Alastair Davis, Research Associate at the Lowy Institute, shares his conclusions after participating in the Leaders Programme
The Australian Leaders Programme 2017 included four representatives of prominent Australian think tanks. The Council Foundation, as part of its active communications policy, is publishing interviews with them.
Alastair Davis, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Studies and a Master’s in International Law, is a Research Associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, where he has taken part in numerous programmes and publications.
You participated in drafting the latest survey conducted by the Lowy Institute to find out about the views of the Australian people. What would you say are the population’s main concerns at present?
In Australia we are quite concerned about security issues in Asia-Pacific, especially about tensions in the South China Sea. We are also concerned about terrorism and any other kind of conflict in the region. I don’t think we are equally concerned about security issues in the Pacific Islands, but it could happen, and it is something to which Australian foreign policy must pay attention.
As a Western country – not geographically, but in terms of culture and economy – do you think Australia’s concerns and interests coincide with those of Europe generally speaking? Which are the main differences?
We share many interests and values with European countries. We have a very tight relationship with Europe, and historical bonds with countries such as the UK, but in areas like security our place is in Asia, and that is where our interests are. This is reflected in Australian foreign policy: just a quick glance at our foreign policy for this year is enough to see that it is strategically focused on the Asia-Pacific region.
That said, it is also true that we have a shared history and strong cultural ties with Europe. We have more ties to Europe than most countries in our area. This is reinforced by Europe’s growing interest in Asia-Pacific, and we are glad to see that countries such as Spain and France are paying a lot of attention to our region.
How do you think recent events such as Brexit might impact Australia-EU relations?
Brexit entails certain difficulties for Australia, since the UK has traditionally been our gateway to Europe. Obviously, given our shared language and history, we’ve always seen it as a useful point of entry to Europe. We do a lot of business with the UK and many Australian companies undertake their activity in Europe out of their UK offices, so we can expect some difficulties for Australian companies operating in Europe.
I believe this is something we must improve. Australia will have to increase its foreign policy efforts with the EU; even though we have great interest in maintaining strong relations with the UK, we need to diversify our contacts with different European countries such as Spain.
One of the items on the Lowy Institute’s survey points to the perception that Europe is losing ground compared to countries like China. The EU-Australia Leadership Forum will take place in Sydney this year. To which extent can strengthening ties between the EU and Australia benefit both parties in terms of their positioning with other countries?
I honestly hope these ties are strengthened. The increase in potential conflicts in Asia has led Australia to focus more on security issues in the region, but we still have very positive feelings towards Europe, as shown by the surveys. There is a strong cultural bond between Australia and Europe and we see you as important business partners, even if the international situation forces us to pay more attention to our region.
In spite of that, there is great coverage of European affairs, and we are truly interested in what happens here. Since 2016 this interest has increased due to issues such as Brexit and the rise of populist movements in the continent. I believe that taking measures to boost relations among Australian and European bodies will encourage the population to pay closer attention to those issues.
Personally, has your perception of Spain changed at all after taking part in the Programme?
My initial perception of Spain was already positive. This is the fourth time I’ve visited the country, although this has been a great opportunity to come for work and meet representatives of the Spanish Foreign Affairs and Economy Ministries, as well as members of think tanks… Thanks to them I now have an updated view of how Spain sees itself in the world and what its interests are in Europe.
It has been a fantastic opportunity for me to become better acquainted with Spanish foreign policy and the country’s economic and political situation. Programmes such as these are extremely valuable to understand how a country makes its way in the world.
Do you think initiatives like this programme can help strengthen relations between the two countries?
Well, I can certainly say you now have four new ambassadors of Spain in Australia (laughs). The four of us have had a great time in Spain this week. It has been time well spent and we’ve learnt about Spain’s interests and concerns, as well as about the current situation in Europe. I think the Programme has served its purpose.
What aspects of the Leaders Programme would you emphasise?
For me, one of the most positive aspects of the Programme have been the people we have had the chance to meet and the different sectors of Spanish society with which we have interacted. Although I’m personally more partial to discussions around foreign policy and contact with think tanks, some of the meetings with high-ranking officials have been extremely useful.
It has also been fascinating to see how large Spanish companies are working around the world and their impressive expansion into international business and trade. I believe that, even though Spanish foreign policy has been the highlight of the programme, it has also been positive to receive a general overview of Spain and its business interests worldwide, which also impacts foreign policy.
The benefit of a trip like this, in my opinion, is to get a multi-faceted view of the way Spain engages with the rest of the world.