ABC The Drum

In pursuit of a values driven foreign policy, Australia isn't blindly following the United States, it's taking the lead. Becoming an enhanced partner of NATO is only the latest example of an approach that has taken us far afield from our core strategic national interests, writes

Over the past year, the Abbott Government has set Australia's strategic and defence policy on a dangerous trajectory.

Abbott is a true believer in the notion that Australia's security can best be found in a favourable global order. That is, the global dominance of Western values, in general, and individualism, capitalism, liberalism and democracy, specifically. To that end, any challenge to these Western values must be fiercely resisted, whether it is from Islamists in the Middle East or authoritarian regimes in Russia or China.

This foreign policy tradition has a long history in Australia. Many in Australia believed that it was within the global order built and defended by the British Empire that Australia was to find its security. British power and values created a favourable strategic environment. Following this logic, it made sense for Australians to die by the thousands defending British interests in the Middle East and Europe during World War I.

To date, however, Australia has had few prime ministers who have drunk the Western values Kool-Aide to the extent that Tony Abbott has. Even John Howard, who heavily leveraged shared values in forming his foreign policy, had a healthy respect for political pragmatism and a strong sense of the national interest. At present, these two latter elements are missing from the Abbott Government's defence and foreign policy.

Unlike some have argued, the Government has not blindly followed the United States into war in Iraq or in applying sanctions against Russia. Instead, the Government's rhetoric has consistently been out in front of the Obama Administration's official line. On both fronts, the Government has been eager to get into these brawls.

In addition, the Australian Government has been investing heavily in building stronger security relationships with those countries it views as having similar values to Australia. One of Abbott's first diplomatic moves was to ordain Japan as Australia's "best friend in Asia", Japan being the Asian country believed to be the most Westernised — in a cultural and ideological sense.

The Government is also preparing to strengthen Australia's security relationship with India with an expected deal on uranium exports. The Australia–India security relationship is likely to continue, if not accelerate, in the future. The Prime Minister has spoken at length about India's shared values with Australia and that it is "not only the emerging democratic super power. It's also the emerging English-speaking super power."

Further afield, this week Australia will become one of NATO's "enhanced partners". This move is designed to tie Australia even more closely with countries that share its values and ideology. The change in Australia's status in Brussels will do little to directly improve Australia's security. But, that is not the intention. It is designed to make it easier for Australia to join with the Western European nations in the defence of its values around the world.

At its core, there is little practical difference between the current Government foreign policy doctrine and that of the neo-conservative moment that characterised George W Bush's presidency. Both believe that democracy and Western liberalism are the superior organisational principles of society and these values should be defended around the world, by force if necessary.

Needless to say, Abbott's neo-conservative foreign policy doctrine is potentially extremely dangerous to Australia's interests. In his book Battlelines, Abbott pondered war with communist China, arguing that:

Led by America, most of the world would reject any attempt by China forcibly to reclaim Taiwan. In Australia's case, this would not be choosing America over China but democracy over dictatorship.

Shared values are not synonymous with strategic and national interests. In fact, they are completely unrelated. Strategic and national interests are the basis for sound foreign policy making, not shared values. At times, shared values and interests overlap, like in relation to the US–Australia alliance. But this is largely a coincidence and the alliance's value to both parties has fluctuated over time.

Overall, the threat of the Islamic State to Australia has been exaggerated. The Islamic State has set its sights on carving out a Caliphate in Syria, Iraq and then Jordan and Saudi Arabia, before it can even begin considering a global jihad. It is precisely this difference in strategy that caused the Islamic State to split from Al Qaeda.

The 20,000 odd Islamic State fighters should not be thought of as the German Wehrmacht storming across Europe in 1940. This small motley force has made considerable gains due to divisive sectarianism in Iraq, the lack of fighting spirit in the Iraqi government forces, and the sophisticated use of fear and intimation. They are not a direct threat to Australia.

The Australians fighting with the Islamic State are not a defence matter, but an intelligence and policing responsibility. Indeed, sweeping up returning Australian jihadists at the airport and then either charging or releasing and keeping a close eye on them is precisely what we pay ASIO $380 million a year to do.

Similarly, notwithstanding shared values, Australia has little strategic overlap of interest with either India or Japan. India and Japan have both shown interest in building a tight coalition of democracies across the Indo–Pacific region to begin the "soft" containment of China. This is in their interests. This is not in Australia's interests. Unlike India or Japan, Australia does not share a border or have territorial disputes with China.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are a long way from Australia. As such, Australia does not have a dog in that fight. The same can be said of the intractable Sino–India border dispute.

Why would Australia pick sides, let alone allow itself to drift towards the containment of China?

The real politik reality is that geographical — not cultural — proximity matters more to a countries' security. In Australia's case, that is first and foremost Indonesia and the countries of maritime South-East Asia. Historically, the Islamic extremism that has most threatened Australia (i.e. the Bali bombing and Jakarta Embassy bombing) has arisen from Australia's strategic neighbourhood. Other strategic trends that influence Australia's security environment, such as the rise of China and India, also affect Indonesia.

The immediate region should be considered Australia's area of primary strategic importance. Wider regional and global considerations are a distant second and third.

The rationale for picking fights in Eastern Europe and the Middle East and making better friends of Japan, India and NATO fails the strategic interests test. Especially when cast against the fact that Australia's relationship with Indonesia has taken such a beating since the Abbott Government came to power.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum