Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has laid out some tough parameters for her newly commissioned White Paper. It will set out a ‘philosophical framework to guide Australia’s engagement, regardless of international events’, have a ‘global focus’, and ‘look at how to maximise our influence (and) shape the thinking of other nations’, but none of these tasks is harder though than Bishop’s desire for the White Paper to be a ‘strategy’.

Strategy is a big word. Simplified, it explains how we will build a better future for ourselves, but then ‘better future’ has to be carefully and prudently defined. If you can’t do that, then the way to get there – the strategy – cannot be determined. Second, a strategy is not a plan. Rather, it involves interaction with other actors, all of whom have their own strategies and objectives. With the actions of all being interdependent, a strategy is constantly evolving, needing continual adjustment to keep on track for the ‘better future’.

Both these factors suggest that strategies should focus on something definite, and often this is either a particular country or some specific function.

The notion that a foreign affairs strategy should focus on a single country will sound unusual, but with about 200 states in the international system, prioritisation is essential. States can do many things at once, but activity is not the same as achieving meaningful results, even for great powers. In 2002, for example, American conservative thinkers such as Robert Kagan and William Kristol argued that America could invade Iraq and win the Afghan war. Turns out they were wrong.

This failed attempt at multi-asking is in sharp contrast to the American foreign policy of the Cold War, which focused largely on its relationship with a single country: the Soviet Union. Actions took place globally but for America the rest of the world was seen in terms of this central relationship. Other countries could help, hinder or distract the implementation of America’s containment policy but they were not important in themselves. The result was success, albeit it wasn’t pretty getting there.

Please click here to read the full “The Foreign Affairs White Paper probably won’t be a real strategy” article in the Lowy Interpreter by Griffith Asia Institute Visiting Fellow Peter Layton.