top of page

Foreign Policy Is More Than Defence

Melissa Conley Tyler

There is an imbalance in the way Australia approaches its foreign policy today.

Defence spending1 is returning to levels last seen during the Cold War while funding for diplomacy2 is at a record low. Australia’s development aid3 is at the bottom of the pack.

International engagement often appears to be seen through the dominant lens of national security. It’s a high-water mark for bringing all aspects of life within a security view when activities like study abroad, artistic exchange, export bureaus and trade delegations are scrutinised as issues of national security.4

But focusing only on defence misses the potential of the other elements of statecraft to increase Australia’s influence in a contested world. No less a figure than hyper-realist Hans Morgenthau stated the precept that the armed forces are the instrument of foreign policy, not its master.5

In particular, the privileging of the security view does not play to Australia’s strengths.6 No matter what Australia spends, it is not going to have the largest or most powerful military in the region. But it is realistic to have the most effective diplomats promoting its interests and to be the most trusted development partner, showing off positive Australian traits like pragmatism and problem-solving. Australia needs to respect and resource all these elements of statecraft to increase its influence in a contested world.

For the ALP in particular, it is not desirable to allow foreign policy to be subsumed into national security. Figures within Labor are aware that national security is where the Coalition wants the debate to be. Kevin Rudd has called out what he sees as:

the current Australian Government’s... underlying political agenda which is to define themselves as hard line on China and the Australian Labor Party as soft line.... that the Liberal Party has your best interests at stake on China and the Labor Party are a pack of lefty, appeasing peaceniks.7

It is possible to offer a different approach to foreign policy. ALP governments8 are among those that have demonstrated the power of a positive international vision.

Evatt showed that Australia could be ambitious both in its region, with early support for Indonesia’s independence, and on the global stage through playing an active role in building cooperative international institutions.

Evans showed that Australia could redefine its place in the region and be ambitious in its vision. Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the Cambodia peace accords last month, Penny Wong reminded that:

The Paris Peace Agreements are among the greatest achievements of Australian foreign policy and serve as a reminder of the positive impact that energetic and focused diplomacy can have. The ambition of these Agreements was not limited to peace, but also democracy, inclusion, and respect for human rights for all Cambodians.9

When people attempt to define the ALP tradition in foreign policy10, it tends to include elements of good international citizenship and activism11 oriented towards a positive vision of international affairs. Chifley’s “light on the hill” was not just in Australia: he spoke of the moral duty to work for “the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand”.12

During her time as shadow foreign minister Tanya Plibersek explained this as follows:

There are differences between the progressive and the conservative traditions of foreign policy, and those differences matter. The key difference is foundational – Labor believes that good international citizenship is a critical driver to achieving a secure and prosperous Australia, while there is a tendency from the conservative parties towards isolation and insularity. We know that Australia will not be wealthier or safer if we only seek safety and wealth inside the walls of a fortress we build for ourselves... The principle of good international citizenship aligns with enduring Labor values of solidarity, fairness, equality, justice and inclusion. It allows us to articulate a coherent conceptual framework behind our foreign policy.13

This seems particularly relevant today when Australia needs to emerge from a period of COVID-19-induced isolationism, aptly described by Tim Soutphommasane as a Fortress Australia14 mentality.

A positive and ambitious foreign policy can tap into public sentiment that yearns for hope. The Lowy Poll has found that 82 percent of respondents thought “it will be best for the future of Australia if we take an active part in world affairs”.15

That’s not to say that defence isn’t part of foreign policy. It’s just not the only part and shouldn’t dominate debate. In the words of Kevin Rudd:

My appeal to the Australian Government would be, for God’s sake, the Australian Labor Party has led Australia during the First World War and the Second World War and the First Gulf War... we’ve been in the business of building up the nation’s military ... so let’s have a fair dinkum debate about the best way to prosecute our national interests given the real challenge that China represents and given therefore the sophisticated set of national security, foreign policy and international development assistance policy responses which that requires in the field.16

That is what Australians need: for Australia to use the three elements of statecraft – diplomacy and development as well as defence – to increase our influence and shape the kind of world in which we want to live.


Melissa Conley Tyler is Program Lead at the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue (AP4D), a new initiative bringing together individuals and organisations to reimagine Australia’s international relations. Melissa served for 13 years as National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and most recently was a Visiting Fellow at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research.


End notes


  2. before-and-its-influence-is-suffering-as-a-result/






  8. &q&f=false

  9. campaign=TheJuice&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter

  10. q&f=false




  14. p592lq.html




bottom of page