Address by H E Harinder Sidhu,
Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand
“Strategic Policymaking in a Contested International Environment”
New Zealand Security Sector Professional Development Program
Wellington Club, Wellington 18 May 2023
E ngā mātāwaka o te motu, tēnā koutou katoa
Good evening, everybody
It’s a great pleasure to be here this evening to speak to you all as part of this program.
My thanks to Victoria University and to Rosemary Banks for kindly inviting me to speak.
That invitation did launch me into a quandary as to what I should speak about this evening.
The best advice I ever had on giving a speech is to speak about what you know.
I am, like you, a security sector professional. I have built my career over decades in foreign policy, defence and intelligence, with the odd detour into economic policy.
But my heart is in foreign and strategic policy. It’s what I know.
I am, also, an Australian in New Zealand, with a unique vantage point for how our two countries work together – or could work together – on the economic and geopolitical environments we now face.
Foreign Policy and the current geostrategic environment
Before I go too much further, I should mention someone who isn’t here this evening.
Allan Gyngell, I know, was intended to speak to you all on this program. That he passed away only a couple of weeks ago is, for many of us in this space, a great tragedy.
He was a friend, counsellor and guide to so many people, from Prime Ministers to young new diplomats. As he also was for me.
I enjoyed my debates with him. He would often disagree with me but always respectfully and with gentle humour. And when, occasionally, I could persuade him, that was for me a tremendous victory.
Right now, as we face the most challenging strategic circumstances in the world since the Second World War, we are in need of his insight and wisdom more than ever.
We no longer live in a benign strategic environment. If, indeed, we ever did.
The basis for the Long Peace that has existed since the Second World War – namely, the rules-based international order – is now being contested.
It’s worth reflecting for a moment what that order has delivered us. First, and most importantly, it has delivered certainty and stability. This has freed smaller countries from having to fight for space in order to navigate their place in the world.
That certainty has allowed us to focus on nation-building activities like development and trade, delivering prosperity to many countries through the world.
And finally, it has given voice and agency to all countries in the world, irrespective of size.
The rules-based order, at its core, constrains the untramelled use of power by large and rich countries against smaller ones.
But when that order is challenged or eroded, the certainty we rely on to make our way in the world is put at risk.
These strategic challenges take many different forms.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is often the first to come to mind.
In leading a military operation,in crossing sovereign borders to secure the territory of another nation, and in carrying out human rights abuses in the process, Russia – a member of the UN and the UNSC – is in clear breach of international law.
The actions we take in response to these transgressions have been clear and swift. As they should be. Our task is now to stay the course.
But we also face even more complex challenges. These are less neatly defined, and the solutions to them not so clear.
Economic and strategic competition in our region is growing.
We are seeing this play out in multiple dimensions and places. Increasingly, this is also affecting our region in the Pacific.
Military spending is accelerating. Overall military expenditure in Asia, for example, has risen 33% over the past decade.
The risks of miscalculation and conflict are rising.
At the same time, we are seeing the use of economic power to secure influence through, for example, unsustainable debt lending and coercive trade measures.
Cyber attacks, foreign interference and the use of mis- and dis-information are proliferating. These activities distort the proper functioning of our democracies and divert our resources to deal with them.
To these challenges, we add a softening global economy as the world slowly recovers from the economic and social shock of the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook, the global economy is set to shrink further in 2023, at a projected growth rate of only 2.8%, before expanding in 2024.
And – as Australia and New Zealand know only too well – climate change is no longer a distant problem but an immediate and pressing issue, demanding strong action on economic transformation and on adaptation to climate impacts.
Mapping a solution
It’s a gloomy picture. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we are using words like ‘polycrisis’ to define the environment we are now in.
None of this is unfamiliar to you, I’m sure.
It’s easy to admire the problem. It’s much harder to work out what to do about it.
Especially when what we are experiencing is unprecedented in our post-War history.
As public servants, we have a role – indeed a responsibility – to advise our governments on how to respond to protect and preserve the national interest.
Something Allan Gyngell once said has always stuck in my mind – “the job of leadership is interpreting the future to the present”.
If that is a tall order, it’s even harder today.
The future is always uncertain. The problem we face is now is that the present is uncertain too.
In this world, political leaders need to consider what place their nations will hold in that future and how to map a path to that place.
In a democracy, leaders also have a task to explain their intentions to the public, and to secure their support.
This last is also not easy.
Because it’s already clear that doing the same things we’ve always done is not adequate to deal with the comprehensive and interlinked challenges we have before us.
Rather, we need a different policy paradigm. And to get there, we need to deploy imagination, creativity and courage.
Let me reach again for yet more wisdom from Allan. His great contribution to foreign policy thinking was to articulate the value and importance of navigating grey areas. In his words:
“The primary function of foreign policy is to expand the international space within which the nation-state can operate; to increase its options and maximise its choices.”
In the face of future and present uncertainty, Allan’s dictum means that no matter how international events unfold, we will always have options to act.
What this means in practice will translate differently to individual nations.
Australia’s Response – a whole-of-nation effort
I can only speak authoritatively about Australia. So, perhaps as a case study, let me sketch out briefly how we are approaching this.
1.It starts with a clear definition of what is our national interest.
In this context, our interest is a world that is open, stable and prosperous – and where all countries can make their own sovereign choices.
It is, fundamentally, in the protection of the rules-based order.
We want to shape a region that reflects and supports our national interests and our shared regional interests.
2. Second, we look at the world as it is, and respond accordingly.
We recognise that we are in a very different world to the one we’ve known for most of the post-War era. The challenges we face don’t fall neatly into one category or other. They are multi-faceted and interlinked.
This means we can’t keep doing things the way we always have.
We have to shift our frame.
