia's interests are global in scope and if Australia is to be secure and prosperous we must work globally. Most Australians support this principle. Australians have always understood that security is indivisible; that's why we fought in two world wars. Our security has always been influenced by events occurring in the distance.

In fact, of the many military conflicts we have served in to protect our own security, it was only in the Pacific phase of the Second World War that Australia itself was ever directly under attack.

Yet today's security challenges are even more global than before.

So, rather than thinking small, I prefer an Australia that thinks and acts big in foreign policy, just as we never doubt the contribution we can make globally in sport, the arts or business.

I think we can play a regional role and a global role - the two are clearly inter-connected.

There are four global challenges where I think we have an expansive agenda to pursue.

The first is climate change.

People think the Kyoto Protocol was a big step forward and we should simply sign on and be done with it. Well, it wasn't and we won't.

Under Kyoto, only developed countries have targets. If the targets are met - and we're one of only four countries on track to do so - global emissions will grow by 40 per cent by 2012. Without Kyoto, emissions would have grown 41 per cent. Hardly the big step required to solve the climate problem. In fact, under Kyoto, global warming would be reduced by just 0.03 degrees Celsius - that is three one hundredths of a degree - by the year 2100. (Nordhaus and Boyer, Warming the World (2000), quoted in Sunstein Montreal vs Kyoto, a Tale of Two Protocols (June 2006)

We have a bigger agenda; one that looks beyond Kyoto. We're leading global efforts to find real solutions to the climate change problem. We're doing this both domestically and internationally. Domestically, we have aggressive policies to accelerate the big changes in technologies that will make a difference in cutting emissions.

Internationally, we are leading the Asia Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. It brings together key developed and developing countries to promote clean technologies. This has Australia working with the United States, Japan, China, India and South Korea - a grouping that covers half the world's population and is responsible for about half of global economic output and, importantly, half the world's greenhouse emissions.

We were proud to host the first meeting of the AP6, as it has become known, in Sydney earlier this year. It was an impressive showing of ministers from these major regional partners and had strong business engagement. It was about getting on and doing things to change the way we produce and use energy. Here's an example of Australia showing a single-minded determination to drive solutions to a global problems in a way that is in our interests.

Second, we have a big agenda for democracy and freedom.

Another guiding principle and enduring aim of Australia's approach to foreign policy is our support for freedom and democracy. There is a streak of altruism in this but it is also about self-interest. Democracy, freedom, accountability and the rule of law all work against extremism and in favour of moderation and tolerance.
By acting to support these values with our neighbours, in our region and around the globe, we help to provide a stable and secure environment in which we can live peacefully and prosper. Imagine the alternative - Australia trying to prosper in a region or a world of failed or despotic states.

So we see how Australia is supporting the people of Iraq, who now have in place a government of national unity including Shia, Sunni and Kurds.

The Iraqi Government will soon take over responsibility for security in Al Muthanna Province, the first such province to take this step. We can be proud of the role our forces have played in this process. We joined the coalition to rid the world of the threat posed by the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, who had invaded neighbouring countries, flouted UN Security Council resolutions and maintained plans to reconstitute his Weapons of Mass Destruction programs.

Some, such as the Labor Party, have argued we should have left him in power. But since his overthrow our troops have helped provide security for a newly free people and have trained more than sixteen hundred Iraqi soldiers in Al-Muthanna while also providing a secure environment for the Japanese detachment working on dozens of infrastructure projects.

If the Coalition of the Willing were to leave Iraq now, the consequences would be catastrophic. First and foremost it would be a catastrophe for most of the 23 million people of Iraq. It would also be a catastrophe for the stability of the Middle East. And, whether or not people supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, it would be unconscionable for us to withdraw from Iraq at this pivotal time in its history.

We would be retreating in ignominy and defeat. We would be handing victory to the insurgents and terrorists and this would embolden extremists everywhere. We would all pay a high price for years to come. So we will maintain our presence to support the new democratic Government and the people of Iraq.

We have done the same in Afghanistan, where a people who have experienced the horrors of the extremists are struggling to establish a new, free, democratic and secular state.

These are significant, military commitments in struggles that have gained much international focus. But Australia works for similar aims in different ways in our region.

Our commitments in Solomon Islands and East Timor, our work on governance in Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, our work on counter-terrorism and policing co-operation in Indonesia and the Philippines - all these efforts are aimed at supporting democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

We cannot shrink back from these activities. We cannot shirk these responsibilities. In a post 9/11 environment, we cannot just sit back and hope that the troubles of other nations, no matter how near or far, will never be visited upon us.

