Australia’s Foreign Policy

Address to
Final Year School Students of International Relations,
on 11 October 2002

By Des Moore

Director, Institute for Private Enterprise
and Councillor, Australian Strategic Policy Institute*

* The views expressed herein are the personal views of the author


My first "public" involvement in foreign policy issues was in my final year of school when I participated in a debate on the United States decision to end the Second World War by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945. The debaters drew heavily on our prescribed text book, called The Atomic Challenge and written by philosopher Bertrand Russell who was opposed to war and naturally critical of the US action if only because he saw the potential for future misuse of such a weapon.

I took the US side in the debate because I felt that, even though the bombs had killed many thousands of innocent Japanese civilians, the US was justified in taking drastic action to stop the casualties that the military forces of the Allies, including Australia, were continuing to suffer — and would have suffered much more if an invasion had been necessary. Indeed, even though Germany had surrendered in May 1945, the Japanese were still continuing to use 5 million soldiers after that date to try to retain their territorial conquests in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Earlier in World War

11, Australia would almost certainly have been occupied if the US had not intervened. And it is sometimes forgotten that the second bomb was dropped only because the despotic leaders of Japan refused to surrender after the first and continued to tell their citizens that the Japanese nation could not be defeated.

Today Japan is a peaceful nation with no apparent territorial or imperialist objectives. But we now face another very serious challenge that has some similarities to the one posed by the Japanese fascists fifty or so years ago. Yesterday the New Zealand Justice Minister told his country’s Parliament "international terrorism is the greatest contemporary threat to international security and peace".

This challenge takes two main forms.

The most obvious is from the loosely affiliated Al Qaeda group of international terrorists who have been identified in 60 countries, including Australia. They have an extremist interpretation of the Muslim religion that claims Western civilization, particularly as represented by the United States, is immoral and needs to be destroyed. US President George Bush told Congress in September 2001 that these terrorists aim to "kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans and make no distinctions among military and civilians, including women and children".

The fanaticism of this group was illustrated by their use of suicide planes to destroy the World Trade center towers, a similar approach to the World War 11 fanaticism of the Japanese leaders who had 5000 Kamikaze suicide planes and pilots on stand by at the time they were forced to surrender in 1945. But the fanaticism of Al Qaeda is also reflected in their preparedness to plan and wait their opportunity to destroy. For example, the 2001 destruction of the twin towers was the second attempt, the first being 8 years earlier. As UK Prime Minister Blair warned last year’s Labour Party conference, "there is

no compromise with these people, no meeting of minds, no point of understanding with such terror. Just a choice: defeat or be defeated by it. And defeat it we must."

Unlike Germany and Japan in World War 11, this radical terrorist group has no apparent territorial objective and it has no significant military power in the conventional form of armies and navies. But the fact that its objective is wanton destruction makes it almost a more serious threat to Western countries once account is taken of the growing potential for it to obtain weapons, including nuclear weapons, that can inflict massive damage and loss of life. The fact that this group is not easily deterred by the possibility that its members will be killed in action just emphasizes its fanaticism.

The other part of the present challenge comes from a small group of nations that is similarly opposed to Western civilization and is already actively acquiring weapons of mass destruction, along with other advanced military technology. These nations, which have become known as rogue states, have despotic rulers who are prepared to use their weapons to achieve territorial and other objectives, to trade in such weapons and to sponsor terrorism. They are also ruthless users of force to control and subjugate their own people. Deterrence based only upon the threat of retaliation is also less likely to work against leaders of rogue states more willing to take risks and to gamble with the lives of their people.

What conclusion can we draw from these developments? In my view, the combination of a new terrorism based on destruction objectives and the increased accessibility to weapons of mass destruction has fundamentally changed international relationships. We can no longer rely on the threat of retaliation that was successfully used in the Cold War to deter the Soviet Union from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. Nor can we predict with any certainty what destructive action might be attempted and when. The twin towers episode clearly shows that ordinary civilians are very much at risk, and there is evidence to suggest that Australia was on the Al Qaeda target list.

In these circumstances there are very high risks in waiting for something to happen and then trying to respond. The risk of inaction is high. The better alternative is to take action be try to eliminate major terrorist groups with destructive objectives. This may require military action against states that are allowing terrorist groups to operate within their borders and/or who are providing assistance to such groups. States with access to weapons of mass destruction and that are pursuing expansionist policies, may also need to be subject to pre-emptive action and it may be much too rsiky to wait for the

United Nations to approve such action.

The intervention in Afghanistan by the US and other countries reflected a judgment by the US that it could not risk delaying military action against an extremist Taliban regime that was supporting Al Qaeda terrorists. Although there were critics of that decision, it has so far turned out to have been successful and most of the Afghan people have welcomed the action. Australia strongly supported the US in responding to this new terrorism. We did that not because it constituted an immediate threat to us but because the threat to Western civilization was a major threat to our security and our values more generally.

