Australia is a conservative country. I mean this not in the political sense, but in the philosophical and psychological sense. It is a country that does not like disturbances, valuing stability above all else. It has a strong and often myopic nationalism, but remains generally suspicious of demagoguery. It has a fondness for long-standing norms and conventions, but is comfortable when these are challenged with merit and through due process. It is a country that has welcomed a vast diversity of people to it, but also prizes the arms-length distance from the world its geography provides.
As an extension of Australia’s national psychology, this conservatism is the dominant feature of its foreign policy. Long-standing alliances are valued, mutually beneficial rules are advanced and protected, and revisionist actors are deemed suspicious. This can generate a clear-eyed vigilance toward forces that seek to bend or break the established order. Australia has led much of the world in recognizing that the Chinese Communist Party was not going to liberalize its own authoritarian psychology as China became wealthier, and in response Canberra has developed a firmer posture toward Beijing’s current belligerence.
Yet this conservatism also breeds a certain complacency. When problems are too difficult or complex to mentally adjust to, there is a tendency to retreat into denialism. This is where the country currently finds itself with its primary security partner in the United States, as well as its burgeoning major security partner in India. Both of these countries are exhibiting signs of becoming serious destabilizing forces, but Canberra has decided to simply pretend that they are not.
The current existential crisis within the United States – and in particular the chaotic behavior of the Republican Party – should be deemed Australia’s primary foreign policy dilemma, and not only because democratic backsliding in the U.S. encourages anti-democratic actors elsewhere. As Emma Shortis has recently written, what is Canberra’s plan should the U.S. cease to become a democracy? What will be the nature of Australia’s alliance with the U.S. should it fundamentally alter itself? And more specifically what is the fate of the Pine Gap intelligence base in central Australia, or the U.S. troops that are stationed in Darwin?
Australia’s foreign policy is psychologically bound to maintaining a great and powerful friend. This is another conservative, but also necessary, attribute. As a mere 26 million people clinging to the edges of a continent-size landmass, the country lacks the capabilities to have an entirely independent foreign policy. But its loyalty to Washington has led Australia to follow the U.S. into major follies like the war in Iraq, and this loyalty is also leading Canberra to simply live in hope that America’s current political instability is fleeting. Loyalty is a positive conservative impulse, except when it’s blind.
Australia’s vigilance toward China has seen it recently seek other great and powerful friends as an added insurance policy. This has led Australia to enthusiastically court India as another major security partner. Although India eschews alliances, it has begun creeping out of its previous posture of non-alignment, realizing that its own adversarial relationship with China is one that could do with some reinforcements. The two countries have found significant mutual interests.
However, India is also in a state of domestic turbulence, with a dominant political party that has radical impulses and a domineering mentality. While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may currently lack the power to fully implement the more extreme elements of its ideology, the party’s intent is what Australia should be wary of. Its majoritarian values — and agitated psychology — are distinct from Australia’s. The BJP is comfortable with creating internal disturbances to advance its own emotional needs.
There is a paradox at the heart of Australia’s burgeoning partnership with India. Australia desires a more powerful and internationally active India as a counterweight to China, but as India develops greater capabilities there is more potential for the BJP to become an internationally destabilizing force itself. While there is much debate over the existence of a Hindutva foreign policy, the fervent nature of the ideology may see India come to seek external power in the manner with which the BJP has done so internally.
Both the BJP and the Republican Party are not parties that simply wish to govern their societies. They are parties that seek to fundamentally alter their states, to infuse their respective states with new values that are opposed to previous governing principles. Given their size and influence, this may lead to disruptive global outcomes that will be difficult for Australia to handle both practically and psychologically. Having a sober understanding of this – and a contingency plan – should be part of Australia’s due diligence.
This is not a suggestion that Australia should forgo its partnerships with the U.S. and India; rather I mean to highlight that Australia now finds itself with significant added complications to its foreign policy. These are complications that may require the country to reach outside its psychological comfort zone to find creative new pillars to build its foreign policy around. A more purposeful engagement with Southeast Asia would be a start.
On Australia’s doorstep sits a massive country of 275 million people that Australia neither knows nor understands well. Australia’s conservative psychology has found Indonesia far too complex to engage with seriously and sympathetically. It has no common cultural entry point (unlike, say, cricket with India) and Australia has proved unwilling to extend itself to develop one. This is to its detriment.
National psychologies can obviously be difficult to alter, yet Australia is not in need of a radical reinvention. For the most part the country is calm, cautious, rational, and reliable. But it is also susceptible to romanticism and denialism, and has a prominent disinterest in complexity. Without an awareness of these attributes Australia’s conservatism may find itself sleep walking into an international environment that it doesn’t have the disposition to effectively negotiate.