The ritual of Australia’s federal budget, with leaks, a lockup and then a flood of coverage about winners and losers often reminds me of an awards show. It’s the Oscars for fiscal fanatics, politics reporters and a boom-era government that has plenty of money to move around.
Last year, I went to Canberra for the festivities. This year I did not, which gave me a chance to focus on one element of the budget announcement: Australia’s relationship to the wider world.
A few items that factor into the equation (with figures in Australian dollars):
• Intelligence: The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) will receive a funding increase of $24 million for operations, plus $18 million for a legal review, along with $52 million for intelligence oversight. And there’s another undisclosed pool of money for undisclosed activities.
• Foreign Aid: Australia’s total aid budget will remain frozen at $4 billion until 2022, and is now at its lowest level ever as a share of the budget — 0.23 percent of gross national income. Aid is also shifting toward the Pacific, with plans to open a new embassy in Tuvalu.
• Border Security: Security at airports, international mail centers and air cargo facilities will be strengthened over four years as part of a comprehensive $293.6 million package of new initiatives.
• Immigration Support: Migrants will have to wait four years, up from three, to access welfare payments, saving the government $200 million over five years.
So what does this all add up to?
At first glance, it looked to me like a Trumpian shift — or at least a continued slide away from treating the world as a stage of opportunity and toward a focus on global threats.
I checked that premise with a few experts to see if I was reading the numbers right.
“Yes I think the budget reflects a shift towards a more uneasy, less confident and more defensive view of the world,” said Hugh White, a prominent defense strategist who recently wrote a lengthy essay on Australia’s global role. “Hence we have seen the militarisation of our foreign policy and the securitisation of our immigration policy.”
The context is striking. Australia is strong not weak, in its 27th year of economic growth, with a government surplus and an economy nearly as large as Russia’s.
According to the Lowy Institute’s new Asia Power Index, Australia is the sixth most powerful country in Asia, behind Russia and ahead of South Korea.
But by 2030, it is projected to drop to 13th. And instead of pushing itself and its values further into the world, as China, Indonesia and Japan are doing, Australia still seems more interested in circling the wagons and seeking protection.
“This is also reflected very plainly in the growing worries about China,” Mr. White said. “Where once it was seen overwhelmingly as a source of economic opportunity it is now seen more and more as a source of political, strategic and even ideological threats.”
Some analysts argue that there is still a lot of diplomatic work and “soft power” in the mix.
Jacinta Carroll, director of national security policy at the Australian National University, defended the budget’s foreign policy priorities, noting that they fall in line with the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, and include a greater focus on Australia’s closest neighbors in the Pacific.
“It’s rare to see a new High Commission open, but a permanent diplomatic presence is vital to a strong relationship so it’s great news that Australia’s commitment to the Pacific is being strengthened by a permanent diplomatic post in Tuvalu,” she said.
Still, the Pacific focus is also in response to a perceived threat from China. And a good portion of that aid will go to security, not development or investment.
The United States and many other countries have made a similar shift. We’re in the midst of a moment when many of the world’s strongest democracies are looking inward, or investing in bonds centered around security. In a previous interview, Mr. White tied this to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but what I find interesting is how that mood of fear is adapting and finding new sources of anxiety.
“You have to worry, if this approach stressing defense and not foreign aid is a good one, given we don’t face any military threat,” said Stephen Howes, director of the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University “It doesn’t seem to be a balanced approach.”
In the long run, maybe the shift will be seen as prescient. My colleague, David E. Sanger, has a new book coming out called “The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age.” The impact of technology alone, to say nothing of entropic geopolitics, could eventually justify more spending on security and defense.
But having seen the way a resort to the American military often becomes the default response for foreign policy matters in many countries all over the world, I also wonder about momentum, and whether spending choices today might create self-fulfilling prophecies of conflict tomorrow.
As I wrote in one of my first articles about Australian-American relations, when you’re making a lot hammers, at what point does everything look like a nail?
Now for the news — from Trump and Iran to koala chlamydia and Met Gala fun — as well as a recommendation.
Underscoring my point above, President Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran jettisons a deal in favor of a return to tension and potential conflict.
Why do it? Mr. Trump and his Middle East allies are betting, with great risk, that they can cut Iran’s economic lifeline and thus “break the regime.”
The columnist Bret Stephens argues that the deal is worth abandoning, if the Trump administration follows through on its tough talk.
Nicole Perlroth, our cybersecurity reporter, also pointed out on Twitter a risk that’s often overlooked: “(Among other things), the deal has constrained Iranian state/contracted hackers. By all accounts if @POTUS dismantles the deal, we can expect an extreme onslaught of Iranian cyberattacks.”
Declan Walsh recently returned to Benghazi, but rather than tell that story as a traditional newspaper tale, he turned to our new more visual format.
The result is engrossing, illuminating and jarring. We’re also looking for visual stories to tell from Australia and the region with this new story tool, so send us suggestions if you have them.
Great visuals, of course, need not come only from war zones. I spent far too much time clicking through the slide shows of elaborate fashion from this year’s Met Gala in New York.
• Thomas L. Friedman laments the lack of conversation across ideological lines, in both China and the United States. “If the Chinese are afraid to talk to one another,” he writes, “in America we’ve forgotten how to talk to one another.”
• Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo explore why democracies are breaking down, citing Myanmar as “a prime example of how outgoing authoritarian regimes can game democracy in their favor.”
• Bari Weiss meets and greets a group of American heretics making an end run around the strictures of mainstream conversation, including Christina Hoff Sommers, and tries to examine their appeal. What do they tell us about political discourse and where it’s heading?
And We Recommend …
I sometimes read alongside my children, using their school assignments as a way to learn about Australia, so when my son mentioned “Storm Boy” by Colin Thiele, I was intrigued.
I found a copy at a local bookstore and nearly wept when I reached the story’s end. Timeless writing, touching tale — I can see why it’s a classic.
Damien Cave is the new Australia bureau chief for The New York Times. He’s covered more than a dozen countries for The Times, including Mexico, Cuba, Iraq and Lebanon. Follow him on Twitter: @damiencave.