We now have debate about whether the Saddam regime in Iraq should be allowed to continue. The risks of doing so are high. Even if, after eleven years of failure, the UN now became able to conduct effective inspections of weapons of mass destruction and to ensure their destruction, that would still leave Saddam with conventional weapons and would allow him to develop WMDs after the UN left. Moreover, allowing Saddam to continue would mean turning a blind eye to his genocidal and criminal behaviour. Saddam is more of a criminal than Milosevic, whose regime was bombed for 71 days and who is now being prosecuted as war criminal. It seems difficult to justify letting Saddam avoid such treatment.

What are some of the other factors that should be considered in deciding what to do about Saddam?

First, leaving Saddam in power would risk a revival of his ambitions to try to control the whole Arabian region, including through military attack. He would put pressure on other Arab regimes, and particularly Palestine, not to reach an accord with Israel because he does not accept the survival of that country, whatever its borders. In these circumstances Israel would become more vulnerable and it could well feel impelled to start a preemptive war.

The Israeli position cannot simply be put aside. It is a UN member, a democracy, and it is recognised and accepted by the overwhelming majority of states. It would be morally and strategically wrong to allow a situation to develop that would effectively be conniving in its demise.

An Arab world controlled by a despotic Saddam regime in Iraq would also mean a hostile state controlling most of the world’s oil. That would have potentially serious adverse consequences for all Western countries, including Australia.

Second, just as the attack on the Taliban regime led to the killing of some innocent civilians so would an attack on the Saddam regime. But the removal of that regime would greatly reduce the risk of loss of life outside Iraq, either from direct attack or from the sponsorship of terrorist groups.

Third, if Saddam is left in power that would encourage other despotic leaders to add to their military power, including by obtaining their own weapons of mass destruction or adding to those they already have. They might well conclude that, as democracy is not being seriously defended, a build up of military power would allow them to influence or even overcome neighbours and others, as well as help preserve their own dictatorial regime.

Fourth, contrary to some perceptions, there is no serious risk that action by the US would be part of an attempt to establish itself as an imperial power. That country does not have territorial ambitions and its object in changing the Iraqi regime would be to reduce the risk of destructive action by evil-doers with WMDs and by the new international terrorist group. The US would be acting in defence of Western civilization generally and democracy and other values that Australia supports.

Fifth, what if the US takes action without the specific approval of the UN Security Council? Obviously such action would have unfriendly consequences in some quarters. But there are numerous precedents for acting without SC approval when this has been judged in the interests of a more stable world. The SC does not consist of morally superior, wise and independent judges, high-mindedly applying widely accepted general principles. Its 15 members make decisions in their own interests and they include democracies and autocracies, some of whom share the anti-Americanism of Saddam and the Al Qaeda terrorists.

Finally, should Australia involve itself in issues occurring outside our own region?

What happens on the other side of the world from Australia can be -- and has been in the past -- of far greater importance for Australia's security than what happens right next door. Germany (twice) and the USSR in one century are evidence enough of that. The central priority of our foreign policy should be our national interest and, in particular, the values we regard as of fundamental importance to that interest, such as democracy, the rule of law, freedom of choice, and property rights. It is therefore in our interests to offer military and moral support to the US in any Iraqi action.

Of course, Asia is important to us - and there is potential for serious problems to emerge in changed conditions: but that does not justify the "Asia-first" approach that Foreign Minister Downer has suggested, let alone the Asia-dominant approach that Labor sometimes seems to adopt. Apart from the now serious terrorist problem, substantive threats to Australian security from Asian countries also appear limited if judged by the intent of those countries, most of which have to handle their own quite serious internal problems.

Moreover, although Asia is closer than most of our "traditional" partners, we should not allow closeness to dominate our policies. In any event, there is sufficient distance between ourselves and our neighbours to provide something of a protective asset.

It certainly facilitates border control and means that any serious military attack would be a major undertaking requiring considerable defence capacity. Some forget that Jakarta -our nearest Asian capital — is about as far way from Canberra as Kabul is from London, while Peking — the Asian capital most distant from us — is actually further from Canberra than it is from Dublin.

The most important policy issue is not our regional relations but the need to recognise that the new international terrorism has fundamentally changed international relationships and the rules of international law that have supposedly applied to those relationships. Our policies need to support outside intervention in states that harbour major terrorist groups with destructive international objectives unless those states take effective counter action to get rid of such terrorists. States with access to weapons of mass destruction and that are pursuing expansionist policies should be similarly subject to outside intervention.

Finally, we should not try to hide that we are living in increasingly dangerous times. It may not be feasible in these circumstances for intervention in other states to wait for a decision-making process in the United Nations. That organization cannot be relied upon to ensure peace in our time, let alone the preservation of the civilization that has been so important to our freedom and prosperity.