There is a handbook on how Australia can maximise its power in geo-politics. A well-researched, well-documented political theory of how to use what we have to achieve outcomes in our best interests, and in the interests of global order. It’s called middle power diplomacy and Tony Abbott just fucked it up.
Which isn’t surprising. However, let’s try to understand why this happened, and dream about how good it could be.
Middle Power As Nerds
Middle powers are the nerds of the international community. We’re not meant to be strong, but we’re not weak either, especially when we have our friends. We like rules, both creating them and getting like-minded countries to enforce them. We also like being good international citizens, because as the good guy, we can lead.
But Tony’s A Bully
But of course Tony Abbott isn’t a nerd, he’s got the personality of a bully in this school-ground analogy. The Abbott approach to foreign policy is fake it til you make it; act like a major power and hope no one calls your bluff. But that didn’t take long.
The posturing with Russia—from saying he’ll ban Russia’s Vladimir Putin from the G20, to stern talks, to the now immortal policy of ‘shirtfronting’—has ended with Australia literally cuddling up to Russia with a koala.
Abbott Achieves Little
These Abbott antics came to little because Australia isn’t a major power. Despite Julie Bishop trying, Australia couldn’t unilaterally ban Russia from the G20. And shirtfronting turned into a brief, 15 minutes with the Russian despot. Abbott’s style didn’t reflect Australia’s circumstance, and so embarrassment from the mismatch was inevitable.
The Abbott doctrine has been summed up as: the world is facing challenges to global order (Ukraine, South China Sea, Iraq), and it’s our job to hold fast and stare down the perpetrators (Michael Wesley, Professor of National Security, Australian National University). But of course it’s less black and white than order simply unravelling, and staring down those countries rather than engaging them isn’t helping nor is it appropriate for a middle power.
A Chance to Make a Difference
We’re rightly surprised at Abbott’s ‘weird and graceless’ remarks as he opened the G20 leader’s retreat, but what’s worse is the error of omission; the lost opportunity. Imagine it: you have the top 19 countries in the world listening to you in one room. If these people agree on the slightest change, millions would be instantly impacted.
But an egotistical person would only notice that important people were paying attention to him, and so he must remind them that, somehow, his ungrateful subjects aren’t doing what he wants. To understand Abbott, think less like an adult.
Conservatives Aren’t Multilateral Thinkers
Not that we were expecting him to talk climate change or the need for inclusive economic growth, but he didn’t seek to inspire about any issue. And there’s a reason for that. Multilateral institutions are the obsession of middle power minded people, which Abbott and conservatives generally aren’t.
Alexander Downer was quoted as saying, “My predecessor Gareth Evans talked about Australia as a ‘middle power’ and Labor seems to have a middle child complex when it comes to our place in the world. We are not ‘middling’ or ‘average’ or ‘insignificant’…we are a considerable power and a significant country.”
Hard Power Was So Last Century
Conservatives are interested in hard power solutions: boots on the ground in Iraq, boots on the ground in the Ukraine, boats on the water anywhere. But soft power institutions like the G20, awkwardly for Tories, get a whole lot done. Like last year’s summit deciding to, basically, create an alternate International Monetary Fund with a spare $100 billion.
In the lead up to this years’ summit, we had the US-China deal on climate change, while the communique from the actual summit has been impressive. It makes a commitment to economic growth that will be independently monitored, improving employment for women, and yes, more commitment to climate change.
Middle Powers As Good International Citizens
Labor’s former foreign minister, Gareth Evans, describes middle power diplomacy well. He says it’s the tool of countries who, rather than impose policy, use their capacity and credibility to build international policy. This happens through creating coalitions of like-minded countries, and it’s broader than just ‘coalitions of whiteys’ (i.e. the Anglosphere). It happens through ‘niche diplomacy’, where we focus our resources on what can be done, rather than doing a bit of everything poorly. But ultimately, it’s about leading through example, as Evans says, ‘being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen’.
Being a good international citizen is foremost a practical benefit. Because what credibility do you have if you’re short-term and self-interested in the international arena? America’s credibility is often questioned because of their transparently self-interested actions. From the street to the ambassador, people do actually care for, and notice, consistency between actions and purported principles.
Style Over Substantive Action
Basically, conservatives don’t think this ‘middle power business’ sounds flashy enough. They’re the Hyacinth Buckets of diplomats: let’s say we’re a major power and achieve little, rather than accept that we’re not and achieve much.
For a country instrumental in the United Nations, central to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and all-round upholders of international order—achieved not through a gunship but through guarantees—there’s no need for any cultural cringe.