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Labor & the world

On guiding principles

Mark Latham

Australians are entitled to know how a party seeking to govern this country will protect Australia's security and advance the country's interests. This is the central responsibility of any Australian government. It is the foundation of our capacity to create the sort of society we want. Today, I want to describe to you the way in which the Labor Party looks at the world, at the fundamentals of our approach. In some areas of international policy we agree with the government. In others we strongly disagree. These differences revolve less around any dispute about what is happening in the world than about what Australia can, and should, do about it.

The world which the next Labor government will confront is very different from the world the last Labor government faced. The Cold War which shaped so much of the history of the second half of the 20th Century - and of the Labor Party itself - is over. The West won the conflict, something for which we should always be grateful. In the end, effective statecraft and a large element of luck freed us from the awful pressure of a world dependent on a balance of terror, in which a slight miscalculation could have destroyed human life itself.

We have entered this new century with a single strategic and political superpower, the United States. Now, alone among the nation states, it has the capacity to project and deploy military power anywhere in the world. It has assumed the ultimate responsibility: global leadership for the purpose of global co-operation and security. We all have a huge interest in this responsibility being met. Meanwhile, another equally important force is transforming the world. Economic globalisation - open trade and financial flows made possible by the great technological revolution in communications. Globalisation is making the world more interdependent. It is blurring the traditional distinctions between domestic and foreign policy. By bringing into the world economy vast new areas of humanity, globalisation is generating new and important opportunities for Australia and many parts of the developing world.

So now, with the Cold War over and globalisation advancing, we have a global strategic environment dominated by one powerful country while, on the economic front, we have a quite different sort of world - an increasingly interdependent and multipolar one. This has created two power gaps globally. The first: the gap between the world's sole superpower and the group of prosperous economic states that rely heavily on the effective stewardship of American economic and foreign policy. The second gap is a prosperity gap: the growing inequality between developed and developing nations. This is where we need to see globalisation as an opportunity, rather than a threat. Opening up the world's trading and investment channels so that all continents and all citizens may benefit from the power of economic integration.

As a developed economy and medium sized power, Australia has a role to play in bridging these two gaps. We should always be proactive, always ambitious for what Australian foreign policy can achieve. Through the anticipation of change and the skilful shaping of it, we can step up through the weight divisions of international diplomacy. This has always been the Labor way: ambitious for Australia and our contribution to the world.In my speech to the Labor Party conference earlier this year, I said that Labor's foreign policy is based on three pillars - support for the United Nations and multilateral institutions, our alliance with the United States and our engagement with Asia. Let me begin with relations with our major ally.

The American alliance

The alliance relationship between Australia and the United States was first forged under John Curtin and Labor. It continued to grow and expand under later Labor governments - and under US administrations as politically different as those of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Labor believes in the value of the alliance not only to Australia and to the United States, but to the international community as a whole. We believe, however, that Australia has a role to play that is more than simply one of nodding agreement. We see ourselves as an equal partner.

This is how we successfully managed the relationship in the past and how we should manage it in future. The United States is a great and robust democracy. The country was founded on the revolutionary conviction that its strength depends upon the free expression of contending ideas. At any time, a wide variety of views are expressed within its political debate. Often sharper views than those which are the currency of Australian politics. We understand this in Australia. The alliance is weakened unless each side expresses its convictions clearly and contributes ideas and energy to the common cause. Vitality in the relationship is, in fact, the lifeblood of it. This is a point of departure in Australian foreign policy.

The conservatives have always positioned the American alliance as some sort of insurance policy, the premium for which is paid through Australian military commitments. This is how Australia got into Vietnam and now, the same in Iraq. Following the United States to buy insurance, rather than for reasons of policy. In Vietnam, against the 'downward thrust' of Asian communism. In Iraq, as a deputy sheriff. Labor has a different view of the Australian-American alliance. We believe in Australia's strength and sovereignty, building up our self-reliance within the terms of the alliance. This means directing our military capabilities primarily to the defence of Australia, its territories and national interests, rather than to expeditionary forces overseas. It means running a sovereign foreign policy - always, Australia first.

And in the war against terror, it means strengthening the homefront: a department of homeland security, an Australian coastguard, improved port and airport security and upgrading domestic intelligence. Every dollar Australia spends on adventurism overseas, such as the conflict in Iraq, is a dollar that cannot be committed to the Australian homefront.

Labor believes in an equal partnership with the United States. As a smaller and less powerful nation, we need to bring other qualities to the table, uniquely Australian qualities that strengthen our side of the relationship. There are three elements to this approach.

The importance of the intelligence relationship, based on the joint management and control of facilities in Australia. In the war against terror, the intelligence relationship has become the most important aspect of the Alliance. During the Cold War, the challenge was to deal with the Soviet Union. The task now is more complex: to identify and deal with a wide range of individuals and other targets of interest. This can not be achieved on a global scale without a strategic Australian contribution.

Australia's unique role in Asia - a Western nation inside Asia, with the potential to open up new markets and build regional co-operation. This can be a real asset for the United States, as it was in the relationship between the Keating and Clinton Administrations in the 1990s. The United States assigns a higher value to an alliance partner that is competent rather than compliant.

The strength of Australian personnel and policy. This was a feature of the Hawke and Keating years - the respect for Australia that our prime ministers, foreign ministers and defence ministers generated in Washington. Not as Deputy Sheriffs, not as insurance holders, but as equals, as genuine partners at the negotiating table. This is what I expect from the next Labor government - Australian self-reliance and self-respect within the terms of the American alliance.

Asian engagement

The next pillar of Labor's foreign policy is our relationship with the region: with Asia and the countries of the South Pacific. At the core of this policy is a core Labor idea, developed during our last term in government: Australia must find its security in Asia and not from Asia. This means a strong and active engagement with the countries of the region. Not window dressing or rote recitals of intentions, but wholehearted engagement. It means the policy cannot simply be about looking wistfully to a strategic guarantor, no matter how close or sympathetic that supposed guarantor may be. Australia followed that policy between the two world wars and we nearly paid the ultimate price for it in 1942. History demands that we learn the lesson. We cannot procure our security from Asia and we should not try. Our continent is not some kind of moveable raft which we can shift at our strategic pleasure. We need to grow our relationship with the region and the United States concurrently.

There is no doubt that since 1996, when Labor was last in office, the landscape has changed. The 1997 financial crisis was a major shake-out of the global economy and a severe blow to many Asian countries. It particularly hit the countries closest to Australia in Southeast Asia, Indonesia hardest of all. But the economic reconstructions brought with them political change. The region is now more democratic than ever and better for it. We are dealing now, not with highly centralised and highly personalised governments of the kind our predecessors were obliged to deal, but with more independent parliaments and a freer media. Indeed, a more decentralised politics. This requires us to make a much broader and more sustained effort to project our interests and to engage more thoroughly with the people of the region. And I say, the people, not just their governments.

The language governments use and the way they see themselves in this matters. The alliance with the United States is not an impediment to our relationship with Asia. It never was under Hawke or Keating. What really matters is whether Australia is seen as an independent, creative member of the regional community or as a branch office of some old world club. If we lecture or hector or thump our chests, as the Howard government has done, we will get the obvious response. And so far, we have. By contrast, during the period of the last Labor government, we were able to advance on both fronts - with Washington and with the region. Asia will become more and not less important to Australia. China, the world's most populous economy, is continuing its strong growth and reform program. India is in the middle of one of the most exciting periods of its long history as it works towards economic openness. This is why Australia should see itself as an Indian Ocean nation as well as a Pacific nation. There are also encouraging signs of change in Japan's economic and political outlook after more than a decade of stagnation.

Australia already exports five times as much to Asia as it does to the United States. And these new developments open up new opportunities for our country. This is the region where our natural trade advantages lie - not just in raw materials and agriculture but in services like education and health. It is where most of our bread will be buttered. For this reason, many of us are worried that Australia is being marginalised at the wrong time, during this new and exciting period of growth. The issues in Asia, of course, are not just economic. Serious security problems remain in the Taiwan Straits and in North Korea. And transnational challenges, like the handling of environmental degradation and the spread of diseases like SARS and Avian flu are pressing. The development of new forms of Asian regionalism, from which Australia is excluded, is a matter of concern to Labor. ASEAN Plus Three and the China ASEAN free trade area are two key organisations from which Australia has been locked out. If not for Labor's APEC initiative and ASEAN Regional Forum, Australia today would be excluded from all Asian forums. The next Labor government will push back into Asia and the compelling benefits of multilateralism. In particular, this approach will define our trade policy. If the world's economies go down the Howard government's preferred path of bilateralism, it will produce a spaghetti bowl of confusing and often conflicting trade agreements.

This is why Labor believes in multilateralism, most of all through the WTO and in Asia. This is where the big economic gains lie for us. This is where the weight of Labor's trade policy will always rest. Asian engagement: it's our great and enduring ambition for the Australian economy.

We are also ambitious for Australia's role in our immediate neighbourhood. Even the Howard government would now admit that it took its eye off the Pacific Islands, post-1996. This meant that instead of anticipating problems and dealing with them at source, they were allowed to fester - ultimately requiring rescue packages in the Solomons and PNG. A Labor government will restore the pre-1996 responsibilities of an assistant minister for the Pacific Islands (in this case, assisting Kevin Rudd). We will also work closely with New Zealand and the international financial institutions to give sharper and more effective leadership to our Pacific neighbours. Australian foreign policy needs to be relevant to our time and place in the world. And if we are not relevant to the Pacific Islands, we are missing the most obvious of opportunities for Australian diplomacy.

A multilateral world

The third pillar of Labor's policy is the world's multilateral institutions. One of the important policy differences between Labor and the Coalition is that we have a much stronger sense of community. I have always thought Mr Howard and the Coalition took a cue from Margaret Thatcher's remark that there is no such thing as society. That is, there is no such thing as a global community. The Coalition emphasises bilateralism. We think that effective multilateralism is the key to maintaining global peace and prosperity. And to addressing issues like the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, poverty and global warming. These institutions are not an end in themselves - but they are a means to an end. And that is an inclusive international community which, by effectively managing the interests of a complex world, finds ways of resolving problems, without resorting to force.

Labor shares some of the contemporary frustration with multilateral institutions. There is no doubt that the global machinery is yet to reach its full potential. Almost every one of the major multilateral institutions needs structural reform if they are to adequately represent the realities of the new post-Cold War world. This includes the United Nations and its Security Council and economic organisations like the IMF, the World Bank and the G8.

As a party, we have a long history of support for reform of the United Nations and other organisations. We have always made a positive contribution. But we disagree fundamentally with the Howard government's response which has been to pack its bags and go home when confronted with decisions it does not like. Worse than that, its downgrading of these organisations. Its veiled contempt. Not only does this do Australia no good, it does the world no good. Labor believes that the true course for world progress lies in it being run co-operatively. Not confrontationally. And more representatively; giving the emerging states a real say in things. And regions too. Letting them be heard and be seen to be heard. For instance, it is incongruous that the G8 includes countries the size of Italy and Canada but not China or India.

The Cold War is over and has been won, yet the world is still organised on the template of 1947. Half a century has gone by, yet little in the power sharing or strategic structure has changed. Japan, the second largest economy and Germany, the largest West European economy, are not even permanent members of the UN Security Council. Is it any wonder the UN has become less effective, given it is less representative than it should be.

These are vital issues for an Australian government with a mind for internationalism and multilateralism. These are areas where our capacity to thoughtfully and usefully engage with the United States matters. Fawning compliance never amounted to a policy. I believe the American polity would welcome our active and constructive engagement. I say this because, in the past, it always has. There has rarely been a more important time for liberal internationalism. The end of the Cold War, the spread of wealth and the information revolution have changed the nature of the threats our predecessors faced. We are unlikely in the foreseeable future to confront a direct military challenge to Australia, but issues such as weapons proliferation, people smuggling and, above all, terrorism present new and exacting challenges.

