Australia Takes New, More Assertive Role in Region

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - In a shift from its traditional approach to crises in its backyard, Australia is gearing up to intervene in the affairs of a failing neighboring state.

The move is part of a new and more robust regional policy that could see Canberra not necessarily turning to the U.N. before acting in crises that could affect its security, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer indicated Thursday.

Instead, Australia was prepared to join "coalitions of the willing" to address urgent regional challenges, he told the National Press Club.

Downer's address outlined an assertive new doctrine from a government that backed the recent U.S. and British military action against Iraq despite the absence of specific U.N. approval.

In a clear rebuke to the U.N. and similar institutions, Downer said multilateralism had increasingly become "a synonym for an ineffective and unfocused policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator."

"Multilateral institutions need to become more results-oriented if they are to serve the interests of the international community, including Australia," he added.

"We cannot afford to be complacent and we cannot afford to spend time and effort on processes and institutions that are marginal to our interests."

In words that are unlikely to be welcomed by such critics of Australia as Malaysia and Indonesia, Downer also asserted that sovereignty was "not absolute," and that "acting for the benefit of humanity is more important."

He cited as an example the international community's slow response to the 1994 attempted genocide in Rwanda.

During question time after his speech, Downer stressed that he was not advocating ignoring international law.

The speech came as Australia prepares to send around 2,000 police officers and supporting troops to the violence- and corruption-ridden Solomon Islands, whose government has appealed for help to end a spiraling crisis.

Years of fighting between ethnic militias in the former British protectorate has brought the country of less than 500,000 people to the edge of bankruptcy, and the government exercises virtually no control beyond the capital, Honiara.

Downer said on Thursday that the U.N. could not have acted swiftly enough to address the Solomon Islands crisis. Most U.N. member states, understandably, knew very little about the small and remote nation.

Australia would notify the U.N. of its planned intervention, he added.

Earlier, Prime Minister John Howard told lawmakers it was not in Australia's interests to have "failed states" in its neighborhood, as they could become havens for international criminals and terrorists.

The deployment of the force will depend on the approval of the Solomon Islands parliament, which will debate the matter on July 8.

It may include contingents from regional partners New Zealand, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.

Navy and air force assets are also expected to be used in the mission, which Defense Minister Robert Hill predicted could succeed in restoring order "within a couple of months," if not sooner.


Canberra's policy in the Southwest Pacific has traditionally involved providing troubled countries with aid, but expecting them to solve their own problems, according to the government's Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

In a recent report, the institute said this policy should be challenged, because providing more aid to the Solomon Islands now would not only be unlikely to address its problems - it could well exacerbate them.

The failure of the Solomon Islands - which has virtually ceased to function as an effective national entity - had serious consequences for Australia, ASPI said.

"A failing state on our doorstep engages Australia's interests at many levels, from short-term economic, consular and humanitarian concerns to our most enduring strategic imperatives.

The report recommended a 10-year effort to salvage the country, with a first stage focusing on the restoration of law and order by Australian and other regional forces.

A multilateral agency representing the donor governments should temporarily assume control of the police force and government finances, and the plan's second stage should focus on rebuilding the infrastructure of the state, it said.

ASPI's Dr. Elsina Wainwright acknowledged that the government had been concerned that any action by Australia would be regarded as "neocolonialism."

"Is there a middle option between our present detachment and an attempt to reassert colonial rule?" she asked. "Can we intervene to help, and still respect the sovereignty and right to self-determination of our neighbors?"

Wainwright said these issues had been grappled with by other nations.

"Over the past decade there has been a worldwide reexamination of these issues as the international community has come to terms with the challenges posed by failed and failing states, and more recently by the need to respond to the risks posed by rogue states like Iraq."

She cited the situations in the Balkans, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda and elsewhere.

To avoid "the perils of neocolonialism," intervention should if at all possible involve the consent of the affected state, she said.

And for the same reason, although Australia had the capacity to undertake the Solomon Islands task alone, it should instead focus on promoting a multinational effort.


However Australia handles the Solomons crisis, the doctrine outlined by Downer this week is likely to draw fire from perennial critics of the Howard government like Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

In a recent speech that painted Europeans, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders as greedy, sexually immoral and warlike, the soon-to-retire Mahathir also accused colonialists of seizing territories to rob their wealth, oppress their inhabitants "and to commit genocide."

"For 450 years we have been under their colonial rule," he said. "Now we and other Asians face the possibility of once again being colonized by them."

The governments of both Malaysia and Australia's immediate neighbor to the north, Indonesia, have been critical of Howard's policies, painting him as a regional "deputy sheriff" to President Bush.

Both have been annoyed with Australia over travel advisories and other steps taken to help prevent citizens being caught up in attacks like last October's bombing in Bali, in which 88 Australians died.

Indonesia protested subsequent police raids on the homes of Indonesian-born Muslims in Australia.

Many Indonesians also still hold a grudge against Australia for leading a peacekeeping force to the then Indonesian-ruled territory of East Timor in 1999, to protect its people against pro-Jakarta militias angered by a pro-independence referendum.

East Timor eventually became independent last year.

See earlier story:
Leader's Plea for Help Underlines South Pacific's Desperate State (June 5, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow