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Competing foreign policy doctrines

By Cameron Riley - posted Thursday, 8 June 2006

Over the last 20 years Australia has seen two competing foreign policy doctrines: the Great and Powerful Friends [GAPF] doctrine and the Engagement doctrine.

The GAPF has been in existence since Billy Hughes used the Australian sacrifice in World War I to get a seat at the table in Versailles. Rather than use Australian power to expand Australian interests, he used it to expand British interests, particularly against the United States.

The hope was that in return for being a compliant and uncritical ally of Britain, Australia would get the Royal Navy sailing to the Pacific in times of need, as well as privileged access to British markets. One of Hughes' more bizarre concerns was that if Australia were not loyal enough, Canadian wheat would get preference over Australian wheat exports.


In Hughes' defence, Australia had no foreign affairs department at the time, using Britain's Colonial Office for foreign policy, and Australian defence lacked any capable aviation or naval projection. Even so it was recognised, right up until World War II, that the Royal Navy could not fight a war in both Europe and the Pacific.

This uncritical stance of our powerful friend became the standard for successive governments. It led to defence being done on the cheap, and the submission of Australian foreign and defence policy to Britain's interests. Australia was so lackadaisical in this respect that it didn't even bother to institute the Westminster Statute until 1942.

It is often claimed that John Curtin was visionary by stating in a radio speech, "Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom". But this was no different a foreign policy response to that which Robert Menzies had maintained in the first parts of the war. Curtin swapped Britain for the United States in the role of the great and powerful friend.

The Australian-American relationship was formalised in the ANZUS Treaty. This exists largely as myth in Australian popular perception; as a permanent guarantor of Australian security and economic union. However, John Foster-Dulles set it up to stop Australia doing “a Curtin” in any future global war and pulling its troops out of the Middle East to defend Australia.

The Howard Government has followed the GAPF with great vigour, going with the United States into Afghanistan and Iraq; contributing to the pre-war political message with the latter conflict. It has followed the United States in voting in the United Nations, and enacted a clause in the ANZUS Treaty when the United States was attacked on September 11.

Supposedly this uncritical relationship brings economic benefits, and the Au-US Free Trade Agreement [FTA] was touted as part of this relationship. But Singapore and Chile received a FTA with the US without going to war with Afghanistan or Iraq. Costa Rica also signed a FTA with the US, despite not committing troops to Iraq.


In fact, any nation who wished to have a bilateral FTA with the US and was prepared to give in on the intellectual property provisions and agricultural quotas received one.

The only government not to follow the GAPF was the Keating Government which followed the Engagement doctrine. This is often called Asian Engagement, but this a misnomer as the Keating Government didn't limit itself to its immediate north in applying the doctrine.

Where the GAPF does not play power politics on the world stage, instead hoping that it can influence the powerful friend to play power politics on its behalf, Engagement takes a regional power politics stance and seeks to advance Australian influence through the application of Australian political, economic and military power.

The twist in Engagement is the doctrine also seeks to advance Australian interests by engaging nations culturally and socially, in addition to the old means of hard and soft power. Australia is an immigrant and diasporic nation, giving the world a good dose of Australia at the same time as receiving a solid dollop of the world. Engagement fits well with the increased people and service flows of modern Australia and globalisation.

Where the GAPF seeks to bind nations together through gossamer threads such as the Au-US alliance or FTAs; Engagement takes a more expansive approach. A good example is the attempt by the Keating Government to set up an Indian Ocean trading block, which stretched from Australia, to Thailand, to India, to the Middle East and right down the African coast to South Africa.

That is a radical restatement of Australian power, influence and principles beyond the small Pacific island nations to our north, or our bilateral relationship with the US. It is far more befitting of a cosmopolitan Australia that is a globalised trading nation and established regional power.

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About the Author

Cameron Riley is founder of South Sea Republic. He authored the book, The K-fivical Cam, and has co-authored South Sea Republic Volume One as well as the recently released book, Patterns of Liberty.

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