National Interest before good relations

Critics of foreign policy are informed by a load of shibboleths, writes Des Moore

Australian Financial Review 21 January 2004

Those intent on vilifying John Howard personally and his government generally - including, but not only the Labor Party -have several shibboleths which distinguish them from those with less warped judgment and shifting standards.

One is a belief that the test, the mark, of an independent Australian foreign policy is that it not involve support for the USA.

That belief was most recently evident over the war with Iraq. Now it is being displayed over national and theatre missile defence - whether Australia should co-operate with the USA in developing further and eventually acquiring the capability to destroy incoming enemy missiles.

The Australian Government's positive attitude on this is being criticised here on various grounds, including that China and Indonesia want us not to proceed down this line.

That ground amounts to urging that, because of those countries' (assumed) attitude, Australia should deliberately keep itself vulnerable to rogue missiles instead of seizing the opportunity to defend ourselves against them.

That is also to say that Australia should be driven not by a cool assessment of our own national interest but by the dictates of others.

How independent in its policy-making does that make Australia? And what sort of international push-over, to buckle at the knees for fear of offending another?

Australia was not intimidated by the USA into taking an interest in missile defence but given an opportunity to take or leave as we wished.

Responding positively to an offer is proof of lack of independence, whereas responding timorously to opposition is not? May the Lord spare us, for we are evidently incapable of looking after ourselves.

A second shibboleth of those from whom we need saving is the belief that the establishment and deepening of "good relations" with others should be the objective and decider of our foreign policies.

But that belief - beloved of ex-diplomats, particularly ex-ambassadors who like to keep in the public eye - is wholly misguided.

For policy should be driven by the national interest, not by a fatuous wish for a quiet life. And in any case, genuinely good relations are to be had not as the result of smarming up to others but only as the unlooked-for but happy by-product of congruent national interests.

No gain is to be had from antagonising others needlessly or carelessly by our policies. But loss is all too certainly to be had by making "good relations", instead of the national interest, the objective and decider of policy.

Close cousin to the overwhelming hankering for good relations is the shibboleth of the need for agreement and the related necessity for compromise.

True, reaching agreement will often be the desirable objective in international affairs; and to get it, compromise will often be necessary.

But too often do too many - foreign affairs types especially, inside and outside Canberra - place reaching agreement too high; too often, too readily and too far do they compromise to gain their meretricious end.

For the interests of reaching agreement, especially any old agreement, of not having a row, of preserving at all costs good relations, weigh as nothing against the necessities of the national interest.

Then there is the shibboleth of the overriding importance of seeing the other person^(1)s point of view, even to the extent of coming to share it.

This too is useful if taken in moderation. But too often do too many - again, foreign affairs people especially - forget their own point of view in their eagerness to understand and give weight to the other fellow's point of view, and in their readiness to wind up coming to share it.

How wise the Foreign Minister who, when farewelling an ambassador en route to his somewhat obscure post abroad, led him to a globe, asked him to put his finger on his country, and then took his finger off Lower Slobbovia and put it firmly on Australia.