Failed to Fragile to Non-existent: The endangerment of Australian foreign policy

This article appeared in issue 142 of Arena Magazine on June 2016. The author maintains copyright. 

A popular account of modernity is that we in the West have replaced our culture with economy. This view is a scathing indictment of privatisation for privatisation’s sake, installation of ‘price signals’ in medical care, fatalism regarding environmental destruction, and defunding the arts to claw back immaterial tax savings. According to this view, we are in the process of selling our cultural assets in pursuit of material wealth. Thankfully, this charge is hyperbolic.

Government, regardless of how it goes about administration, regardless of how it falls indebted to interest groups and ideology, cannot impose any one paradigm on a liberal-democratic society. Government looms large in First World societies, but it is not dominant or denotative. The popular rejection of the 2014 Australian federal budget, an archly neoliberal design for our nation, demonstrates the limits of government ideology. That budget contradicted the desires of a majority of Australians. Its rejection shattered the ideological coherence of the Abbott government. Now that government is gone, along with the harsher edges of its program.

Contemporary Australia has rejected strong forms of neoliberal policy. Yet, largely outside public awareness, such policy continues to rule supreme over our aid program. From the Howard government onward there has been a marked and problematic increase in the economisation of aid and of diplomacy generally. Unchecked, these changes could undo the significant good that aid can achieve. More ominously, this trend serves to reinforce a regressive, neoliberal-inspired view of a perennially complex world.

Australia’s aid funding as a proportion of national wealth, or gross national income (GNI), has been in decline for forty-four years. Between 1971 and 2011 the aid budget grew in absolute terms from $0.2 billion to $4.7 billion. This growth, however, pales beside the long-run boom of the Australian economy; as a proportion of GNI, the aid budget fell from 0.45 per cent to 0.35 per cent. Governments, depending on their differing foreign-policy agendas, see aid as discretionary. The Howard government doubled the aid budget over its time in office. Thereafter total funding peaked at $5.6 billion under the Gillard government, only to be cut to $4 billion in the 2015 federal budget by the Abbott government, putting Australia on a trajectory to provide the lowest aid as a percentage of GNI in history.

While the size of the aid budget has often made headlines, the policy agenda that these funds seek to achieve receives much less coverage. A review of the policy documents that lay out the aid agenda begs the question as to why this is so. In fact, the Howard government’s 2006 Australian Aid: Promoting Growth and Stability—White Paper on the Australian Government’s overseas aid program appears to have been a high-water mark in irresponsible policymaking. In directing aid funding, it first asserts a mandate for the strongest, least precise form of foreign state intervention imaginable. Secondly, it requires that Australian aid be governed by an inflexible economic formula when provided to the plethora of states that fall within this nebulous mandate.

State intervention that circumvents sovereignty is not new. Under a humanitarian mission it was the vogue of the nineties, the raison d’état of the UN, the spoils of victory in the Cold War. But the 2006 white paper goes further than the humanitarian paradigm. The traditional subject of humanitarian intervention is the ‘failed state’, the polity riven by civil war and unable to prevent crimes against humanity. The 2006 paper casts a wider net, reorienting toward the ‘fragile state’. Intervention in failed states is justified by their inability to provide security for their populations. In the case of fragile states, the justification for intervention is a failure to provide ‘basic services’, of which security is one among many. Due to this vague breadth of justifications, the pretext for intervention in fragile states is potentially unlimited.

Yet, if one accepts humanitarian justifications for intervention, the recalibration towards fragility makes sense. It has the attractive logic of seeking the source of the problem, the heart of an evil. Why wait for disaster? Failure to provide basic services leads to instability, to a breakdown of social order, and so to humanitarian catastrophe. Everyday misery breeds extraordinary tragedy. So, if we accept the received knowledge of how states fail, we might accept the rationale for targeting its source. This would simply be acting on our insight. However, to act, we must first ignore our own fallibility and pass moral judgement on the capacity of various, distant actors to prevent failure.

Failure is a matter of perception and degree. It is also a characteristic of all individual and collective endeavours. Diagnosing failure is hard enough when the facts are evident—as the Syrian civil war illustrates. Pre-empting failure is work for a crystal ball. Day to day, can one pinpoint the potential sources of failure in one’s life? The same is true of states. The collapse of the Soviet Union caught the vast US spy network by surprise. Prejudging failure assumes perfect foresight of the intervener and makes a mockery of the recipient’s autonomy.

The 2006 white paper takes a broad perspective on the success and failure of other people’s states. It identifies many categories within which ‘basic services’ fit: law and order, democratic institutions, education, infrastructure, medicine, markets, property rights and so on. The difficulty is that these categories of basic services are simply that—categories, comprising manifold constituent parts. ‘Basic’ in this coupling does not mean simple but rather a fundamental enabler of human life. It seems that everything shared in common within a state is a potential source of state failure. If, for the sake of argument, one accepts that the state holds responsibility for all aspects of the society it administers, what, then, constitutes success within each category of basic services? Here we come to the second controversial strand of the 2006 white paper, which takes a purely economic perspective on successful basic services and the avoidance of failure.

