Does Australia ‘Punch Above Its Weight on the World Stage?’


Australia is and always has been involved in world politics; from 1901, it has been involved in nearly every major military conflict that has occurred. Therefore, war has been central to the development of Australian identity; as can be observed in its major national holidays which are commemorated as military actions (Gyngell and Wesley 2007, p.9). But despite this extensive series of involvements, it has been hard to locate Australia’s ‘place in the world’ (Gyngell and Wesley 2007, p.9). For an instant, its strategic environments are Southern Asia and the South Pacific while its major strategy is in North America, 12, 000 kilometers away.

Australia is a country that has continued to prosper economically and has become one of the developed nations of the world. Moreover, Australia continues to rank highly in the many international key areas of human development, good quality of life, vibrant economic freedom and the protection and enhancement of political and civil rights (Gyngell and Wesley, 2007, p.208).

Australia is also a member of many international and regional bodies that have continued to recognize the position and role of Australia in regional and international matters; these include the World Trade Organization, Pacific Islands Forum, Commonwealth of Nations, APEC, OECD, G20 and also the United Nations. Moreover, Australia continues to have one of the best armies in the world, a privilege that has earned it many international duties with the United Nations; and in the meanwhile, the economy continues to perform well when compared to other nations’ economies.

The outside world has had a profound impact on the decisions Australia has formulated in terms of policies specifically with regard to foreign relations. These can be captured in the words of R.G. Casey in 1995, who stated that ‘instead of living in a tranquil corner of the globe, we are now on the verge of the most unsettled region of the world’. Writing on the same in 1974, Allan Renouf, DFAT Secretary said that “we live in a world of change of an unprecedented rate and degree which makes great demands on our entire human and natural resources” (Gyngell and Wesley 2007, p.10). Since 1845, it can be said that the pace of change in the international arena has continued to be consistent in security and economic matters, presenting a fluid and doubtful security situation both in the region and also globally (Gyngell and Wesley 2007, p.10).

Currently, Australia is faced with the wider new global challenges that, to an extent, will reshape the countries traditional ways of dealing with the world. In this era of the world characterized by increased globalization (Conley 2010, p.28), civil wars, the new security challenges, food and economic crises situations, the environmental challenges, the role Australia plays in the world will greatly change from the usual.

The question that can be asked now is whether Australia will continue to exert the influence it has exerted on the world front. Will its role and position in Asia-Pacific change? What will be the role of China in the region and how is Australia going to be affected? How effective will Australia handle the new arising global challenges? Will the Australian alliance with the USA in international duties be increased or reduced and will Australia be in a position to act in isolation on the world front?

This question becomes relevant especially when one considers the big role Australia has played in the world. Australia, since independence, has to some extent influenced world events specifically in the areas of humanitarian assistance, UN global missions, and more. What cannot be forgotten is that sometimes, in carrying out these duties, Australia has sought the assistance of its allies, the USA and Britain. All in all, Australia’s position and influence can be well captured by its role in the world arena (Devetak, Burke and George, 2007, p.61).

Australian capacity to influence the outside world has been classified as that of middle power. That is, Australia is large enough to have quite specific interests in global issues such as a healthy multilateral trading system or control of weapons of mass destruction; however, it lacks the capacity of great power to impose its will, that, like other middle powers, it is forced into coalition-building diplomacy (Gyngell and Wesley 2007, p.10). Australia’s foreign policy formulation that defines and directs its interaction with the world has raised a number of questions with regard to foreign policymaking in the country. For example, questions like; what makes some events major policy issues and others not?

Why does the Australian government set particular policy objectives and also frame them in a particular way? To what extent is the influence of the government officials and other organs in the formulation, execution and evaluation of the policies? How are the foreign policies coordinated and their influence in foreign affairs? These questions offer a contextual analysis of the Australian foreign policies that has to transcend from just examining the content but more to looking at the process of Australian foreign policy (Gyngell and Wesley 2007, p.6).

With the above in mind, does Australia punch above its weight on the world stage? This question will form the bulk of the discussion in this paper, with the focus been made on Australian foreign policy. Specifically, the paper will look into the political influences on its foreign policy, major political alliances across the world and the role that Australia plays in the Asia-Pacific region.

Australia’s Foreign Policy Process

Foreign policy can be characterized as a set of activities that take place across four distinct levels; the strategic, the contextual, the organizational and the operational (Gyngell and Wesley 2007, p.39). The policy-making and the policy environment are largely dependent on the policy process and it becomes important to explain and analyze how the different institutions and actors relate to each other. Basically, the ‘flow’ of the policy works through the components of the process and the important institutional determinants of policy as opposed to environmental determinants. In this way we are confronted by two questions in the policy-making; how are the various foreign policy institutions and actors involved in the policy process and what is the extent of their influence.

