How can Australia best arrange its international relationships?

Since World War II Australia’s leaders have consciously positioned Australia as a client state of the United States of America. Defence forces are totally integrated, and foreign policy rarely deviates from the American line. Australia’s commercial culture is America writ small. Is this American patterning the best option for Australia in the future?

Thor May
Brisbane, 2014


meetup group: Brisbane Active Thinking Meetup

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This is an initial starter list for discussing the "The Australian Foreign Policy" topic. The list makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome.




Topic notes from Thor (these notes, like the reading links, will be expanded over time).


1. Introduction


Is the question of “How can Australia best arrange its international relationships?” really a discussion topic? Well, yes and no. People feel strongly about various aspects of international relationships, or particular situations in the news. These issues are likely to emerge in the meetup. Often a big picture understanding of context is missing, and only a minority of individuals have a good background in current affairs, history, economics and geography which might put their casual views in context. Views about international relations at governmental level will be strongly influenced by individual opinions about the role of governments in general.

The international relations of a country have many dimensions. If we think of a country as a collection of individuals, businesses, institutions and governments, then it is clear enough that any of these may have contacts at any level in other countries. They may also be constrained by other actors within their own country. For example, young men and women who take it into their heads to fight in a foreign war might find their actions severely limited by the attitude of their home government.  Nevertheless, the many levels of inter-country contact often go unnoticed, and may operate in mutual ignorance until some conflict arises. A Ukrainian wheat farmer, for example, may find his fields extending across what has suddenly become a hostile border.

When we consider international relations, it is typically the fickle policies of governments which get headline attention. Often actual business relationships are far more important than these political poses. Finally, depending upon the countries, interpersonal relationships may dwarf in significance both governmental and business contacts. For example, between Australia and New Zealand, it is the network of family relationships and the free flow of individuals between those two countries for social and employment reasons which is by far the most important aspect of inter-country contact.

Many of the links on the reading list for this topic relate to various divisions of inter-governmental interest. This is reflected in the very formal nature of such links. Business relationships may not be publicly recorded, let alone commented upon, for reasons of commercial secrecy. Individual and family relationships, though huge in number and large in importance, may go uncommented except in social media or personal blogs.

The main formal divisions of Australian governmental interest involving other countries are reflected in actual departments, and break down into Foreign Affairs, Trade & Industry, Defence, and Immigration. The ambitions and aims of policy in such departments are quite often competitive for funds & attention. Their policies may be in conflict. Most other governmental departments have trans-national agreements or contacts in various parts of their portfolios. For example, the Taxation Department is concerned with international tax evasion, while the Human Services Department has to service the fairly large number of Australians who retire overseas.


2. Foreign Affairs


1. Ambassadorial: friends, enemies and frenemies 

    1. Realpolitik approach: nations don’t have permanent friends; they have permanent interests. International relations are a pragmatic chess game of seeking maximum advantage. Formal legal agreements, backed by a capacity for lethal force, best secure the future of nations.


    2. Big man approach: International relations are personal relations writ large. The fate of nations turns on the “chemistry” between leaders. The personal prestige of a leader, or his perceived strength, will build the prestige and advantage of the nation.


    3. Good guy approach: In the end, goodwill works to everyone’s advantage. Seek friends whenever possible. Do favours (e.g. foreign aid). Develop trust. When push comes to shove, the good guy will be spared or even helped.


    4. Kiss-up, kick-down approach: Pick a powerful nation to shelter behind, and follow their bidding right or wrong. Loyalty will be rewarded. Ignore or exploit weaker countries.

2. Consular: Australians abroad; aliens visiting Australia


1. Consular services as a profit centre: Passports, citizen assistance abroad, documentation, visa applications, interviews ... etc. can all be treated as a revenue source. 


2. Consular services at cost: Passports, citizen assistance abroad, documentation, visa applications, interviews ... etc. will be charged on an assessment of actual costs. 


3. Consular services 'free' : Normal passports, citizen assistance abroad, documentation, visa applications, interviews ... etc. will not be charged for on the principle that departmental funding from general revenue is designed to cover these services.


