the rathouse
P.P. McGuinness
Foreign Policy in Theory and Practice

There is a great tension between the policy makers and the academics concerned with foreign policy in Australia, such that while the former have to deal with actual issues of national security and our place in a dangerous world, the latter are obsessed with ideology and pharisaical moralism as if national security were not the primary issue. The same divide exists in almost every area of domestic policy as well.

This divide has meant that most comment on foreign policy issues emanating from university departments is of virtually no practical interest, while its often low intellectual level and obsession with ideological denunciations of the major democracies, and the United States in particular, makes it unreadable and of little value. From time to time there are attempts to bridge this gap, and one of the latest and most valuable is the new book, Making Australian Foreign Policy, by Alan Gyngell (head of the recently founded Lowy Institute for International Policy) and Michael Wesley (a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of NSW).

This is mainly oriented towards describing what actually goes on in foreign policy making, the structure of the foreign policy establishment, and how policy develops in response to changing patterns in global politics, economics and power relationships; the gradual or sudden emergence of new tensions; as also the role of intelligence gathering and assessment. It is not about foreign policy as a crusade to impose human rights or to destroy the power of America – the essential concerns of the academic scribblers. So it is a very useful contribution to knowledge. However, like most good books it is not beyond criticism. Not because of the lip service paid to the “theoretical” approaches to international relations beloved of the academics, even to the extent of finding value in the banal and totally unoriginal comments of that idol of the postmodernists, Michel Foucault, on the nature of power. To discover that power is a relationship rather than an essence does not require constipated prose, which, if translated into clear English, is simply empty wind. For example, “The exercise of power is a ‘conduct of conducts’ and a management of possibilities. Basically, power is less a confrontation between two adversaries or their mutual engagement than a question of ‘government’ … To govern, in this sense, is to structure the possible field of action of others.” While not the worst example of Foucault’s prose, this contributes absolutely nothing. How would it help to explain the power of a dictator like Saddam – or a democratic leader like Bush?

Damningly the authors conclude, “But in the final analysis, postmodern writing on foreign policy provides little guide for those curious about how foreign policy is made, who is involved, and how it is coordinated. It is also doubtful whether intertextual or discourse analysis can account for the vast range of activities that comprise the foreign policy process.” In a word, don’t bother with it.

The only slightly disconcerting aspect of the essentially Realpolitik, or more politely, realist, approach of the book, that is that foreign policy is about the achievement and reconciliation of the interests of nation states, is a lack of interest in the democratic aspects of foreign policy. While the issue of the “democratic deficit” in foreign policy making, and especially treating making, and of the increasing role of undemocratic international organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), is lightly touched upon it is not seen as a central issue. Yet as recent events in foreign policy should have brought home, there is a determined effort within the charmed circle of bureaucrats, politicians and journalists to pretend that public opinion ought to be ignored, or dismissed as unenlightened, when they disagree with it.

Nowhere is this more glaring than in the increasingly frequent attacks on the foreign policy of the present Australian government by retired lions of the diplomatic corps who take deep offence at the fact that they no longer have any influence in policy-making, and consider any departure from the policy approaches of which they are so proud must be erroneous and possibly evil. The changed political climate, and the opinions of the democratic majority, are of no interest to them. Perhaps like former prime ministers it would be better if they held their tongues on current policy and confined themselves to, at most, analyzing past policy. There is no more pathetic, or ridiculous, sight than a once-powerful person bitterly regretting his current impotence.

Gyngell and Wesley stress the “collegiality” of Australian foreign policy making. It is good that it takes place in a civilised and cooperative manner, but disagreement is always a good thing in such a complex area. Too much collegiality is as bad as internecine warfare. They clearly are irritated, often justifiably, by the ignorance of journalists (and they could add lawyers) who venture into these matters, but at the same time they convince themselves that it is possible to speak of “majority public opinon” when they are only referring to those of the political class who presume to meddle in foreign policy. Foreign policy in a democratic nation needs to be conducted openly whenever possible but also with reference to community attitudes, not just those of the policy elites. Border protection and the Iraq war are two obvious examples. While the “majority public opinion” of the chattering classes may be against government policy in these matters, it is clear that in the former case the real majority public opinion has always been strongly in support of the government, and in the latter it turned in favour of it.

Where the authors are a little too smug is in endorsing the merger of the old separate departments into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This has produced a clear decline in the ability to handle trade issues, as they are either relegated to relatively junior officials or treated merely as an extension of diplomacy regardless of the economic issues involved. It is not a satisfactory approach to regard the economics of international trade as subordinate to the politics of international relations, such that horsetrading of domestically harmful protection or regulation becomes a pawn in the political game. Yet this is the universal tendency of practical diplomacy – nowhere more actively or more perniciously pursued than by the French. It would be a great improvement if the two areas were once again separated, such that trade and economic issues were negotiated by senior specialists in these fields. This might serve to reverse the trend (partly at the behest of the propaganda of the NGOs) to subordinate our economic interests to whatever the fashionable political issues of the day happen to be. Naturally, DFAT denies this. It would, wouldn’t it? But it is clear to analysts of international trade policy that our trade policy has suffered from its domination by those who see it as purely instrumental; no matter how many trade promotion officials there are in the field they cannot compensate for bad policy.

