Foreign policy that blindly follows the US isn't in our national interest

Australia has taken a stand on international issues in the past and can again with strong, independent leadership.

When Prime Minister Turnbull visits the Oval Office this week, he faces clear choices about the kind of foreign policy leadership he offers Australia. In an ideal world, our Prime Minister would be confident and forthright about Australian values and interests, supportive of the American approach where this aligns with our own, and critical where it doesn't. That's unlikely to happen.

If anything characterises Australian foreign policy today, it is silent complicity. We follow the US into wars that are devoid of strategy or a clear endgame, without explaining to Australians how sending troops overseas does anything to make anyone safer. In exchange for Sri Lanka's help to prevent people seeking asylum from leaving their shores, we give their secret police military equipment and actively undermine UN attempts to investigate human rights abuses and war crimes. On Hun Sen's Cambodian regime – which is violently undermining democracy by arresting and attacking Opposition parliamentarians – Australia is silent, in the hope that country will continue to resettle refugees from our offshore detention camps. When the courageous publishing organisation Wikileaks blew the whistle on war crimes and corruption, our government stood by meekly while US authorities attempted to destroy the organisation. Our so-called leaders talk about Australian values, but when it comes to practising that on the world stage, they fail us in the extreme.

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Australia hasn't always limited its global influence in this way. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Prime Minister Bob Hawke enabled 42,000 Chinese students to remain in safety in Australia, and was a vocal opponent to the "systematic repression of legitimate democratic aspirations" in China. As former Australian Ambassador to China Stephen FitzGerald has reflected, Gough Whitlam enraged Washington when he spoke out publicly against the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi, "but, like it or not, in the end America accepted his re-framing of relations."

In failing to pursue an independent foreign policy, we renounce our ambition to be a confident 21st century country and undermine our own national interests. By following the US into air strikes in Syria, we contribute further to destabilisation in a region torn apart by illegal invasion in 2003, and we make Australians less safe. We know this because the 2003 invasion of Iraq had the same effect, with intelligence organisations around the world confirming that this helped grow a new generation of radicalisation. Though the Prime Minister's reluctance to commit further troops in December 2015 may show a departure from the usual script – which would be very welcome indeed – we have to question why our troops are there in the first place. Why would we not be better served by a strategy to combat extremism with inclusion at home, while supporting global efforts to cut off financial and personnel support to Islamic State? Instead we've followed the US into yet another conflict, again with no clear strategic objective, and without pausing to question whether this is really in anyone's best interests.

Mr Turnbull and US President Barack Obama - pictured at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November - will ...
Mr Turnbull and US President Barack Obama - pictured at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November - will meet in the Oval Office on Tuesday, local time Photo: AP

The dogged pursuit of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement by the Abbott-Turnbull government is another case in point. Last week the World Bank released a report highlighting that the TPP trade deal will have a negligible impact on economic prosperity and employment. With the potentially catastrophic cost to Australia of investor-state dispute settlement provisions, which allow multinational corporations to sue our government over policies that impact on their profits, it becomes clear that this deal doesn't benefit Australians at all.

It doesn't have to be this way. A confident Australia – that respects international law, protects human rights, and advocates for our values – is possible. Australia's stand against the Japanese whaling industry is one example, where civil society and government came together with clarity and conviction. It's evident in Australia's successes at the United Nations Security Council under Foreign Ministers of various political stripes, including Julie Bishop's leadership of a key resolution regarding access to the crash site of MH17 and emergency aid to civilians caught in the Syrian Civil War. If we can bring the same tenacity that we did to these circumstances to our broader foreign policy, there will be enormous benefits for Australia, our region and the world.

We need a leader who recognises that Australia is a confident country, deserving of an independent foreign policy. It is within our power to use our relationships around the world to protect human rights and reduce inequality, and in the process create a safer and more stable world for everyone.  It's not going to happen if Turnbull is just another follower, content to hitch our wagon to the US, or remain silent on grievous human rights violations in our region.

Scott Ludlam is a Senator for Western Australia and Deputy Leader of the Australian Greens.


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