4. The actual pattern of charging for consular services in Australian consulates and at DFAT is a mixture of 1, 2 and 3. However, it is the view of many Australians that charges for things like passports and documentary services have become excessive and quite out of kilter with costs in comparable countries. The actual reasons may need strong ministerial investigation, but the will is probably lacking. Regardless of political rhetoric, there is a clear pattern in governmental costs that outsourcing to consultancies and contractors has multiplied expenses. The consular scene may reflect this. It is also true that a percentage of Australians traveling or working overseas have unrealistic ideas about the role of their national embassy when things go wrong.


5. As an expatriate for a couple of decades, I formed the clear impression that embassy staff in many locations lived with a siege mentality, and in a wholly artificial and choreographed relationship with their host countries. This would of course be reflected in the views they reported back to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Australia. It would also colour their interactions with foreign nationals, such as those applying to come to Australia for various reasons. Perhaps a level of unreality is the unavoidable in the nature of embassy work, but it needs to be calibrated into any assessment of what embassies report.

3. Foreign Aid & Developmental Programs


1. The patterns of foreign aid adhere fairly closely to the ambassadorial models outlined above, and like those models reflect a mix which alters with each political administration, but also varies over time.


2. Over the last generation in Australia, the broad pattern has been that foreign aid distribution has progressively shifted from NGOs to large private consulting companies. Corporations get the majority of Australian aid contracts and nearly 85% of the value of those contracts (Bacon 2010).


3. As with wars, the largest part of aid expenditure is actually an income tax redistribution to corporates. Unlike wars, which also greatly enrich corporates at the expense of taxpayers, the publicized objective of aid is constructive rather than destructive.


4. Some aid (e.g. some assistance in agricultural expertise) definitely does benefit target populations. Other aid can be neutral or unbeneficial, especially where it discourages local initiatives or undermines local businesses (an effect similar to "the oil curse" in countries like Saudi Arabia). Beyond Australia's shores, the worldwide picture of aid effectiveness is quite depressing. For example "For every $1 of aid sent to Africa, 80 cents recirculates back offshore [i.e. largely into tax havens]" (TJN 2013).


5. Most aid given by foreign powers has a military or commercial objective (this is overwhelmingly the case with the United States).

4. Educational exchange etc.


1. The international exchange and movement of scholars


Educational and research exchange has been a foundation for the rise of civilizations for most of recorded history. Usually history books explain it as the anonymous diffusion of technology, artifacts and ideas. In reality, these treasures of skill and knowledge were always carried by individuals of special ability. Sometimes they were captured in wars, sometimes they traveled freely to foreign lands to offer wisdom, sometimes as students or spies they visited renowned centres of learning and took the secrets home with them.

Even though the Internet and publishing seem now to make knowledge universally and instantly available, the truth is that without the insight and habits brought by a foreign educated mind, much of this information still languishes. It does not become actionable knowledge where it is needed (see May 1987: “Super-Culture And The Ghost In The Machine”). If that were not so, Burkina Faso, or even India would be on an equal footing now with the United States.

Clinging to the apron strings, first of the United Kingdom, and now to the United States, Australian universities have always had a strong infusion of foreign teaching staff. In the best cases, this has been of major benefit. Many very talented individuals have chosen Australia’s climate and lifestyle over the grey drizzle of English winters. On the other hand, very mediocre foreign applicants have sometimes persuaded provincial Australian selection committees with an intellectual inferiority complex that the “prestige” of a foreign appointment was preferable to even very talented locals. I have seen this happen.

Australia’s other disadvantage of not being a major American or European centre of learning is that those who do choose to come often have relatively exotic special interests. For example, I happen to have been trained in linguistics. The majority of academic linguists in Australia are specialists in Aboriginal linguistics. Aboriginal peoples form roughly 2.3% of Australia’s population. The interest in Aboriginal languages is legitimate, but field dominance means that Australian students with other linguistic interests (the field is as broad as engineering) might not find enthusiastic colleagues or departments within Australia, especially at an advanced level. Other areas of advanced study and research are often similarly restricted in Australia, and held back by parochial attitudes. Visitors from Australia’s many sources of immigration will also recognize that parochial attitudes in universities, government and business are often similar or worse in their countries of origin. 