Third, we have a big agenda in our region, where we have never been more engaged and never made more progress on our interests.

We are now part of the East Asia Summit process. It's too early to tell what the EAS will become. But whichever way it evolves, we will be there at the table, representing Australia's interests.

Next year we will host APEC. It will be a major opportunity to add fresh impetus to what we still believe is the most important regional grouping for Australia. We have made great strides in functional cooperation in Asia on vital security issues.
We've found new ways of engaging with regional governments on areas of common interest. Our federal police have never had closer working relationships in the region. Our border agencies are increasingly networked with their regional counterparts. Intelligence information is being shared like never before, making terrorists ever more vulnerable to arrest. The Proliferation Security Initiative is now globally recognised as helping to prevent the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction and missile technology.

Fourth, we have a big and ambitious trade agenda.

While pursuing a successful conclusion to the Doha round as our number one priority, we are also working towards free trade agreements with our major trading partners in Asia.

This agenda could not be more ambitious. Of our top ten export destinations we already have FTAs with four (US, New Zealand, Thailand, Singapore), we are pursuing three more (China, Japan, Korea). Adding ASEAN, our agenda extends to ten of our top fifteen export destinations.
Our trade advantage is built on a competitive economy. And the strength of the economy does not derive from good fortune. The Government has made the big changes that every good economist knows need to be made - sound tax policy, flexible labour markets, competition at home and openness to the world. As a result, our international weight has grown and we can argue for global deregulation from a position of some moral conviction.

Regional Security

This global agenda in no way undermines our role in the region.
Australia is an especially significant regional power in our neighbourhood. We don't claim this title as a right, nor did we ever seek it. But the facts on the ground are indisputable. By regional power I don't mean that we dominate others in our region. We don't aspire to hegemony. That's not our style. We work cooperatively, within international norms and towards the common good.
But these days we are often asked to take on regional leadership in times of crisis. We are seen as a neutral party with the capability to respond to natural disasters, health or security threats, and even dramatic breakdowns in law and order.
Over ten years we have answered calls to help in Bougainville (1997), East Timor (1999 and 2006), Solomon Islands (1999, 2001 and 2003). We have led responses to the Boxing Day Tsunami, cyclones in the Pacific and other natural disasters. We are leading the regional response to the devastating impact of HIV-AIDS. And we are at the forefront again developing regional responsiveness to the threat of a possible bird flu pandemic. These are not quick-fix solutions. They are medium-term strategies focussed on ongoing co-operation.

Likewise, our post conflict activities in Bougainville, East Timor and Solomon Islands have a long way to run. You see, post conflict societies are always pre conflict societies. Conflict has an echo that takes a generation to dissipate. When a young man has spent weeks, months or years fighting, he doesn't easily return to civilian life. When exiled or rebel leaders take over the institutions of Government they don't always find it easy to run a country.

Nation-building is not easy and the recipe for success is complicated. Security is an essential ingredient. Rebuilding functioning institutions is critical. But so is good leadership, which cannot be manufactured. And we believe in building democratic institutions, not imposing strongmen who might bring security at the cost of human rights. So in a democracy we have to rely on the local leaders themselves to guide their countries to political stability. It's a stop-start process and it takes time. You cannot create stable societies in a matter of a few years - we've always said that. These are 20 and 30 year projects we're pursuing. But we'll continue to pursue them, continue to make progress. Not for our own sakes - we're not there for treasure, despite the wacky conspiracy theories. We're there because we've been asked and because we can make a difference.

It will take an enormous amount of grit and determination for our trade negotiators to pull off the Government's trade agenda and secure Australia's economic interests.

It will take a great degree of stamina and commitment for our police and border protection agencies to cement their good relations in the region to combat transnational terrorism and crime before it reaches our shores.

It will take continued courage and bravery of our defence forces to see the job through in Iraq and Afghanistan and establish these countries as beacons for freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

In the Pacific and East Timor our soldiers, our police and our public servants will need to continue working tirelessly to underpin the institutions that provide for security, the rule of law and good governance.

And it will take great persistence and innovation for our climate change negotiators, scientists and business leaders promote global solutions to protect the climate.

We have an ambitious foreign policy, a big foreign policy. That is what befits an ambitious and significant country. And I am certain we are up to the challenge.

Thank you.