The 2006 white paper lays out four priorities for development. One is ‘investing in people’—the bread and butter of humanitarian aid—and two relate to regional stability and fragile states. However, the linchpin, the first among equals, is ‘accelerating economic growth’. Trade, investment, economic deregulation and financial liberalisation are the only way, according to the 2006 white paper, to achieve sustainable poverty reduction. As Toby Carroll and Shahar Hameiri of Murdoch University have argued, this aid paper adopts an unprecedentedly technocratic and functionalist approach to aid. Gone are the nuances, the undercurrents of a pluralistic society; obscured are the convolutions of local and national security; irrelevant are the populist tendencies and pendulum dialectics of democracies. Market-led development is the panacea to national ills. If the state does not fully support ‘the market’, it will forever be relegated to fragility, to borderline, basket-case near-failure.

At its core, this policy is neo-colonial in that it projects the beliefs and assumptions of the First World onto the Third World, seeking to enshrine our norms in the fabric of underdeveloped states that are not necessarily neoliberal in their veneration of things economic. This policy also affirms the neoliberal prescription for fragile states: to strengthen the nation, political institutions must give away power. Except, under this development paradigm, power is not being given to anyone or anything. Power is simply outsourced to that vast, fictional-nothing space that we are opening ever wider in our Western societies: ‘the market’.

Markets have always been a feature of society. An interesting phenomenon of the past several decades has been ‘their’ development of personhood, animal feelings, and moods. No longer a simple concept that describes the norms governing the exchange of goods and services, the modern market is an abstract normative body, ascribed rationality and the quality of human judgement.

To paraphrase a conservative line, in the era of turbo-charged rights activism, it was only a matter of time before the fictional, rational person of the market was ascribed human rights. The market is given the privilege to grow, always and forever. Advocates proclaim its right to tear down barriers to productivity and innovation. Some of the language implies we have anthropomorphised the market, made it our guarantor. If the market cannot grow it will die, and so our societies will wither.

The market, as a fictional entity, conveniently transcends the disorder of politics. One state rendering normative judgement on another and applying precise financial and policy palliatives to diffuse, heterogeneous populations is an enormously political act, burdened almost to the point of collapse with ideological assumptions and power relations. Nevertheless, the 2006 formulation painstakingly positions market solutions as non-political, natural phenomena that are beyond reproach. This positioning was incrementally advanced one more logical step in the 2014 reformulation of the white paper: Australian aid: promoting prosperity, reducing poverty, enhancing stability.

The 2014 policy paper aims to live up to its promissory title via two development outcomes: ‘enabling human development’ and ‘strengthening private sector development’. The humanitarian cause is still enshrined, yet its ideological accompaniment has grown stronger, developed superhuman powers. In 2006 the state was a fragile and economically perfectible subject; in 2014, mention of the state has largely disappeared from the language. Development is targeted directly at the individual consumer and at the private spheres of underdeveloped nations.

And if we accept the fragile-state paradigm, why should we not bypass the state entirely? The state can guarantee national strength only by weakening its hold on the market; the state cannot guarantee basic services, only the market can. So why should aid deal with the state at all? Thus state sovereignty incrementally changes into economic sovereignty, which incrementally changes into passive curatorship as economies increasingly globalise.

The state-as-economic-curator malaise did not begin within Australian aid. It is symptomatic of the broader mindset animating Australia’s foreign policy. Historically, aid priorities and funding have been instructive of Australia’s regional disposition and general world view. This synchronicity was taken one step further in 2014 when the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID)—the traditional owner of Australian aid—was integrated into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). With this merger, the unofficial subordination of aid to foreign policy was formalised.

The 2014 aid policy paper confidently states that: ‘The integration of Australia’s aid program into DFAT aligns Australia’s foreign, trade and development policy efforts, with economic diplomacy at the forefront of Australia’s international engagement’. Subsequent paragraphs affirm that the aim of this new ‘economic diplomacy’ is supporting ‘Australia’s economic interests’. In 2014, DFAT consumed AusAID and the economy subsumed the national interest. By gradual rhetorical shift, Australian tools of government now engage the world first on the basis of economic gain.

In liberal democracies, shifts in either domestic or international policy are never isolated. The two bodies of policy stand as land masses atop the same tectonic plate: appearing separate, but joined by the bedrock of democratic politics. Hubert Humphrey, Vice President of the United States from 1965 to 1969, put it best when he observed that ‘foreign policy is really domestic policy with its hat on’. Humphrey was of course speaking from the heart of 1960s America, a frenetic period of men landing on the moon and slaughtering each other in vicious proxy wars, accelerating decolonisation and messianic human-rights movements. The 1960s was an era in which the neat line we like to draw between the domestic and the international blurred to the point of rupture. Under the pressures of a deepening Cold War and the rising Third World, the global order was excruciatingly reconfigured.

Contemporary foreign policy is certainly less visceral, less proximate to us in the West than it was in the 1960s. In fact, foreign policy now seems uncontroversial, even boring. Increasingly, world affairs are perceived as the preserve of technical experts. To those outside the halls of DFAT, the diplomatic corps can seem to be a sort of internationalised, economically literate bourgeoisie. Only they, we assume, understand and can expertly manage the expanding, globalising complexity that is our twenty-first-century world. This is a fiction—a symptom of our increasing tendency to associate politics with management and progress with economic growth. The world and the art of government are not growing more complex and technical due to technology; it only appears that way. The world has always been complex and chaotic almost beyond human conception. Now, with the assistance of technology, we can just see more of what has always been there. Commensurately, our political class can worry about and seek to control more uncontrollable phenomena.

Despite the psychology of globalisation, the political fundamentals in liberal democracies remain the same. All foreign-policy documents and practitioners are a better-dressed extension of domestic policy, which is still—and always will be—democratically beholden to the domestic milieu. It’s just that in the digital era we seem to have convinced ourselves that foreign policy is not an extension of democracy. Government ideology cannot prescribe forms for liberal-domestic society. Where policy is too far divergent from the majority, electoral defeat results. Nevertheless, ideological projects undertaken in the sectioned-off realm of foreign policy, tending to narrowness and incurring existential risks, are tolerated, even accepted, because foreign policy is seen as a legitimate realm of government monopoly. Foreign policy wears a big, officious-looking hat. This hat is a disguise, providing technocrats with an anonymous freedom from democratic scrutiny.

The incremental changes towards economic technocracy that we see in recent aid papers is, simply put, creating a more dangerous future. These changes are dangerous both domestically and internationally. John F. Kennedy, another giant of the 1960s, gave us a prescient warning in this regard: ‘Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us’. Although foreign policy seems distant and esoteric in today’s era, it is still the lethal instrument of the state, the most nakedly brutal manifestation of power.

Unlike the Cold War, it is doubtful that foreign policy will entangle Western nations in multiple civil wars—although Iraq and now Syria stand as testament to lessons unlearnt. More commonly, contemporary foreign policy kills others without involving the polity. Drone strikes in Yemen, sequestration of boat people and toleration of the Assad regime are some examples of hidden violence. Or, in a more commonplace sense, foreign policy, acting primarily on economic imperatives, devalues others—commoditises them and refuses to respect their local realities and social norms. This can, potentially, lead to killing.

Wrongheaded foreign policy over a long enough period incrementally changes perceptions, hardens hatreds, builds divides within and between domestic populations. International conflict does not spring from nothing. The difference between killing—violent state intervention, boots on the ground and choppers in the air—and misconstruing, or mis-developing, as it were, seems vast. Nonetheless, good intentions myopically enacted can lead to radically different futures. One can still hear the carnage of the Crusades echoing through history.

It may be that the current foreign-policy fixation on the market is a reaction to those moral and military quagmires that are humanitarian interventions. The traumas of Somalia, Kosovo and Rwanda have only recently been etched into history; we are at war with the unforeseen consequences of the second Iraq invasion. Recent history stands as a bloody reminder: state interventions are an intractable cascade of near-insurmountable problems. More generally, the political era of American ascendency is passing. China, Russia and the EU have taken the international stage as the prime actors in contemporary financial, territorial and military events.

In this context, market-driven diplomacy is seductive. Narrowing the looking glass, focussing it only on the ‘private sector’—a useful fiction, as are all artificial segmentations of society—and the nonthreatening individual, makes the world appear simpler, safer. But, even if it were impossible to ignore complex politics and societies, the Global Financial Crisis should have proven to us that ‘the market’ is not imbued with moral value, nor is it sectioned off. The market derives all of its capital, loans and legitimacy from civil society and political institutions. The market is by definition a mere forum for the exchange of goods and services. It takes place within borders, between citizens. Loans are not subprime in isolation; currencies are not magic numbers that articulate national value. Ultimately, risk and reward are imputed from social and political factors. It is the height of wishful thinking to imagine that freeing the market will free us. Liberalisation without limit will simply break down the balances that exist between civil society, markets and the state.

More generally, placing ever-greater primacy on the market at a time when international balances of power are incrementally changing has a blinkering effect. Our ‘economic interests’ will evaporate in a heartbeat if war breaks out in the South China Sea, or becomes undeniable in Ukraine, or finally destroys what remains of regional order in the Middle East. Australia’s foreign-aid policy stands atop a vast mountain of the humblest changes: it represents an evolutionary tree of rhetorical shifts. But it is dwarfed by the monumental peaks of international relations, whose roots are sunk in sediment comprising the histories of 196 domestic societies, in all of which markets have been present since antiquity, in tension with and complementation to other social and political institutions, each incrementally changing the other. This is the understanding on the basis of which aid policy should be formulated.

Neoliberalism has already mutated into the received knowledge of development. Despite its rejection as the blueprint for Australian society, it is the formula we prescribe to other, less wealthy societies. As citizens of a powerful, internationally active liberal democracy, the responsibility resides with us to project our voices into the ring-fenced dialogue of diplomacy. Otherwise, unchecked and unchallenged, the limited world view DFAT uses to underpin Australian aid will replace our diplomacy with economy.



Feature image: A WFP Puma helicopter supporting Australian relief efforts after Cyclone Nagris. Taken by DFAT.



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