2. The education of international students


The other kind of educational exchange experienced by Australia is much more heavily regulated by the government than is the employment of academics. We are talking here about foreign tertiary (and some secondary) students who come to the country to obtain Australian diplomas and degrees. This circulation of foreign students is now one of Australia’s major sources of income (currently around $16 billion annually), and has thus become managed and driven more as an economic issue than as an educational and cultural issue. In the long term however, the quality and nature of the Australian educational experience  will have a greater bearing on Australia’s prosperity and security than the short term infusion of student fees. This understanding is only occasionally grasped by politicians, the general public, or the students themselves.

From the earliest colonial days, richer Australian families aimed to send their children, or at least their sons, back to England for advanced education and cultural ‘finishing’. Even up until the 1960s, the award of PhDs in Australian universities was rather rare. However from the 1960s, the Australian “Colombo Scheme” began to introduced limited numbers of very bright Asian scholarship students into the university environment. This had a major favourable effect on the Australian public perception of Asians, and paved the way both for increased migration, and then the mass induction of East and South Asian students which was to follow.

The first group of talented Asian scholarship students did benefit from what was then Australia’s British model of university education. Many went home to become leaders in their societies, and their positive Australian experience on the whole was of major benefit to Australia’s standing in the Asian and Pacific region.

Of course, there will always be an element of chance in the outcome of international education, or its absence. Few national leaders from the Anglo sphere have been multilingual in modern times, or even well-informed about other cultures and histories. This has certainly been true of most Australian political leaders, to our cost. Non-Anglo foreign leaders have been more likely to speak English or a European language, though with no guarantee of sympathy. Vladimir Putin speaks fluent German but is certainly no Europhile. Mahathir bin Mohamad, Malaysia’s prime minister for 22 years (retired 2003), speaks fluent English, but is virulently racist about non-Malays, and especially dislikes Australians. Other Asian leaders have often had quite closed world-views. Mao Zedong, for example, did not have any coherent understanding of the non-Chinese world in spite of claiming to embrace “Marxism”. National education systems worldwide tend to convey quite warped understandings about the human family (see Nakhleh 2014 for the extreme example of Saudi Arabian education).

Australia’s current international student population is large and economically important. Most of these students are from East and South Asia. Their talents are varied, from exceptionally able research students to others who are barely scraping through, say, a business diploma. Their motives range from genuine educational inquiry, to a wish for lucrative employment, to using educational enrolment as a backdoor to immigration for themselves, and sometimes for an extended family. Similarly, the institutions these students attend range from the best universities in Australia to rather dubious diploma mills.

Because of their large numbers, these international students typically find themselves in classes where they may well outnumber local Australian students. Their accommodations, social contacts and even shopping may be a largely Asian experience. Relatively few of them will read or view local news media, and most actually avoid reading anything in English which is not required. In other words, a lot of international students may have some kind of educational experience in an Australian location without significantly coming to terms with Australian people, values or culture. The carry-over influence of these people on Australia’s relations with their home countries will be varied and unpredictable. It might not always be positive.


3. Trade & Industry


1. Trading origins for Australia


Except for its first half century or so as several prison colonies, modern Australia has always been an international trading nation. This began very much within the British trading sphere. The entire reason for the existence of the British empire was to feed wealth from foreign sources back to English interests. From the 16th Century the emerging British empire was substantially a rather dubious enterprise of piracy, slave trading and then drug running (into China). However, more respectable commercial activities did come to dominate, and from the mid 19th Century Australian wool fed the mills of the English midlands. Wheat was also a durable export. With the invention of refrigeration, mutton, beef and dairy products also became major exports for Australia and New Zealand. Right up until the time of British accession to the European Economic Union in 1973, preferential tariff policies within the British Commonwealth meant that much of Australia’s wealth derived from the export of primary produce to England. Where wealth goes, so goes politics. The gradual decline of large landholder influence in Australian politics can be traced to the relative decline of farming exports as a percentage of Australia’s GNP.

