Australia’s Incongruent National Identity – Sadbh O’Reilly, Ireland/Australia/Singapore


In recent Australian foreign policy history, Australia’s attitudes to relations with countries have been bifurcated into two streams. In his book “The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order”, Samuel P. Huntington defined Australia as a “torn nation”, a “nation whose people agree on who they are but disagree on which civilisation is properly theirs” (Huntington 1996, 138), i.e. the historical significance of the Anglosphere, or the geographical proximity of its Asian neighbours. I will attempt to expound on each of these streams by tracing back to their origins and subsequently determine which may be the most beneficial to the future of Australia.

“The Old Boys”

The first stream is characterised by the retention of loyalty towards historical alliances, most prominently the UK and the USA (also known as the ‘Anglosphere’). Australia and the US have enjoyed a long-standing security alliance, under the ANZUS Treaty of 1951, which ensures US hegemony within the Pacific region, and locates joint military exercises and defence facilities in Australia. Curiously, it has been the Liberal Party in Australia that has been closely associated with a pro-US relations stance, with Prime Ministers John Howard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull known for embodying this attitude. However, the origins of this stream stem from foreign policy steeped in xenophobic attitudes. One of the motives behind the creation of the ANZUS Treaty was regarding further Japanese expansionism after World War Two (Office of the Historian).

In my opinion, this approach is ultimately detrimental to Australia’s ability to determine the best foreign policy for itself and execute diplomacy that promotes its national interests, particularly within the region. When a state is compelled to adhere to the restrictions projected upon it by a greater power, it will find itself inevitably constrained. Subsequently, when its ‘foreign policy [is] locked into a predetermined pattern’ (Beeson, 2010), it will be unable to fulfil its potential national interest to the fullest capacity, and may be forced to allocate resources to a cause that may not directly advance its national interest, for example, the presence of US bases within Australia and the support for Israel and her nuclear capabilities.

Although the mere presence of an alliance is enough to force the diplomatic hand of any nation, Australia has, on several occasions, chosen to align itself with the US in instances where the US allies, such as Canada and Britain, have not (Langmore, 2005, 71). Australia’s commitment of troops to the 2003 invasion of Iraq was not shared by Canada, and was branded as ‘puzzling’. As Owen Harries has noted, Australia has become “nothing more than a short-sighted bilateral affiliate of an American hegemon that is guilty of imperial overstretch” (Harries, 2007). Howard echoed this when he declared Australia as “America’s deputy sheriff within the region”, a statement that was met with hostility, particularly from Indonesia whom may prove to be a strategic ally (Fickling, 2004). Without autonomy over its own foreign policy, Australia may be regarded as an extension of the US’s foreign policy, a position that may not garner favour with other nations in the Asia-Pacific region.

Secondly, this stream of foreign policy suggests that Australia exhibits a lack of faith in multilateralism, with the Howard government regarding international institutions like the United Nations (UN) as a remnant of a bygone era. Howard’s apathy towards the UN was evidenced by the lack of Australian representatives present at several conferences, such as at the June 2000 General Assembly session on social development held in Geneva, as well as a meeting on ‘Action Against Hunger and Poverty’ by the UN in September 2004

(Langmore, 2005).

The “Labour Tradition”

Those who embrace multilateralism tend to support international organisations that seek to provide a platform for discussion and negotiations. Also known as the “Labour Tradition”, the second stream of Australian foreign policy comprises of the following core elements; nationalism, internationalism and activism, with emphasis on multilateral cooperation (Patience, 2014). Typically, these comprised of Labour Party-incline candidates such as Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Former PM Kevin Rudd declared that “interdependence is the new realism of the 21st century”. Former Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in particular pushed for a ‘relocation’ of Australia to Asia to not only mirror the intensified trade relations within the region but to also review Australia’s national identity. Keating encouraged clearing “the warm fog of sentimentality that swirls around the relationship between the US and Australia”, while Hawke echoed this sentiment, stating that “Australia’s capacity to survive in the years ahead… will depend upon the preparedness of this country to enmesh itself with the dynamism of our region, the Asia-Pacific region” (Patience, 2014).

The legacy of World War Two promoted a recalculation of the importance of the region that Australia inhabits, namely the Asia-Pacific region, not only in terms of security but also economic prosperity (Patience, 2014). Australia holds a unique position in which it has cultural ties with the West, but also sits adjacent to the world’s fastest growing economic region. Australia would not do poorly to embrace the importance and advantages that its strategic geographic and political position offers (Beeson and HIggott, 2014).