Generally, the policy-making process needs to concentrate on policy issues that involve distinct actors and institutions and to work with the issues that have competing interests or opinions (Gyngell and Wesley 2007, p.35). The foreign policymaking in Australia is regularly characterized by three properties: it is usually consensual rather than conflictual; its various actors play complementary rather than competing roles and the vast bulk of policy work involves ongoing policy issues or ‘flows’ and not the sequential and distinct decisions and initiatives (Gyngell and Wesley 2007, p.35).

Australia’s politics of foreign policy

In general, Australia’s foreign policy is the product of a political process that always combines factors that can be conveniently classified as either external or internal (Mediansky, 1997, p.13). External factors include the structure and institutions of the international system as well as broad developments such as the end of the Cold War and the growth in international trade and communication. Internal factors on the other hand refer to the policies of the government, the role of ministers and their departments, the platforms of political parties, the working of the Parliament, the activities of interest groups and media as well as a public opinion (Mediansky, 1997, p.13).

Political parties play a significant role in foreign policy issues, for example, Labor stresses the international activism that contributes to international norms and architecture like the UN, engagement with Asia and the opening of relation with China. The Conservatives, on their part, place pride in forging foundational agreements with the USA and Japan and orienting Australia towards Asia through initiatives such as the Colombo Plan (Gyngell and Wesley, 2007, p.150).

The DFAT in 2001, carried a survey on the question of bipartisan relation with regard to a foreign policy whereby, 42.2% had a view that Australian foreign policy is essentially bipartisan and it has always been that way, while 32.1% thought Australian foreign policy is bipartisan but was becoming ‘progressively less’ (Gyngell and Wesley 2007, p.150).

Australia’s Role in the Region

Australia has been faced with the challenge of reconciling its global and regional alliance politics. On ascending to power in 1996, Prime Minister John Howard argued about the negligence of his predecessors on alliance and instead of putting much weight to linking with the regional economies and polities in ways that belied Australia’s geography, culture and history (Taylor 2007, p.23). We must not forget that the USA has been an invaluable ally for Australia.

In its provision of pivotal support for Australia’s defense in World War II and its intervention in East Timor in 1999, the USA demonstrated at once the substance of the alliance for Australia (Kelton 2008, p.1). For Australia, the alliance with the USA extends the possibilities for the maintenance of its position in a region where some states’ population, military capacity and economic status will increase dramatically.

Howard, through the ANZUS, became determined in pushing for a reaffirmation of alliance purpose and principles, more so in countering the emerging powers of China’s communism and Indonesia, as well as the powers held by Japan (Wesley, 2006, p. 121). With the Sydney Declaration in July 1996, he moved Australia’s defense posture from one emphasizing ‘Defense of Australia’ to a more global orientation (Taylor 2007, p.23).

He has so far, deployed the Australian forces to distant such as in the USA-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The alliance has been of benefit in that the USA views Australia as its second most important ally after Britain which has created a dichotomy in Australian foreign policy. Also, Australia’s weight as a regional security actor has increased by its closeness to Washington (Mediansky, 1997, p.186).

In general, Australia enjoyed ‘the best of both worlds’ during the Howard government’s tenure by successfully building closer alliance affiliation through deployments of the military in support of USA global security operations while solidifying its regional economic and security ties. It has orchestrated this balancing act by pursuing four key strategies: capitalizing on its abundant natural resources by exporting its natural gas, coal, iron, beef and other commodities to China market, thus integrating fully to the region’s economic growth cycle; secondly, it has continued to project clearly independent diplomacy into the region by recognizing North Korea and also engaging in a more ‘pragmatic’ human-rights relationship with China; thirdly, it has fostered a wide array of political-military and military-to-military bilateral dialogues with nearly every state in the region; and lastly, it has sustained a commitment to confront an emerging ‘arc of instability’ in various parts of the South and Southwest Pacific by intervening selectively and appropriately in East Timor, in the Solomon Islands and in other sub-regional areas (Taylor, 2007, p.23).

In cultivating these strategic policies, Australia has successfully pursued a strategy of regional alignment, creating positive expectations among its neighbors that it will be a reliable and constructive partner in regional order building. Basically, it has complemented this posture with one of building closer alliance ties with the United States. The 2003 White Paper on foreign policy clearly elaborates Australia’s foreign policy as global in scope and concludes that “the security and prosperity of the Australian people depend vitally on the quality and strength of the political, defense and intelligence partnerships and the economic links that we are able to maintain around the world” (Taylor 2007, p.23).

