Australia has been significantly harmed by its inability to formulate an independent foreign policy and, there are numerous advantages that Australia is failing to capitalise upon due to its foreign policy relying heavily on historical alliances.
But, before I continue, what does it mean to be a middle power? A middle power refers to a nation that doesn’t have the status of an international superpower but still has a moderate ability to influence international relations. Examples of middle powers include Australia, Japan and South Korea. These nations don’t contain the same economic and power status as America, China and Russia, but cannot be considered a small power with a limited ability to influence external affairs.
Why is it essential to consider the role of middle powers? Well, the role of these nations in influencing international relations has been increasingly researched over the past few decades, highlighting the power that they contain when utilised effectively. This means acting independently, often contrary to the actions of the ‘superpowers; however, forming valuable coalitions which generate support and encourage positive radical change. Utilising the position of a middle power has enormous economic and political advantages for the respective nation; however, as illustrated below, Australia has failed to capitalise on the position.
Australia has never had an independent foreign policy due to the external great powers, whose pressure dictates the decision-making of Australian policymakers. This pressure doesn’t come from the great powers themselves; instead, from the constant belief that Australia relies upon these alliances to guarantee security. Australia’s commitment to the United States has been consistent and enjoys widespread support from the general public, limiting the capacity of policymakers within a democracy to exercise opposing policies to that of America. This is evident in the ANZUS agreement, which, although makes no explicit reference to joining each other’s military conflicts, was invoked by Australia to commit troops to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria from 2001. Furthermore, Australia’s critical relationship with China has been significantly influenced by America, with Australian confrontations regarding Chinese policy planned alongside American politicians. Australia has intentionally restricted its own capacity to create an independent foreign policy to maintain its strategic ‘alliance’ with the United States.
A common consequence of alliances is the presumption of military assistance in instances of inter-state conflict. Australia joined the United States in the most recent war, the conflict in Afghanistan, where 41 Australians died in operations, and many more will suffer the consequences of war, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Moreover, Australia spent almost $10 billion supporting military efforts in Afghanistan, with the nation arguably in a worse position than it was when the war started. Australia’s lack of independent foreign policy impedes its ability to reject obligations to join other nations in military conflicts, as the current approach of alliance commitment only furthers the presumption that Australia will follow America wherever they lead.
The increasing tensions in the Asia-Pacific, led by the great powers of America and China, is causing uncertainty regarding the possibility of future conflict between the two nations. Australia’s commitment to its alliance with America has involved refusing to negotiate with China and widespread criticism of the Chinese government. Australian exports are immensely reliant on China, and the breaking down of relations in the name of supporting America could have catastrophic consequences for Australia’s manufacturing and agricultural industries. This doesn’t consider the possible military impacts that could occur if Sino-American rivalry continues to rise, leaving Australia vulnerable to the military superiority of China.
The advantage of creating an independent foreign policy further illustrates how Australia is failing to capitalise on multilateral opportunities. Middle power theory argues that international policy-making is a game of skill rather than a game of power where states with the largest control will dictate the landscape of international politics. The theory demonstrates that middle powers have an immense ability to influence areas of debate by forming coalitions through multilateral agreements. When two great powers with opposing perspectives sit in an intense stalemate, an opportunity arises for middle powers to display creative diplomacy.
Australia highlighted this capability by creating the Cairns Group, an interest group of 20 agricultural exporting countries, improving market access and reducing export subsidies. However, subsequent conservative governments have halted the progression of Australia’s role as an active middle power, impeding Australia’s capacity to create coalitions in areas such as climate change and refugees. These two defining issues of the 21st century require multilateral cooperation to generate effective solutions. The negative perception of both areas, influenced by the great powers, has forced Australia to ignore both issues. Australia’s opportunity for leading change, especially relating to climate change, has significant economic advantages, workforce opportunities and provides Australia with greater influence over climate change concerns.
Australia has been significantly harmed by its inability to form an independent foreign policy due to its reliance upon strategic alliances which serve a limited purpose. Australia must deviate from its alliances and pursue an independent foreign policy if it seeks to reap the economic and political benefits that come with playing an active role within international relations.