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Getting some clarity: Foreign Minister defines Australia’s ‘national interest’

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Hon Penny Wong at the ANZMIN meeting in Melbourne, February 2023 (Source: Defence)

For many, the idea of “national interest” is a hangover from a bygone age, outdated in the modern globalised world. However, our adversaries are using their “national interest” to galvanise their people and pursue their ambitious, revisionist agenda, so it is finally good to get some clarity around ours.

For many, the idea of “national interest” is a hangover from a bygone age, outdated in the modern globalised world. However, our adversaries are using their “national interest” to galvanise their people and pursue their ambitious, revisionist agenda, so it is finally good to get some clarity around ours.

If you asked the average Australian either on the street, around the bar or at the table at their local cafe on a Saturday morning, “Could you tell me what Australia’s national interests are?”, odds are you’ll be met with a confused look and one of a few responses.

Ranging from, “Huh, what’s that?” to a number of variations on “Australia shouldn’t be upholding the imperialist agenda of the United States” to finally a somewhat broad understanding of Australia’s national interest as “Anything that keeps the economy growing, streets safe and lights on”.


This wildly varying understanding of national interest has only been further exacerbated in recent years as the world shifted from the monopolar, US-dominated global order towards an increasingly contested, multipolar world order.

The rise, or perhaps re-emergence is more apt, of revisionist, autocratic and pseudo-autocratic nations across the world being spearheaded, in large part, by Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China and the rapidly developing parallel global economic, political, and strategic bloc is once again putting the concept of “national interest” on the forefront of public and policymakers’ consciousness.

In light of this, many a political pundit, strategic analyst, and policymaker has pushed for Australia to place great emphasis on our own “national interest”, with Foreign Minister, Senator Penny Wong recently providing some clarification about what qualifies as Australia’s “national interest”.

The Foreign Minister’s push to define the “national interest” comes amid the first official state visit by a Chinese leader in nearly a decade, with China’s Premier, Li Qiang, which has prompted a closer assessment and more considered conceptualisation of Australia’s “national interest”.

A more expansive definition

As part of establishing a more “expansive definition” of what constitutes Australia’s “national interest”, Daniel Flitton, writing for the Lowy Institute, provides an opportunity for Foreign Minister Penny Wong to detail the concept of our “national interest” in a more considered, detailed manner.

Flitton, referencing recent Senate estimates hearings, begins with Minister Wong’s more basic definition of “national interest”, where responding to Victorian Independent senator David Van, she stated, “Assuring our security, our prosperity, and our economic security. I don’t know that you could do an exhaustive list ... but fundamentally it is about ensuring and assuring that Australia is safe, secure, and prosperous in the world."

This seems rather straightforward and pretty easy to understand; however, referring back to the intellectual exercise we began with, many average Australians would be rightfully perplexed by the bureaucratic buzz words that have little bearing on their day-to-day lives.

The Foreign Minister added, “We don’t want a world in which disputes are resolved by power alone – by the use or threat of force. We have an interest in peace. Everything we do – whether it’s in our region, in our relationship with China, in our relationships with other powers – is about trying to assure peace and find ways in which conflict and competition can be dealt with in ways that don’t threaten peace. We have an interest in open, predictable trading arrangements. We have an interest in human rights and universal principles. We have an interest in the Pacific, in ensuring that members of the Pacific family provide security.”

Rounding out the Foreign Minister’s explanation, she added, “There are many areas where we would articulate in the narrow – in the specific – what Australia’s interests are. But I think that the highest level is about: what is it that we have to do in order to best assure and safeguard Australia’s security and prosperity? That’s what we should always be doing.”

Again, however, we are left wondering if the Australian public can adequately understand what the Foreign Minister is saying.

Keep it simple, stupid...

For most average Australians, our “national interest” is superseded by the “individual interest”, mainly that of their immediate person and their family, paying their bills, putting food on the table, and getting to work.

So it is easy to see and understand why for most Australians, the “national interest” is of little-to-no concern, particularly amid mounting cost-of-living pressures in this era of great power competition and grey-zone conflict we need to turn this around.

Keeping it simple enough for the average Australia to comprehend while also keeping the public informed of the severity of the challenges and not scaring the public will require masterful balancing.

In order to do this, we will need to adhere to the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle, but what does that look like?

For example, in the international context, perhaps Australia’s “national interest” could be summarised as: “Australia’s national interest focuses on promoting and protecting the opportunity, prosperity, stability, security and independence of the Australian people and business to conduct themselves in the world as good global citizens, free from the threat of coercion, manipulation or hostility.”

Meanwhile, for the “Australian public facing” side of the narrative, Australia’s “national interest” could be explained as: “Australia’s national interest is to build a better future of opportunity, stability, prosperity and peace for your children and future generations.”

Obviously, these are simple examples, but they get the message across.

Final thoughts

Regardless of whether we are in a “pre-war” or traditional “Cold War” environment, it is clear that successive generations of Australian leaders have let the country down, too entranced and seduced by the promise of “Peace Dividends” and the “End of History” to recognise the cold reality of the world, particularly developing concurrently with the “Clash of Civilisations” during the Global War on Terror.

Equally, many an academic, strategic thinker and policymaker were seduced by the march of hyper-globalisation and the ultimate triumph of liberal democratic values that either naively overlooked the importance of historical context, religion, ethnic loyalty and rivalry and ideology that has left Australia dangerously exposed and unprepared for the challenges we now face.

But it isn’t too late if we pivot and accept the realities we now face both globally and closer to home in the Indo-Pacific, we just have to as the US Marines say, “embrace the suck”.

Responding to the challenges arrayed won’t be easy, but if we can engage the Australian public and industry early and bring them along, I promise it will be worth it in the long run.

Because if we don’t, when it comes to paying the bill, the cost will be too devastating to comprehend.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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