Therefore, Australia’s key concerns, for now, include fears about regional order, both across East Asia, the WMD proliferation, transnational crime and a broader range of transnational issues including the environment, communicable diseases and energy and resource security. Though Australia is not taking an especially strong leadership role in the region, its policy is active and heavily focused on terrorism (McDougall and Shearman 2006, p.81).

Can Australia influence the Asian-Pacific?

Until the late 1950s, Australia’s relationship with the Asia-Pacific has been characterized by an attitude that is set apart by its cultural origins, political institutions, interests and aspirations (Lovell 2003, p.18, Conley 2010, p.128). The Australian sense of separateness led to restrictive immigration. Some countries in the region have continuously engaged in substantial defense build-ups and acquiring new technologies. Australia has responded by enhancing its own defense capabilities and engaging in extensive multilateral security cooperation (Rubin and Keaney 2001, p.248). The sense of Australian threat in the region has led Australia to look to ‘great and powerful friends’ first the United Kingdom and later the USA. Australia engaged with the region militarily and in alliance with its friends in the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War (Lovell 2003, p.18).

However from 1960, with the rapid increase in trade especially with Japan, Australia began to take a positive sense of place in the region. Therefore, the Australian importer of the Asian-Pacific does not lie only with the economic relations but also the security.

Moreover, Australia has begun to look to the Asian-Pacific as a way of enriching its identity. Therefore, the Australian foreign policy has to find a way ahead for Australia in a region that is of national and global significance. It must reassess its existing commitments and be open to new options. It has not just to enhance its own security but also the security of the region (Lovell 2003, p.18). Indeed, together with some other Asian countries, Australia has formed a web of police and intelligence agencies to enhance the security of the Asia-Pacific region (Ungerer, 2007, p. 11).


Australia’s external environment has changed dramatically in the last twenty years. The most remarkable of these changes was the downfall of the Soviet bloc and the subsequent ending of the Cold War. With the demise of the Soviets, the balance of power within the Asia-Pacific region changed fundamentally. The developments in the security sphere also spilled over to other dimensions of international relations. In addition, the post-Cold War world has generated new uncertainties in several dimensions of international affairs. International economic relations have become increasingly politically controversial posing new challenges for Australian foreign policymakers.

The growth of economic interdependency and the increasing integration of markets have ensured that the Australian government is not in a position anymore to insulate the domestic economy and the society from developments in the global economy. Australia has also embraced new issues in the international sphere. For example, environmental issues have been added to its international agenda. Also, Australia has evolved into a middle power state that is viewed to have the capacity and the credibility to put forward initiatives on various issues of international affairs and the diplomatic capacity to follow these through.

Using this position Australia has had the opportunity to promote the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group. For Australia to remain influential in the world, it will need to approach the emerging new challenges with wisdom, expand and integrate its economy far and beyond the Asia-Pacific, strengthen its military ties with the alliances and also pursue global peace where necessary. Nevertheless, Australia’s role on the global front is going to continue to attract attention both with confidence and suspicion for its global role is continuing to be great.

Reference List

Conley, T., 2010. The Vulnerable Country: Australia and the Global Economy. NSW, UNSW Press. Web.

Devetak, R., Burke, A. and George, J., 2007. An Introduction to International Relations: Australian Perspectives. Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.

Gyngell, A. and Wesley, M., 2007. Making Australian foreign policy. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. Web.

Kelton, M., 2008. More than an ally? Contemporary Australia-US relations. VT, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. Web.

Lovell, D. W., 2003. Asia-Pacific security: policy challenges. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Web.

McDougall, D. and Shearman, P., 2006. Australian security after 9/11: new and old agendas. VT, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. Web.

Mediansky, F.A., 1997. Australian foreign policy: into the new millennium. Palgrave, Macmillan Australia. Web.

Rubin, B.M. and Keaney, T.A., 2001. US allies in a changing world. N.E, Routledge. Web.

Taylor, B., 2007. Australia as an Asia-Pacific Regional Power: friendships in flux? NJ, Routledge. Web.

Ungerer, C., 2007. Australian Foreign Policy in the Age of Terror. Sydney, University of New South Wales Press.

Wesley, M., 2006. The Howard Paradox: Australian Diplomacy in Asia 1996-2006, Sydney, ABC Books.

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