It’s
a cliche of international relations that there are no such things as
allies, only interests. With the exception of the US Alliance, the
Howard Government has based its foreign policy thinking largely upon
this premise. It is obvious in policies as diverse as the drive for
Free Trade Agreements and the government’s disdain for the UN.

Howard’s
self-confessed “pragmatism” was forged in part in East Timor. The
success of the INTAFET mission in 1999 led him to believe that
Australia can act decisively in its neighbourhood, rather then rely
solely on traditional diplomatic levers available through multilateral
processes.

When the Solomon Islands teetered several years
later, Canberra again acted swiftly, seeking to prevent a “failed
state” within the new context of the “War on Terror”.

But
recurrent instability in Howard’s poster interventions of East Timor
and the Solomons shows the limits of this type of muscular pragmatism.
In essence, Howard’s pragmatic approach treats neighbouring instability
as a crisis or acute problem rather than a chronic, nation-building
challenge. We arrive, we stabilise, we leave.

A common
complaint among leaders of our Pacific neighbours is that they feel
alternately ignored or bullied by Canberra. Not all such comments can
be put down to disgruntled or threatened interests.

Why isn’t
Canberra working toward more constructive and deeper relationships with
our neighbours? While DIMA, our intelligence agencies and Defence have
all had major budget boosts, DFAT, our major arm of diplomacy, remains
shockingly under funded. We come and go as we please with programs of
offshore refugee processing. Even with recent boosts, the foreign aid
budget remains one of the lowest in the OECD. We dilly-dally over Timor
oil revenues. We have a booming economy with immense skills shortages,
yet refuse to open it to guest workers from neighbouring countries.

Even
accepting the frame of reference of pragmatism, serious questions
remain about our military’s capacity to handle so many deployments.

The
Howard Government needs to rethink its pragmatism. It’s time to plan
for the long term using strategic and enlightened self-interest. Not
just the current brand of crisis-management abroad.

Peter Fray

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