The Gyngell and Wesley book is enriched by a number of  “case studies” of actual issues – the Cambodia peace settlement, the development of  “regional architecture” through the APEC leaders meetings, and the Australian response to the Bali bombings. One glaring omission is an account of the Australian initiative in East Timor, which while it seems to have been almost unavoidable could well have been the Howard government’s biggest foreign policy error. While no excuses should be made for the behaviour of the Indonesian armed forces, both after the move to independence and before, Indonesia’s sins against Timor from the invasion of 1975 on have been greatly and maliciously exaggerated for political and ideological reasons; with either the intent to harm, or with indifference to any harm to, our relations with Indonesia. The late Heinz Arndt, who made an enormous contribution to Australia’s understanding of Indonesia, on several occasions demonstrated that the huge numbers of deaths alleged to have been encompassed in Bali by the Indonesians were largely fictitious, and invented. Paul Keating’s treaty with Suharto’s regime was ill-timed and deeply objectionable on account of the secrecy of its negotiation, but of all his prime ministerial initiatives it was the most defensible in principle. The ill effects of the Australian intervention in East Timor have at least been partly overcome by the rapprochement which has followed terrorist acts in Bali and Jakarta, but it is already clear that independent East Timor may have to be classified as a failing state.

The account of the response to the Bali tragedy of October 12 last year is illuminating. Despite the criticisms at the time it seemed that the Australian authorities both on the spot and at home handled the tragedy pretty well. This is confirmed by the case study, which provides a succinct account of an extremely rapid and competent effort by officials and government. The response was speeded up by the presence of a number of Australian officials from Jakarta who were themselves holidaying in Bali. Cooperation with the Indonesian authorities was very good from the beginning and greatly enhanced our strained relationship with Indonesia. Police work has been cooperative and effective on both sides. This event alone epitomises the generally high standard of our foreign affairs establishment, so often derided and criticised by commentators who cannot divorce their political prejudices from day to day analysis of foreign policy. It may be only natural, but it is obviously intensely irritating to the professionals to be subjected to continual nit-picking and accusations of incompetence by those who simply want additional grounds on which to attack the elected government. We still hear the complaint that there should have been strong warnings against travel to Bali before last October.

With 20/20 hindsight, this may be correct. But the real question which needs to be asked is whether anyone would really have been deterred from holidaying in Bali when nothing had actually happened? If there had been such a warning, would the mourning for the victims have been any the less? Now that there is a real experience of terrorism the official advice is warranted, but until the terrorist bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta on August 5 it was increasingly unheeded.

There is absolutely no evidence of deliberate suppression of prior knowledge about any planned attack in Bali, and certainly nothing as specific as a dance club in Kuta. Yet the fact that the tragedy did take place is continually raised as some fault of the Australian authorities, whether politicians or officials. In fact while the attack was generally predictable (and the scabrous French writer Michel Houellebecq had imagined a terrorist onslaught on a South East Asian tourist resort a couple of years previously, in his novel Platfom) it would have been surprising in the extreme if there had been any reliable advance knowledge. And certainly the Indonesian authorities were not taking such possibilities seriously.

We are wiser now, but while DFAT has undoubtedly learned some lessons from the Bali events, there is no sign that the media critics of DFAT have done the same.

The obtuseness of “progressive” thinking amongst the political class in Australia, and its insensitivity to the particular problems of other countries, is notorious. It seems a general principle that any dictatorship, no matter how vile, which can be considered “progressive” or critical of America will have excuses made for it, while the lesser sins of democratic countries are the object of perpetual vilification and lying. Now the death sentence pronounced by the Indonesian court on Bali bomber Amrozi has stirred up a renewed debate in Australia on the acceptability of the death penalty. It is clear that most of the relatives of the Australian victims, with the exception of one or two whose hard-wired political prejudices have led them to try to make political capital out of personal tragedies, favour the verdict.

The Prime Minister has taken a more nuanced position. He has said simply that he will not try to interfere with Indonesian law – if that includes the death penalty for grave offences, so be it. In this case the convicted felon is an Indonesian; Mr Howard might well have made a plea for clemency if he had been an Australian. The PM might yet decide to suggest to President Megawati that there are good reasons for commuting the sentence if it is confirmed on appeal. But he is not going to, nor should he, pick up on the practice so common amongst the morally vain in Australia of condemning Indonesia for not being governed to suit their prejudices. It is pointless to denigrate the Indonesian government because it has not yet abandoned capital punishment.

It is clear that the majority of Australian public opinion is in favour of the death penalty, as is American, and especially so in this case. But the chances of it being reintroduced into Australian law are still very low. In part this is because “majority” opinion, especially amongst lawyers, politicians, academics, journalists and the rest of the quasi-professionals, diverges from that of the public, which is as usual treated as ignoramuses and bloodthirsty lynchers who must be restrained, preferably by a judiciary determined to subvert any laws with which they disagree.

Faced with a case like Amrozi’s it is not surprising that the sentence has been so widely applauded. He is responsible for a terrible offence which encompassed the death and injury of innocent people. He is not repentant. Indeed, he has exulted in his evil. Does he deserve to live? Not in any ordinary sense, no. But there are good practical reasons for thinking that execution in this case is not a good idea. For it would make him a martyr. Islamic fascism has a great appetite for death, and would treat the execution as a triumph, as it does the deaths of suicide bombers. And it is obvious that death does not deter such terrorists, so it may not be a good idea to guarantee it for those terrorists who survive. Not just in Islam is martyrdom dangerous. It contributed enormously to the growth of Christianity. And as the British learned in Ireland after 1916 executions can have exactly the contrary longterm effect to that intended. After the killing of Pearse, Connolly and the others “a terrible beauty was born” in Yeats’s words. So it may well be wise simply to imprison Amrozi for life.


In the very  near future, Quadrant will be going online, and a growing proportion of printed material will be available also through the Internet, especially the fully footnoted versions of some articles. It will be assumed, failing evidence to the contrary, that contributors will have no objection to this procedure – which can only enhance the readership of the magazine outside Australia (especially by way of links from sites like Arts and Letters Daily) and amongst students and low-income groups within Australia.

P.P McGuinness . Quadrant editorial. September 2003