Inside Story

Is security trumping democracy?

Australia’s foreign policy is falling victim to domestic conflicts between conservatism and social democracy

Richard Robison and Garry Rodan 8 September 2023 1351 words

Unbridgeable gulf? Foreign affairs minister Penny Wong (right) and her opposition counterpart Simon Birmingham. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

After a period of neglect, Australia’s regional foreign policy appears to be taking a more ambitious turn. The Albanese government launched a parliamentary inquiry late last year examining how best to work with regional partners to promote democracy and good governance. And just last month foreign minister Penny Wong announced the wider engagement strategy summarised in Australia’s International Development Policy: For a Peaceful, Stable and Prosperous Indo-Pacific.

Crucially, these new approaches envisage Australia working with neighbouring governments on a range of challenges including climate change, global economic uncertainty, and the need to build “effective, accountable states that drive their own development.” These strategies aren’t straightforward: they will involve not only grappling with challenging political realities in Asia and the Pacific but also navigating the contending ideas and interests jostling to shape Australia’s foreign policy.

The late Alan Gyngell, one of Australia’s foremost foreign policy analysts, argued that Australia lacks the power or resources to shape politics in the region and must therefore focus on building partnerships with existing governments through statecraft and diplomacy.

Like the paper released last month, Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper argued that such partnerships can tackle a wide range of challenges, including the spread of “terrorism and extremist ideas” and “growing transnational challenges such as crime and people smuggling.” They can even enable “effective programmes to promote economic reform and inclusive growth, reduce poverty and address inequality.”

Partnerships with regional governments would focus on “shared values” and “enduring ties” — assumptions also found in the terms of reference for the current parliamentary inquiry. But it isn’t always easy to identify those common values. Experience in Southeast Asia shows how electoral democracy and pro-market governance can mask the reality of rule by highly illiberal and anti-democratic forces.

Does this matter? Not so much, it seems, when Australia’s foreign policy increasingly places a priority on security by supporting political leaders and governments seen to provide social order and political stability — governments that can act as a bulwark against China and contain insurgency and unrest within the region.

But can the two strategies — fostering security and fostering democracy — work together? Writing for the Lowy Institute, Kevin Casas-Zamora argues that democracy “is not separate from security — the first begets the second.” The United States Studies Centre’s Lavina Lee contends that policies promoting democracy, good governance and a more open Southeast Asia are important tools in protecting the region from the influence of autocratic regimes, notably China.

Australian foreign policy has taken a different route in recent years, drawing a sharp divide between its security goals and programs aimed at democratic and social reform. As former prime minister Tony Abbott famously declared in 2016, “moral posturing” was never allowed to threaten Australia’s security interests under his government. His comment reflects the cold war fear that democracy and social reform in developing societies open the door to social disorder and political instability.

Perhaps the central question, though, is whether strategies promoting democracy and civil society are possible while certain governments and allied elites remain entrenched? Governments themselves, and their apparatus of officials, politicians and security forces, are often the primary causes of repression and consequent unrest. Reformers can face pervasive systems of money politics and assaults on independent judiciaries and media or find their efforts blocked by purportedly democratic constitutions that use restrictive electoral laws to limit political competition. In some cases, they confront extra-legal and state-sponsored violence and, in the extreme, military coups.

Rather than being orthodox defence forces, these militaries were always vehicles for protecting powerful ruling interests against opponents and critics.

It should have come as no surprise when the militaries in Thailand and Myanmar overthrew democratically elected governments or when the military and security forces in Cambodia played the central role in consolidating a repressive one-party state in that country. Australian efforts to help bail out an inept Philippines military struggling to control a ragtag Islamist insurgency may also have simply helped prop up the creaking system of oligarchic politics that underlies a long history of exploitation and repression in that country.

Outside the mainstream, civil society organisations including farmers’ associations, workers’ unions and environmental movements face land grabbing by politically backed elites or illegal logging and deforestation by large mining and palm oil conglomerates. Like human rights groups, professional and business associations aligned with anti-corruption movements struggle to hold police or militaries to account for abuses of power.

Expectations that Australia can partner with countries to promote a “rules-based order” and good governance also collide with governments and elites in the region whose power and wealth is rooted in rent-seeking. This has been illustrated especially by sustained but often futile attempts to control endemic corruption. Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission, the KPK, is a striking example of how an effective and popular reformist institution can be undermined — in this case by vested interests in parliament and the police service.

Efforts to introduce reform through pro-market policies, including privatisation and deregulation, have similarly been co-opted by entrenched rent-seeking coalitions, turning public authority and resources into private monopolies and translating property rights into land grabbing. As in the dramatic case of Russia, market reform has enabled the rise of powerful political and business oligarchies in Southeast Asia.

Clearly, as Gyngell argued, there are limits to Australia’s capacity to reshape these factors within the region. Nevertheless, important opportunities exist to bolster reformist strategies by tackling deep problems of policymaking within Australia itself.

What would such a foreign policy entail?

To begin with, it would mean reinvesting in the authority and resources of a public sector overly reliant on consultants and outsourcing. This reliance has fatally compromised Australia’s understanding of how democracy or good governance are built, reducing officials to roles of accounting, processing and tendering work to private consultants and contractors.

It would mean replacing process-driven approaches that diminish the importance of analysing the environments in which development and other assistance programs operate. An important example is how “statecraft” — now conceived as a set of context-free tools — operates without recognition of the structures of power and wealth in the region.

It would also mean taking “soft power” seriously and harnessing it to support reformist forces in Southeast Asia. This involves leveraging the very liberal nature of what Australia can offer, including the appeal of our universities for regional students as distinctive sites of new ideas and ways of thinking about societies and their governance.

Identifying reforms is one thing, but implementing them is quite another, when foreign policy has become a proxy for deeper political and ideological conflicts in Australia. Rolling back the vast and pervasive influence of security-focused foreign policy–makers will be difficult given the breadth and power of their interests inside and outside the state, and their formidable lobbying networks.

With their emphasis on continuing threats and uncertainty, these policymakers and networks provide the basis for electoral appeals to nationalism and xenophobia by right-wing politicians and parties. This creates a powerful conservative political coalition. They also support a vast apparatus of defence and security institutions extending into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and universities. A large and well-funded think tank, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, projects their ideological claims.

Above all, it is difficult to find any cohesive force or set of ideas driving Australia’s promotion of democracy. It may indeed be simply another case of Australia mimicking the United States by following the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy announced by US secretary of state Antony Blinken in late 2021.

A successful program for promoting democracy and good governance must provide a case for how this will be in Australia’s national interest. Will the Labor government provide this reformist agenda? Can it arrive at a coherent engagement strategy that transcends the rhetoric of AUKUS and the American alliance, or will it revert to the position taken in the 2017 defence white paper and confirm that the old cold war thinking is again ascendant? Sadly, Labor in government seems to be embedding itself in a deepening subordinate relationship with the United States focused firmly on issues of security. •