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.

10 thoughts on “Australia’s Middle Power Failure

  1. From my vantage point way over “here”….. you could add Canada to your middle powers list… and by comparison Australia is a better per capita earnings although similar in population. Look… Australia/New Zealand is unique because it’s essentially a “European” ancestral community in another hemisphere typically dominated largely by Asians (that’s a “nice” way of saying “it’s full of white people”). That has obviously spawned a lot of advantages across the board, from economic to strategic to cultural. But let’s consider one aspect to compare notes. How many products here in the States can we purchase that say “Made in Australia” yet there’s little problem finding, say, cars made in South Korea? Perhaps, much like we are becoming, you are more a consumer nation rather than a manufacturing/tech/research nation. On the other hand… you folks have done well with tourism… and a growing number of Americans and Europeans are emigrating there if for nothing else but leaving the rest of the world behind. Sort of implying Australia/New Zealand are out-of-the-way English speaking destinations.. a kind of new frontier in much the same fashion that brought people to early America. Now.. you could develop that further but that doesn’t quite get you sitting at the grown ups table on international muscle. I think what you are suggesting as a road to take on the world stage comes from the people themselves in establishing/re-vitalizing, whatever, a national goal that is good for Australians. It doesn’t necessarily mean a shift into a new nationalism… but more a willingness to be economically aggressive in attracting those industries in which you wish to develop some prowess. I mentioned cars earlier. Why is there not an Aussie car being marketed in the North American.. or even world market? Why are there not Aussie computer chips? It’s all simply a matter of setting national priorities. But that’s just me.

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    1. It’s great to hear from you Doug! You comments are always incredibly information and deeply challenge me, which I love!

      Australia is certainly a consumer nation in most areas nowadays. All of our car manufacturing has moved overseas, it’s only really agricultural products and minerals that we export, yet the levels are decreasing.

      I think finding a national goal would certainly be helpful, especially in relation to key issues such as climate change. I think it’s more about the way we conduct our international relations. We act as a puppet for America and very rarely act differently, even if it is more beneficial for us. It’s this belief that’s been built over time that we need America to survive, when in reality, that isn’t the case anymore. Allies are all well and good, but there is still an opportunity for Australia to maintain its relationship with America, while being a bit more courageous in establishing coalitions which can promote effective change (especially in situations where America and China are in deadlock).

      I think the issue for Australia manufacturers is that it’s not possible to create a product to market in America, as the costs would be enormous for Americans.

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      1. And that’s the point of your last paragraph. Being tied to the U.S. to the degree you have been also has raised your domestic standard of living to the point that you have a similar problem with labor and other manufacturing costs just as we do here, and Canada does.. Maybe exploiting agriculture is a key given in your neighborhood resides more or less in a myriad of Third World island nations. I personally think that one key to a more high profile Aussie influence in international affairs is to get more involved in containing China’s assertive influence in the region… exactly what you alluded to. But again… Aussies are perceived.. as are Canadians.. as being a more “docile” on international affairs. I compare with Canadians because your populations are similar.. your roots are British… and you have huge amounts of isolated land mass. Your existence is also more “recent” compared to European and Asian powers. The pulse of your nation has to come from a desire of your people to assert influence from an overall sense of a desire to do so. Maybe the historical coddling by America has made Aussies more complacent and making a national identity all the more difficult. Again.. Canada has the same problem… although a bit more, I think. Many American and Canadian families extend between our borders thus tending to dilute a national identity. Maybe you’re the one to bring forth a national movement for a greater Australian contribution on the world stage. 🙂

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      2. Hi Doug! There’s definitely potential. And, that’s what makes the current so difficult to understand. Agriculture is definitely huge and could be utilised more within the region. We have slowly started to stand up to China more which has resulted in extreme backlash most of the time by the media, and I’m undecided which approach Australia should take towards China. When we argue against China, I feel as if our motive is more in relation to appeasing America rather than focusing on our own interests. But, I also think as a middle power within the region, it’s vital that we hold China somewhat accountable. It’s a tricky one.

        I think you’ve touched on a fascinating point there. “The historical coddling by America has made Aussies more complacent and making a national identity difficult”. I couldn’t agree more. I think we’ve been influenced by so many external forces that we’ve never formed our own path and identity. And, I just want to clarify here than I’m speaking directly about Australia’s identity regarding international relations. I completely support Australia’s multi-cultural nature and believe it’s one of the things that makes Australia so unique. AND could actually help improving Australia’s international presence. However, with our current government (who look set to win the election next year), I feel like our complacent approach is unlikely to change anytime soon.

        I’d love to! In a world of superpower stalemates, there’s an opportunity for middle powers to take the lead in areas that require immediate support. Someone has to take initiative, and others will inevitably follow.

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      3. It might help to do what the Brits have done….. a cable network like BBC America that shows only Aussie programming. Not sure how the accent and slang might be received over here.. but Americans tend to like Aussies. 🙂 The idea being to make more of an in-your-face exposure to Australian life.

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      4. That could definitely work! I’m not sure if you have heard about an Australian TV Presenter called Rove Mcmanus? He was a bit before my time to be honest, but he had a successful Australia show and tried to take it to America but wasn’t successful in doing so. I wonder if the market is too saturated…

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    1. Thanks for sharing the article! It does a great job of summarising Australia’s relations with China over the past few months. Honestly, I just can’t understand what Australia is hoping to achieve through this rhetoric. I think factions of the Liberal Party (the very conservative factions) are becoming increasingly concerned with China’s control on Australia, and are forcing Scott Morrison into this harsh agenda. Still, I just don’t see what the end goal is, AND how it would be better than what’s happening now, if a conflict would be to come.

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