However, I must acknowledge the disadvantages of a more independent path for Australia. Samuel P. Huntington noted that this approach favoured economic prosperity over traditional cultural ties, but was sceptical of Australia’s success of integrating into a region too dissimilar to itself (Huntington 1996, 153). Clashes over culture, values, character and style, and most importantly, Australia’s acquiesce to the Asian norm make up a few of the barriers to Australia’s assimilation into the Asian economic and cultural psyche.

The Dilemma

While both streams have advantages and disadvantages, it is the lack of stable foreign policy that significantly hinders Australia’s diplomatic relations with other nations.

During her time as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard commissioned the release of the Asian Century White Paper to understand how Australia can capitalise on Asia’s rising prominence. She advocated for the reformation of the education system to include Asia-focused modules, vocational training and trade relations. However, such Asian-inclined policy aspirations have not come to fruition, as since the transition to the Abbott and Turnbull administrations, Australian foreign policy has indicated no further shift in attitudes and priorities towards reform with neighbourly diplomacy. In fact, in contrast to the Gillard approach, the 2016 Defence White Paper, commissioned by Malcolm Turnbull, has identified China as a potential source of instability within the Pacific Region, calling for China to be ‘more transparent in their policy’.

As Australia continues to develop relations with important powers in a dynamic and ever-progressing realm of international relations, Australia faces the issue of maintaining historical alliances against supporting economic ventures (Lowy Institute for International Policy). As tensions regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea heighten, a peaceful resolution through diplomatic means would be the ideal result for the maintenance of both relationships for Australia. However, should tensions continue to escalate, Australia has been a presented a unique opportunity to reassess the commitment to both relationships.

Engaging with Current Affairs

While former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, welcomed peaceful negotiations with China, the US was considering employing a secondary and simultaneous policy of ‘containment’ of China’s growing influence in the region. This included the use of more naval facilities in the Philippines, Singapore and potentially Vietnam, more use of air force facilities, surveillance and communications facilities and military exercising in Australia and strategic discussions with India. President Trump’s candidate for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, affirmed that “[America is] going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands is not going to be allowed” (cited in Horn, 2017).

The “Pivot to Asia” policy, shifting US foreign policy from the Middle East region to Asia, has been earmarked as part of the ‘containment’ policy, a sentiment echoed by Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (Rudd, 2013). After the disastrous efforts in the Middle East, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on-going tensions with Iran, unresolved historical disputes between Israel and Palestine, Australia should seriously reconsider its position as ‘sheriff’ in the Pacific region, previously dubbed as the US’s “backyard”, to determine for itself what causes to involve itself in that is aligned with Australia’s immediate concerns (Fraser, 2012)


China’s claim over the South China Sea, also known as the “9-dashed-line”, source: The economist

As tensions rise between the US and China, the possibility of a trade war or even armed conflict may increase, as comments between both State Leaders grow increasingly threatening. An international court in The Hague has decreed that China has no historical claim over the waters and islands within its 9-dashed line in the South China Sea, with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop warning that “to ignore it would be a serious international transgression” and that “Australia will continue to exercise our international law rights to Freedom of Navigation and overflight, and support the right of others to do so” (Henderson, 2016). ANU Professor of International Law, Donald Rothwel,l has warned that China’s noncompliance to the ruling may draw Australia into the conflict. Before embarking on any military operation, Australia must consider the economic repercussions a conflict involving China would entail. As 35% of Australian exports go to China, any conflict between Australia and China would halt trade relations and the impact on our economy could be severe and quick. If Australia were to put their economic needs over their strategic alliances by choosing not to come to the aid of the US, the terms of the ANZUS Treaty would not be honoured and it could signal the end of the enduring alliance (Blackwell, 2017).

The most optimal outcome for Australia is to promote peaceful and diplomatic negotiations to preserve both its historical alliance, and thus protection within the Pacific region, with the US and with the economic opportunities China generates.

An insecure foreign policy is inherently detrimental to Australia’s standing within the region and ultimately the realm of international affairs, as other states may find it unsettling to ally with a nation unsure of itself.  To restore the favourable “honest broker” reputation Australia earned before the Howard administration, Australia must begin detaching itself from its tightly intertwined foreign policy with the United States and appreciate the potential that multilateral fora can afford (Langmore, 2005). I advocate for a more independent foreign policy so that Australia can realise her full potential and champion for issues pertaining to her national interest, which she has cultivated for herself.




3 responses to “Australia’s Incongruent National Identity – Sadbh O’Reilly, Ireland/Australia/Singapore

  1. I agree with your comments wholeheartedly Sadbh. Australia needs a more defined position in the region. Also, your style of writing is very eloquent.


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