When I first started saying, shortly after I became Australia’s Foreign Minister in 1988, that every country had a national interest in being, and being seen to be, a ‘good international citizen’, I was not conscious of that phrase having been used by anyone before me. I was simply groping for a way of articulating the sentiment that ‘purposes beyond ourselves’ – in Hedley Bull’s wonderful phrase– were really at the heart of every country’s core national interests, rather than being some kind of boy-scout-good-deeds afterthought to the real business of state. I was deeply conscious that ‘national interest’ talk had long been focused on the traditional duo of security and prosperity, and was trying to find a way of explaining how concern about faraway human rights violations, or poverty alleviation, or environmental problems, or nuclear arms control, could possibly fit within that matrix, when progress or lack of it on so many of these issues seemed to most people to have no immediate consequences for them.
I was unhappy with the idea that it was ‘Australian values’ or ‘US values’ or some superior brand of morality that was the motivator for some states being more willing than others to wrestle with what were coming to be called ‘transnational ’, or ‘global public goods’, or ‘ global commons’ issues: this was just too self-satisfied for words. Moreover, if good international behaviour was simply some kind of charitable impulse, that was an impulse that would often have difficulty surviving the rigours of domestic political debate. Politics was a cynical, as well as bloody and dangerous, trade, often with very limited tolerance for embracing what could not be described in hard-headed national interest terms.
I wanted, in short, to somehow square the circle between realists and idealists by finding a way of making the point that idealism could in fact be realistic. Thus my formulation that, beyond its traditional geopolitical and strategic interests on the one hand, and economic interests on the other, every state should be pursuing a third kind of national interest: that in being and being seen to be a good international citizen. The hard-headed return for doing so was twofold. First, enhancement of that state’s international reputation, which was bound to work, over time, to its economic and security advantage: think of squeaky-clean Sweden becoming one of the world’s biggest armaments sellers! And second, getting the benefit of reciprocity: foreign policymakers are no more immune to ordinary human instincts than anyone else, and if I take your problems seriously, you are that much more likely to help me solve mine.
In Australia, this approach became a core part of our foreign policy discourse in the Hawke and Keating Governments from 1988 onwards, but was explicitly rejected by the conservative Howard Government which followed, in favour of ‘advancing Australian values’ language. It was then resurrected by the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments of 2007-13, but has subsequently dropped out of sight again, neither embraced nor disavowed by the Abbott Government which succeeded them. My concept of good international citizenship as a core national interest has won a degree of recognition in the international academic literature. But it cannot be claimed to have yet gained much traction with governments, despite my own multiple efforts over the years to persuade many of them around the world that they would have a much easier time selling multilateral commitments to sceptical domestic audiences if they worked harder at explaining the reputational and reciprocity benefits involved.
Nearly all governments, nearly all of the time, still think and talk of national interests wholly in terms of the traditional security-prosperity duo, and explain commitments which cannot easily be so characterised in terms of meeting international legal obligations, responding to requests from allies and friends, and – very occasionally, with disaster relief the most familiar example – doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing. There is rarely anything particularly coherent, consistently principled, or inherently persuasive about the way they explain these enterprises, and as a result they fail, as often as not, to retain consistent support, as with Australia’s carbon reduction strategies.
Alison Pert has done not only scholars but policymakers a great service in this book. She focuses far more concentrated attention than I ever did on defining the core idea of good international citizenship, and teasing out all its possible dimensions. She provides detailed benchmarks against which performance can be measured, and describes – with a myriad of strong examples from Australia’s history over the last 113 years – just what it means in practice for a particular country to be, or fail to be, a good international citizen. In the process, she creates a set of reference points, or standards, based both on compliance with international law and commitment to cooperative multilateral processes, which all governments should aspire to meet, and against which their performance can be measured. And she gives them, in effect, a whole new set of talking points to use in persuading possibly reluctant domestic audiences that pursuing ‘purposes beyond ourselves’ is not a fringe activity best left to missionaries and the naïve, but something that every state worth the name should be doing, by which it will be judged by the rest of the world, and by which its citizens will directly benefit if it gets it right.
‘Good international citizenship’ may be the best tool we have to drive home the understanding that there is absolutely no inherent tension between national interests, and international obligations both legal and moral. In giving our understanding of the concept new breadth and depth in this fine, path-breaking work, Alison Pert should give it new life not only in scholarly debate, but in the tough and too often cynical worlds of political and diplomatic debate as well. We will live in a better world if she succeeds.
Professor the Hon Gareth Evans is Chancellor and Honorary Professorial Fellow of The Australian National University. He was Australia’s Foreign Minister from 1988-96, and President of the International Crisis Group from 2000-09.