3. Third, we design solutions that are appropriate to the world we see.
Navigating our way in the world today, expanding our options and securing our national interest for the future is an exercise in statecraft – coincidentally, Allan’s ‘word of the year’ for 2022.
Statecraft is fundamentally about how a nation uses its power in international relations.
A multi-faceted problem calls for a multi-faceted response.
In the words of Australia’s Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, we need to use all elements of our national power to advance our national interests.
These go beyond the traditional tools of defence and diplomacy. They include the strength and resilience of our economy, our action on climate change and the great asset that is our people.
We are proud to be a country that is home to the oldest continuous civilisation on earth – our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And a country whose multicultural population – representing 300 ancestries – links us to every corner of the globe.
Equally, for a response to be effective, it has to be integrated. It is by aligning the goals of foreign, economic and social policy in a whole-of-nation effort, that we can more readily achieve our goals.
Defence and Diplomacy: a changed paradigm
One example is how we are aligning defence and diplomacy.
Our goal is to contribute to the strategic balance of power that keeps the peace in our region, making it harder for countries to be coerced against their interests.
Australia’s Defence Strategic Review, released last month, is an example of how we are changing our thinking and posture to meet the current international environment.
It outlines the need for a force that now covers five domains – Air Force, Navy, Army, cyber and space.
It recognises that we need to rebalance our investments toward, for instance, long range strike and the maritime domain.
All this is to create sufficient deterrence to protect our interests.
But it also recognises that if deterrence is not accompanied by strategic reassurance, it will only raise anxiety among our neighbours and partners.
Diplomacy is our best tool to deliver that assurance.
The Defence Strategic Review explicitly supports a greater role for diplomacy and recommends that Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade be appropriately resourced to lead a nationally determined and strategically directed whole-of-government statecraft effort in the Indo-Pacific.
Assurance starts with relationships and trust.
We have been investing intensively in those relationships, particularly in the Pacific.
We know we need to be present, we need to listen and we need to respond.
Over the past year, Australian leaders and senior officials have made numerous visits to the Pacific. Foreign Minister Wong has recently completed her 10th visit to the region, having now visited all 17 of our counterpart member countries of the Pacific Islands Forum.
We have acted on climate change domestically and are scaling up our climate finance.
We are backing this up with resources. The Australian Budget of last week allocated a further $A1.9 billion to support Pacific priorities.
This investment was heavily influenced by the feedback we have received from our Pacific neighbours, through those high level engagements through the year.
We are listening and we are responding.
And finally, for all that we are doing, we know that Australia alone cannot shape a region or defend the rules based order.
Our international partnerships are critical. We want to work bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally – as we always have – to achieve our shared goals.
In the face of great power competition, it is tempting for many to hunker down and wait things out.
In doing so, though, we forget that we have a voice and we have agency.
We don’t need to act in isolation. By combining our efforts we can magnify our influence and better protect our interests.
Australia and New Zealand are no strangers to this. We have between us a long history of shaping international behavior, through creative and active diplomacy.
In all my years as a diplomat, I have never encountered a bilateral relationship where there is such a high level of trust and confidence by one partner in the other.
So it makes sense that, of all the partners Australia might wish to work with in this endeavour, New Zealand is at the very top of that list.
Unity need not be uniformity. What distinguishes us is also an asset.
New Zealand brings a strategic value to the region and the world in its own right.
Your voice carries moral weight.
Your strong Pacific connections both by virtue of strong Maori whakapapa links to the region and your Pasifika populations – means that you speak with authenticity to our Pacific partners.
In concluding, I want to draw out a few points for you to consider, as you work your way through these issues in New Zealand.
First, the Australian way is not the only way. Every country’s sovereign interests are different.
Second, we are in an iterative process. We are dealing with a system that is still in flux. So whatever policy frame we come up with, needs to be looked at time and again, to make sure we are still meeting our needs.
Third, all this is hard. It is challenging enough to develop responses to global issues using existing tools. To do that while deploying new tools differently, or creating new systems, is much easier said than done.
In part that’s because it needs to be done transparently. In a democracy, this will require working to build public understanding and support for a different way of doing things.
Navigating the way to strike a balance between competing national interests, creating public licence and managing complex international relationships will test politicians and policymakers alike.
If you’re after a professional challenge, then perhaps there is no better time to be working in the security sector.
It’s a sentiment that I know Allan Gyngell would share.
In a beautiful tribute soon after his death, Allan’s podcast co-host Darren Lim said:
In our final phone call less than two weeks ago, when it was clear that his continued participation on the podcast was unlikely, Allan expressed frustration that he was being substituted off the field at possibly the most important moment for Australian foreign policy in his lifetime. His motivation to continue the conversation, to continue the inquiry, and to continue the mission of the AIIA – to help Australians know more, understand more, and engage more in international affairs – was undimmed.
May that be an inspiration to all of us.
Thank you all for your attention.
Tēnā koutou, tēnā koutou, tēnā tatou katoa.
 IMF World Economic Outlook, April 2023, URL: World Economic Outlook, April 2023: A Rocky Recovery (imf.org) Accessed 9 May 2023
 Defined by the World Economic Forum as ‘a cluster of related global risks with compounding effects, such that the overall impact exceeds the sum of each part’ – WEF Global Risks Report 2023, URL: Global Risks Report 2023 | World Economic Forum | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)
 Gyngell, A., Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World since 1942 (2017, LaTrobe University Press), p.359
 Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs, National Press Club Address: Australian Interests in a Regional Balance of Power, 17 April 2023, National Press Club Address, Australian interests in a regional balance of power | Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs (foreignminister.gov.au)
 ‘National Defence: Defence Strategic Review 2023’ published 24 April 2023, Page 34. URL: National Defence: Defence Strategic Review 2023 | About | Defence