An important characteristic of Australia’s early trade patterns, like its cultural ties, was that the international connection was with an extremely geographically remote nation, England. There was little trade, and little interest in trade, with the rest of the world. This lack of contact went along with widespread ignorance of cultures and countries much closer to Australia. At most, they were seen as medium to long term strategic threats, to be guarded against by alliances with great and powerful friends. A good deal of this colonial psychology prevails in Australia even today.

The pre-World War II industrialization of imperial Japan did see the beginning of some iron ore exports from Australia, together with the import of some cheap Japanese goods (a bit similar to the China trade of today). This relationship was regarded with great ambivalence by many Australians. With the outbreak of war the Australian Prime Minister of the hour, Robert Menzies, was quickly castigated as “pig iron Bob”, and soon lost office; (post-War he returned for a record run of 23 years).


2. The Industrialization of Australia


From the 1860s Australia began to develop some industrial manufacturing and service industries. These were largely to support local urban populations, provide farming & mining equipment, and to process primary agricultural outputs. Significant capital investment in manufacture tended to be the result of foreign investment, especially British, and eventually American. The objective was generally not export. The small Australian population and the great distance from international metropolitan markets were deemed to rule out much future for the country as a secondary industry exporter. Other nations would later overcome such handicaps, but entrepreneurial timidity has been a marker in Australia’s modern evolution.

Although Australia never saw itself as a significant secondary industry exporter, like many nations before and since it adopted a strong “infant industries” policy to protect local manufactures and employment from lower cost imports. This meant that imported goods had to overcome high tariffs which were supposed to make them uncompetitive against local competition.

In practice, the tariffs were also applied to many imports which had no local manufacturing competition. That is, tariffs became a quite seductive source of government revenue, with the added benefit of assisting the national balance of payments. The downside was that the small club of Australian manufacturers frequently colluded, became uncompetitive to world’s best practice, and developed a culture of price padding in the protected local market (a premium on prices by Australian businesses is still widely practiced with little justification.  The Internet is helping to erode this price gouging).

3. The lucky country – mineral resources


Australia’s decline of farming exports, particularly to Britain, led to serious worry about the country’s terms of trade from the 1970s through to the mid 1980s. Very fortunately, from the 1960s the economic transformation of some East Asian economies such as South Korea, Taiwan, and above all Japan created a demand for raw materials (notably minerals and coal, then gas), and eventually even some agricultural products. Then, from the “opening” of China by Deng Xiao Ping in 1978 the seemingly ever-increasing industrial demands of a resurgent China led to a huge resources boom in Australia. That is, the Australian people got some useful scraps from the profits of very large international companies. The Australian people and their government(s) spent the bulk of this windfall on bidding up the price of local real estate. The resources boom has now tailed off, government debt is near historical lows (despite political lies to the contrary by the incumbent government), but historical private debt is at an all-time high.

The drastic changes in Australia’s trade from the Eurocentric to Asian centric has been reflected in a major refocusing of Australia’s social, educational and cultural interests, as well as immigration, all suddenly involved in “the Asian century”. That is, alert Australians have discovered that their East and South Asian neighbours have a major part to play in their own future prosperity and safety. However, the consequences of these changes have only been partly understood or accepted by the bulk of the Australian population. Therefore the democratic political process in Australia at this juncture in history is often confused or contradictory about foreign affairs and trade. When defence considerations are added to the mix, issues become even more difficult to find a consensus on.

A recent article by Tom Conoly on “The History of Australia’s Terms of Trade” (Conoly 2014) gives a very useful overview of Australia’s trade transitions, including a number of graphs. Below are several of those graphs (borrowed with thanks):




Bilateral & multilateral trade agreements

Export assistance


4. Defence

Defence – general objectives & roles

Operational theatres – actual & projected

Trans-national forces co-operation & integration (especially with U.S.A. )

Force levels & capability

Electronic warfare

Personal effects of international conflict on service personnel


5. Immigration, Customs, bio-Security


6. Miscellaneous governmental international agreements


Policing & security

Pension agreements

Research & education

Law & treaties


7. International business, commerce, employment


Expatriate workers (over 1 million Australians)

Trans-national companies

Import & export


Banking, foreign exchange, insurance & commercial services


8. Personal international relations


Australia’s huge population of first or second generation immigrants

Cross-cultural marriage & friendship

Multilingual skills

Tourism & travel

Sporting contacts

Overseas work experience

Awareness of international relations from formal education


[more to come]




References & Reading List


AAP (October 31, 2014) "Australian teachers working abroad a potential terror target: DFAT". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Aston, Heath (November 1, 2014 ) "Al Qaeda threatens Australian fuel supplies". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Australian Broadcasting Corporation (2014) Foreign Affairs section, online @

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2012) "Year Book Australia 2012 - International Relations". ABS website, online @

Australia Defence Association (2014) Issues Index. [ADF is officially independent, but in personnel background and analysis strongly reflects an armed forces perspective]. Online @

Australian Government (2014) "Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade". DFAT website online @

Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2014) “Trade and Investment”. [a resource page linking to many trade activities and policies”. DFAT online @

Australian Government (2014) “International Relations”. [Official projects & foundations for international relations]. Australia Government website online @

Australian Government (2014) “Foreign Aid”. Australia Government websiteonline @

Australian Government (2014) "Foreign Aid News". DFAT website online @

Australian Government Department of Defence (2014) Homepage, online @

Australian Trade Commission (2014) Austrade homepage. Australian Government Trade Commission online @

Australian Greens Party (2014)"International Relations | Australian Greens". Australian Greens Party, website online @

Australian Institute of International Affairs (2014) , AIIA online @

Bachelard, Michael (October 26, 2014) "Indonesia's new president Joko Widodo announces cabinet". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Bacon, Wendy (2010)  A series of articles on "Who profits from our foreign aid?” Crikey website, online @

Bacon, Wendy (Jul 21, 2010) "Who profits from our foreign aid? Growing your business — Cardno-style". Crikey website, online @

Bacon, Wendy (Jul 23, 2010) "Who profits from our foreign aid?: carving up the pie, where the little-known dominate". Crikey website, online @      

Bamforth, Tom (June 21, 2014) "Turning our backs on foreign aid ". The Saturday Paper online @

Barlow, Karen (13 May 2014) "Budget 2014: Axe falls on foreign aid spending, nearly $8 billion in cuts over next five years". ABC News online @

Beeson, Mark (31 May 2014) "Book review: Dangerous Allies by Malcolm Fraser". The Conversation website, online @

Bishop, Julie (2014) Official website of the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, online @

Bourke, Latika (18 Jun 2014) "Donor countries given performance benchmarks for Australian foreign aid under changes announced by Julie Bishop". ABC News online @

Chan, Gabrielle and Michael Safi (17 October 2014) "WikiLeaks' free trade documents reveal 'drastic' Australian concessions - Secret negotiations over the Trans Pacific Partnership have been apparently revealed, and experts are concerned about what they show". The Guardian online @

Conley, Tom (February 21, 2014) "A history of Australia’s terms-of-trade". Macro Business blog, online @

Elder, John (October 26, 2014) "Great ideas needed to fulfil Gough Whitlam's vision". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Farnsworth, Malcolm (2014) "Foreign Policy". Australian Politics blog [conservative], online @

Garnaut, John, Gareth Hutchens, David Wroe and Philip Wen (October 25, 2014) "Australia baulks at China bank sign-up". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Garnaut, John and Gareth Hutchens (November 1, 2014) "Tensions apparent over Asian bank proposal". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Gelber, Harry (9 Sep 2013) "The big picture: Australian foreign affairs and defence". The Strategist blog, online @

Giggacher, James(21 October 2014) "Are Hong Kong protests a threat to sovereignty?". The Drum, Australian Broadcasting Commission, online @