On terrorism, we know the struggle will be long and sustained. The dangers terrorism presents have to be addressed on many fronts. We have to deliver comprehensive policing, effective monitoring of entry points, seamless co-ordination among federal government agencies and between Canberra and the states and territories. And we won't succeed without co-operation with our closest neighbours, particularly Indonesia. Above all, we need good intelligence and objective intelligence. And a government which does not try to draw on it selectively for political purposes. Or one which pressures advisers into only giving the advice that the government wants to hear.

Conflict in Iraq

One of Labor's first tasks will be to extract Australia from the Howard government's failed policies in Iraq. This has been one of the great debacles of Australian foreign policy - a war conducted for a purpose that was not true, a war conducted under the banner of the Doctrine of Pre-emption. This was supposed to be the great conservative contribution to the struggle against terrorism - a new way of thinking about and running the world. In practice, the Doctrine came and went with the blink of an eye.

Most Australians now acknowledge that the Howard government's policy in Iraq has been a contributing factor to the terrorist threat in this country. The government's recent abuse of Australia's intelligence agencies has also increased the level of risk for Australians in Iraq, both military and civilian. So, too, the conflict in Iraq has diverted resources from the real war against terror. If all the time, effort and money used to invade and occupy Iraq had been used to target the terrorists themselves - to hunt down bin Laden, to break up Al Qaeda, to smash the networks of terrorist activity in South-East Asia - then the world today would be a safer place.

The Doctrine of Pre-emption failed in Iraq because there was nothing to pre-empt. No weapons of mass destruction were used during the conflict and none have been found since. We now know that Western intelligence in Iraq was quite limited. In reality, the scientists who were supposed to be developing WMD spent the money elsewhere. As ever, in a Third World nation, chaos and corruption prevailed. There was nothing to pre-empt.The Howard government sent young Australians to war based on a hunch. Having got it wrong, the thing that I find most disturbing is their lack of remorse. Or sense of apology.

As with other international engagements such as Afghanistan and Somalia, Australia needs an exit strategy from Iraq. The most appropriate starting point is the transition to a new sovereign Iraqi government in mid-2004. On this basis, Labor has declared its intention of having the Australian troops home by Christmas. Having strongly opposed the war and been proven correct, we see no need for an indefinite deployment, especially when Australia has so many other commitments closer to home. The thing about Iraq is that we had no business being there.


If I had to identify the key difference between Labor and the Coalition, it lies in the size of our ambition for Australia and in our confidence in this country's capacity to shape events ourselves. Labor has never seen Australia as a bit player. We have never seen our future as someone else's deputy. I have a stronger conviction than Mr Howard that Australia can, on its own and by virtue of its own good work, make a real impact on the shape of our region and even the shape of the world.

World politics, like domestic politics, can change quickly. Unexpected events - whether welcome ones like the end of the Cold War or unwelcome ones like September 11 - constantly overturn conventional wisdom and require new policy responses. This is why a political party needs to bring to office a set of underlying principles which will guide its response to the unpredictable events which it will inevitably confront.

For Labor, these principles are:

· That protecting the country and its people is the core and central responsibility of government.

· That Australia has a significant role to play in the world. And that good policy and the anticipation of change can make a difference.

· While our national interests will always be global, our diplomatic resources are finite and we need to focus where our interests are deepest and the prospects for our influence greatest. This is undoubtedly in the region around us - Asia and the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

· The alliance with the United States is a Labor legacy of which we are very proud. It has been strong in the past. And it will be strong in the future. It is always most productive when each partner is contributing ideas and sharing problems, when it takes the form of an equal partnership.

· And finally, active reform and engagement with the United Nations and other multilateral processes can help build a better and more prosperous world. As ever, co-operation and power sharing are the great hope of humankind.

These convictions will guide me as I talk about these great challenges with the Australian people over the coming months. And, if we are successful later this year, they will guide the policy of the next Australian Labor government. Australians are entitled to know how a party seeking to govern this country will protect Australia's security and advance the country's interests. This is the central responsibility of any Australian government. It is the foundation of our capacity to create the sort of society we want.


Mark Latham is the leader of Australian Labor Party and the leader of the opposition in the Australian parliament. This speech was presented to the Lowry Institute on 7 April 2004.


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