Foreign policy describes the laws, orders or actions of a national government with regard to other nations and international bodies. Foreign policy includes activities such as adhering to international laws and conventions; membership and involvement of multilateral bodies like the United Nations; alliances and security agreements; trade agreements; and supplying foreign aid to developing countries or areas affected by natural disaster. Foreign policy is a critical area of policy because it shapes the nation’s relationship, reputation and trade status with its neighbours. It also affects a nation’s international standing, or how it is viewed by the rest of the world.
Foreign policy differs from domestic policy in a number of ways:
Secrecy. Unlike domestic policy, the development and formulation of foreign policy is usually conducted behind closed doors. Almost all foreign policy is decided and formulated by the executive government – usually by the prime minister, the foreign minister and the cabinet – rather than on the floor of the parliament. Deciding foreign policy in secret allows our politicians to review secret or sensitive information, and discuss regional and international issues frankly and honestly. Having this debate in a public forum would be inappropriate, as it would risk offending other nations.
Reactive not proactive. Foreign policy is usually shaped by global and regional events and conditions. Though there may be underlying principles or values, foreign policy is often reactive – in other words, it is formed as a response, not an initiative. Australia has a strong commitment to multinational groups like the United Nations, so some of our foreign policy decisions are only made after consultation or negotiation with the governments of other nations.
Less receptive to public pressure. Foreign policy is less influenced by public opinion and pressure than domestic policy, chiefly because of the two factors mentioned above. This does not mean that voters, the media and pressure groups cannot criticise foreign policy or attempt to influence it – but it does mean they are less likely to be successful. A criticism sometimes made about foreign policy is that because of its secretive formulation, the government is not accountable to the people.
External factors. Depending on the issue, formulating foreign policy can require consideration of a broad range of factors and information. Many of these factors – such as the foreign policy of other governments – will be outside the government’s control or influence. When considering matters of foreign policy, the government must research widely and work within the constraints of external factors and conditions.
Balancing interests. Because foreign policy decisions can affect Australia’s relationship with a number of countries, making these decisions is sometimes a delicate ‘balancing act’. A trade deal with Japan, for example, may have ramifications for our trading relationship with China; committing troops to a conflict in the Middle East may affect our relationship with other nations. The prime minister and cabinet must take these knock-on effects into account when making foreign policy decisions.
Bipartisanship. Foreign policy tends to have bipartisan support. There is a long-standing convention that the prime minister briefs and consults with the opposition leader on important foreign policy matters, particularly security issues. Opposition MPs are less likely to criticise foreign policy decisions in public or in the parliament, even if they disagree with them privately. This enables the government to present a ‘united front’ on foreign policy issues.