Gittins, Ross (October 24, 2014) "Reformer Gough Whitlam oversaw economic chaos but it was not all of Labor's making". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Hartcher, Peter (2014) "The Adolescent Country: A Lowy Institute Paper:". pub. Penguin Special (eBook) online @

Koutsoukis, Jason (October 26, 2014) "Hundreds jump at chance to board the 'Modi express'". Brisbane Times online @

Loewenstein, Antony (July 29, 2010) "Why privatisation should be on the agenda". Crikey online @

Lowry Institute (2014) “Australian Foreign Aid Overview”. Lowry Institute online @

MacCallum, Mungo (20 October 2014) "Abbott has been mugged by reality". ABC International Affairs, online @

Maley, Jacqueline (October 18, 2014) "Angry young man problem crosses cultures". Sydney Morning Herald, online @

May, Thor (1987) “Super-Culture And The Ghost In The Machine ”., online @

May, Thor (2004) "Submission to the Australian Parliamentary Senate Inquiry on the Status of Australian Expatriates , 2004". Online at . This document has been tabled in the Australian Parliament andt can also be viewed on the website of that parliament at

May, Thor (2013) “The Freedom Enterprise and Other Yarns”. Thor’s Unwise Ideas blog, online @

Massola, James (November 1, 2014) "John Howard delivers coded rebuke to Tony Abbott on boat turn backs". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Nakhleh, Emile (Oct 31 2014) "The Islamic State’s Ideology Is Grounded in Saudi Education". IPS News online @

O'Keeffe, Annmaree (19 June 2014) "Australia's foreign aid policy: New paradigm or more of the same?". The Interpreter online @

Parliament of Australia (2014) "Key internet links on International Relations – Parliament of Australia". Parliament of Australia website, online @

Pilger, John (October 23, 2014) "Whitlam and Australia's forgotten coup". Asia Times online @

Roberts, George (21 Oct 2014) "Indonesia's new president Joko Widodo tells Tony Abbott to keep lines of communication open". Australian Broadcasting Commission, online @

Roworth, Simone (23 Oct 2014) "Women of jihad". The Strategist, online @

Safi, Michael (30 October 2014) "Australians think Muslim population is nine times greater than it really is". The Guardian online @

Squirk (2014) “World War II to the late 1960s - Australian International Relations". [Australian history synopsis; has chapters on: Foreign relations to 1918 / World War I to World War II / World War II to the late 1960s / 1970s to the 1990s] Red Apple Education Ltd website, online @

Speedace (n.d.) "The Commonwealth of Australia". Speedace website, online @

Su, Reissa (October 7, 2014) "Australia's Foreign Aid May Be Cut To Pay For Anti-Terrorism Measures And Military Support To Iraq ". International Business Times online @

TJN (2013) "Estimating the Price of Offshore - Headline report" [TM comment: Ideology may often be a pantomime for the masses. The real deal: the amount of US$ in circulation is rouglhy US$1.2 trillion. The offshore wealth (mostly secretly) held by individuals and companies is estimated at US$21-32 trillion. For every $1 of aid sent to Africa, 80 cents recirculates back offshore. From the $1 billion or so that Google sucked out of Australia last year, $74,000 tax was paid .. and so on. Most world leaders are in on this scam]. Tax Justice Network, online @

Tyler, Melissa Conley(23 October 2014) "Can Australia remain a top 20 nation?". The Interpreter website, online @

Wallis, Joanne(20 Oct 2014) "Is Australia’s influence over Papua New Guinea declining?" The Strategist online @

White, Hugh (September 4, 2013) "Australia's Choice -  Will the Land Down Under Pick the United States or China?". Foreign Affairs journal, online @

Whitlam Institute (2014) "Foreign affairs and immigration". [reference period 1972-1975] University of Western Sydney, online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Foreign relations of Australia". Wikipedia online @  

Wikipedia (2014) "Australian Agency for International Development". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Australian Defence Force". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Australia)". Wikipedia online @


How can Australia best arrange its international relationships? (c) Thor May 2014


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