Sitting in Rome ahead of the G20 this week, got me wondering. It seemed unlikely that anyone – outside a handful of journalists and public servants – knew the G20 was about to take place. Certainly, as a nation, we seem to have forgotten that Australia helped build this integral piece of the world’s diplomatic architecture.
For a country that has such a massive geographic footprint and significant economic weight, Australia is mostly reticent in proposing bold foreign policy initiatives. Our successes are few. Dr H.V Evatt was quick to support the creation of the United Nations in the immediate aftermath of WW2. Percy Spender, with a somewhat reluctant Robert Menzies, delivered the ANZUS Treaty which has just celebrated its 70th anniversary. John Dawkins galvanised the Cairns Group in 1986 to invigorate the global trade agenda, and Bob Hawke was pivotal in the creation of APEC in 1989. Twenty years later and in the wake of the global financial crisis, Kevin Rudd, with the support of Barack Obama, successfully lobbied for the G20 to replace the G8 as the world’s premier economic forum.
But when it comes to maintaining the momentum Australia, it seems, lacks staying power. The South-East Asian Treaty Organisation held its last meeting in Canberra in 1972 and then effectively disappeared. The Canberra Commission, an important arms control and disarmament initiative established under the Keating government in 1995, was sidelined by the Howard government. And Australia’s energetic support for the UN’s principal climate change forum, the Conference of the Parties (COP), has dissipated in the past decade as Australia pursues expanded fossil fuel exports rather than reduced global emissions.
In a world facing serious climate, economic, security and health issues, Australia is no longer a serious player.
The G20 summit in Rome this weekend is a case in point. There is no sense of urgency, nor proactive agenda calling for substantive steps to restore equilibrium and stability to a world that is reeling as much from the economic impacts, as from the health impacts, of COVID-19. A quarter of the world leaders have failed to show up: Vladimir Putin has a lockdown in Moscow; Xi Jinping is managing China’s COVID problems; Fumio Kishida has an election; Andrés Manuel Lpez Obrador does not travel; and Jair Bolsonaro is battling to save his political skin.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Australia, aspiring to a leadership role in the Pacific and promoting strategically assertive initiatives such as AUKUS and the Quad in Asia, would have invested some serious diplomatic capital to keep the G20 at the centre of the world’s economic management. After all, its repositioning was a key achievement of Australian foreign policy, and it remains a powerful group where -unlike the G7 – Australia has a seat at the table.
You might also be forgiven for thinking that Australia would attempt to diversify its diplomacy somewhat, giving it a more confident, mature, nuanced and a less frantically militaristic character. But given the government’s intransigence on climate change – a failure that attracted notice and implicit rebuke from no less a journal than The New York Times – its reticence is understandable.
The Prime Minister’s on-again-off-again posturing on whether he would even attend the Glasgow COP is consistent with Australia’s indifferent approach to foreign policy that is focused on domestic politics instead of Australia’s place in the world. That we might have an image to restore and a reputation to recreate is hardly relevant when the main game has become holding together an unstable Coalition – by allowing the minor partner to shake down the government, and the nation, for frankly ridiculous concessions.
With its retreat into a neo-imperialist AUKUS partnership that does nothing to enhance regional or global stability, its continued neglect of its Pacific and South-east Asian neighbours as they battle the coronavirus, its proud rejection of an increased 2030 emission reduction target and its refusal to offer any leadership on tackling fossil fuels, Australia’s foreign policy malaise has only intensified.
In this context it is perhaps unsurprising that Scott Morrison fails to see the G20 meeting in Rome as an opportunity to make amends for its recalcitrance and assume Australia’s rightful place in the world’s principal economic summit.
Likewise, the latest COP. Rather than Glasgow being an opportunity for Australia to bolster its free trade negotiations with the UK and EU, the government’s position on climate change has been lead in our saddle bags. And rather than emission reduction targets bringing Australia closer with our Pacific neighbours, they have driven a wedge between us. Our failure in the Pacific is in the strategic interests of others.
When it comes to Glasgow COP26, it is even worse.
There is already concern that the climate conference will not live up to expectations. Now, thanks to the Prime Minister’s net zero “plan”, we know Australia is coming with no intention to wind back fossil fuels. In fact, it’s the opposite with massive new coal and gas expansions still being pursued. Australia risks being seen as the “Glasgow wrecker”. This would of course be a tragedy, not just for the globe but also Australia’s standing in the world.
Whether it is submarine contracts, refugee policy, climate policy, development assistance policy, or the inability to manage an economic relationship with its largest trading partner, Australia’s approach to foreign policy has shifted away from creative middle power diplomacy to creative accounting and never-ending reputation management.
In the past, Australia has not just cooperated well with other countries but helped to build forums within which to work with other countries and solve major global issues. But, just as the current government has failed to invest in aid and diplomacy, Australia has failed to invest in foreign policy capacity. Such failure causes some embarrassment in the short term, but in the long run the likely consequences are far greater.