Engagement matters, but outcomes matter even more. As Anthony Albanese prepares to head to Lithuania for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Leaders’ Summit he should be thinking about the long-term opportunities this meeting provides for Australia to further strengthen our security partnerships, via a more permanent relationship with NATO.
Regrettably, this is a trip our Prime Minister appeared reluctant to make. It was only following intense speculation that he wouldn’t go, and some apparent text messaging with his New Zealand counterpart, that Mr Albanese confirmed his attendance.
In hindsight, the reluctance appears understandable. The immediate priority on the NATO agenda is Ukraine’s defence against Russia’s ongoing illegal and immoral invasion. Labor’s latest package of Australian support to Ukraine, described by military experts as “a disgrace“, underwhelming“, and “not what Ukraine asked for”, only reinforced the message that the Prime Minister is half-heartedly continuing Australia’s commitment to Ukraine.
Under Labor Australia is no longer the largest non-NATO contributor to Ukraine. And contrary to Prime Minister Albanese’s claims, we are not the largest non-NATO contributor ‘aside from Sweden’. We are not even the largest contributor from our own region, with Japan contributing over five times the support of Australia.
The latest Australian support package, announced last month, falls a long way short of Ukraine’s requests of Australia or those of our international partners. Ukraine’s requests included more Bushmasters, modern Hawkeis, Abrams tanks and demining equipment. None has been provided in this latest package.
Instead, a ramshackle package claimed to be worth $110 million has been offered. But it just doesn’t stack up under scrutiny. The value placed on the vehicles offered, many dating from the Vietnam war era, only adds up if it’s based on replacement value. However, defence aren’t being funded to replenish these offerings, so it’s little wonder they’re only recommending older equipment.
Equally, Labor’s humanitarian commitment to Ukraine, of $10 million, is a long way short of the $65 million provided in initial Australian support from the Morrison government. This imbalance makes no sense relative to the huge loss of life, services and infrastructure that has ensued due to Russia’s horrific attacks over the 14 months since Australia’s change of government.
Why does this matter, beyond the situation in Ukraine itself? It matters because right now we are helping to defend much more than Ukraine and also because we should be positioning to secure even longer-term advantages.
In the here and now, we are defending international laws and principles of particular importance to smaller or mid-size nations. Ukraine is a test case for the willingness of countries in the 2020s to stand up for the rights of smaller nations against their larger neighbours.
International rules and norms require respect for the sovereignty of nations, including recognised borders. Such treaties go further in defining acceptable behaviour to respect basic human rights, even in war. These are agreements that Russia is in flagrant violation of.
As a small to mid-size nation, amongst a region of similarly positioned nations, respect for sovereignty and international rules is critical to Australia and so many of our friends across the Indo-Pacific. It is in nobody’s interests for Russia and their very few friends to believe that fatigue is setting in amongst Ukraine’s allies, and that we aren’t serious about defending the rules or laws that protect each of us, as they are intended to protect Ukraine.
In a world more contested and threatened by autocracies like Russia, we also need to be looking beyond the immediate conflict towards the defences required to protect our nation, our rights and the international rules we depend upon. This is where our Prime Minister’s trip to the NATO Summit in Lithuania, in addition to supporting Ukraine, is relevant.
Put simply, we need to be doing everything possible to ensure that liberal democracies stick together, through thick and thin. NATO’s inclusion of a dialogue with the so-called AP4 nations of the Asia Pacific (Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia) is an opportunity to be embedded not wasted.
This should be Albanese’s objective: build the framework for Australia and our regional partners to enjoy a permanent seat in NATO dialogue. Australia should pursue this objective because NATO presents a unique opportunity for the broadest level of dialogue on security matters with likeminded liberal democracies of any fora.
On economic matters or the delivery of essential services the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) serves a crucial purpose, bringing together market economies to benchmark performance, deliver greater data consistency and advance policies consistent with our shared values.
In areas of human rights the multilateral frameworks underpinned by the United Nations provide pathways, albeit imperfect, for collaboration among likeminded nations to seek to uphold the rights and values we broadly share.
However, no similar forum exists on security matters, despite the growing need for one. Australia’s national defence is enmeshed in our alliance with the United States. Our intelligence relies upon the collaborative approach of the Five Eyes. Our military capabilities and the sovereign capabilities of our defence industry are now intrinsically linked to AUKUS. And we come together with other major Indo-Pacific democratic powers in the Quad.
Elsewhere, our spheres of diplomatic and trade cooperation are rich and necessarily diverse. The Pacific Islands Forum and Association of South East Asian Nations are essential pillars for our regional partnerships. We boast one of the world’s most advanced networks of free trade agreements, with the multi-party agreements of the 12 nation CPTPP and 15 nation RCEP agreements giving vast networks for cooperation. An EU-FTA would provide a strategic basis for greater collaboration with the biggest missing link in our trade networks.
Yet, in an age of threatening autocracies seeking to expand their reach and influence, it is critically important for like-minded liberal democracies to come together to ensure their collective security and coordinate defence of the same rules-based order that has delivered decades of relative peace and improving prosperity. NATO provides the logical forum for such dialogue.
With nearly 75 years of experience in bringing together the democracies of Europe and North America, NATO is already the pre-eminent entity for security dialogue across like-minded countries. NATO has proven itself capable through different crises, most recently helping to coordinate highly effective support for Ukraine against Russia’s invasion.
NATO’s decision over the last two years to include leader level dialogue with the AP4 nations demonstrates their awareness of the importance of bringing Indo-Pacific awareness and cooperation to complement their North Atlantic experience. Pursuing agreement to embed this additional element of NATO’s operations as an ongoing feature should be a key Australian objective in attending this year’s Summit. That, alongside delivering the military support Ukraine has asked for and so desperately needs, would be an outcome worthy of the dialogue.