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Australia in the World: Raising our sights

Inaugural Australian Studies Institute Lecture, Australian National University, Canberra, 10 July 2018

There is a lot to be said for modesty in the conduct of foreign policy, as in life itself. But it can be overdone. And when it takes the form of excessive deference and dependence – seeking and achieving less influence than that which Australia is capable of exercising in advancing both our own interests and those of the wider international community – that is a matter for regret rather than applause.

There are obvious constraints limiting the exercise of Australia’s diplomatic authority. We are not a great or major power, with economic or military might to match. We are somewhat geographically isolated, though much less than in the past. As a rusted on US ally – at least until now – with an unbroken record for more than a century of fighting Washington’s wars alongside it, we are not always seen, especially by the global South, to be as independently minded as we like to think of ourselves. Memories linger of our past racist policies, and we have to be more careful than most about charges of double standards or hypocrisy if our immigration or other policies are either wrong-headed or misunderstood internationally.

But against all this we have wonderful strengths: assets and capabilities giving real weight to our standing and reputation – some of them inherent or of very long standing, some much more recently acquired. We are by most measures the thirteenth largest economy in the world; by any measure we are the sixth largest by landmass and with the third largest maritime zone; we are one of the most multicultural countries in the globe, with a very large pool of fluent Asian language speakers – hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Australians alone – constituting a fantastic but so far under-appreciated and underutilised resource; and we have, belated though it may be, a strong commitment to our Indigenous people, as the whole world applauded with our apology to the stolen generation.

We bring to the table a unique geopolitical perspective, bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; Australians working in international organizations, both official and non-governmental, and Australian peacekeepers, have won almost universally outstanding reputations; we have had a strong and longstanding commitment to a rule-based global and regional order; and we have had a long record of demonstrated national commitment to the United Nations system in all its security, social and economic justice and human rights dimensions. Beyond all that, we have been seen for many decades as a creative middle power with global interests and a long – if not unbroken – record on both sides of politics of active and effective diplomacy, on global and regional as well as bilateral issues.

Looking back on the course of Australian foreign policy history, it is fascinating to trace both the continuities and discontinuities in the way those strengths of ours have been understood and applied. In identifying the extent to which different Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers have been active and enthusiastic international performers – punching variously above, at or below Australia’s weight – party-political and ideological divisions don’t seem to be a complete explanation. Personal, psychological traits are arguably just as important, and perhaps even more so: what matters most here may be whether our foreign policy leaders have been instinctively optimists or pessimists, or – in Manning Clark’s wonderful dichotomy – “enlargers” or “straiteners”.

While Australian political leaders were not entirely absent from the world’s stages in our first decades – most obviously (though not very helpfully for our reputation), with Billy Hughes’s performance at Versailles – Australian foreign policy, in the sense of a desire to pursue our interests combined with some independent capacity to do so, really only dates from the early 1940s. And the creation of any kind of systematic Australian foreign policy really came only with H.V. Evatt, whose most striking contribution was his internationalism. The part he played in the founding of the United Nations is the stuff of which legends are made, and rightly so – especially in his fight for the rights of the smaller powers against the great powers in the respective roles of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and in his faith in the UN as an agent for social and economic reform and as a protector of human rights.

But there were of course aspects of Evatt’s worldview, very much shared by the Labor Party of the time, which were not remotely broad-minded. Right up until the Whitlam era, White Australia and the prejudices which nourished it, and the perception of the world (and particularly our own region) as a dangerous place from which Australia needed to be protected, were very strong strands in the party’s thinking. The early support from Evatt and Chifley for Indonesia’s independence struggle against the Dutch was the closest we came to understanding the new forces at work in our region, and our need to reposition ourselves accordingly. This never became, however, a sustaining or dominant theme in our foreign policy at the time, and it certainly did not become one in the conservative era that followed, from 1949 to 1972.

There wasn’t much left of Evatt’s cooperative internationalism by the end of Menzies’s and his successors’ long reign. It is true that with the Cold War rendering the UN more and more impotent, and multilateral processes generally more and more sterile, there wasn’t much to pursue – other than as a regional extension of alliance relationships. And true it is that we developed, particularly under Casey, cordial diplomatic relations with the emerging new nations of the region; that Spender’s Colombo Plan made a very useful contribution to our long-term relations with Asia; that McEwen deserves credit for the 1957 treaty with Japan and the optimism and foresight that went with it; and that men like Hasluck, and particularly Gorton and Holt, had a quite open-minded international outlook.

But against all this there has to be weighed Menzies’s excruciating Anglophilia; the maintenance until the late 1960s of the full vigour of the White Australia policy; the stridency of our support for Verwoerd’s South Africa; the intensity of our antagonism toward China; the totality of our dependence upon the US; and the ultimate comprehensive misjudgement of our intervention in Vietnam. All this combined to reinforce the image, and the reality, of an Australia largely isolated and irrelevant in its own region.

The Whitlam Government well and truly broke this mould, undaunted by Cold War constraints and showing a great capacity, as Evatt had done, to match Australian foreign policy to the mood and needs of the time. Recognising China; bringing home our last troops from Vietnam; finally burying the White Australia policy; taking France to the World Court for its nuclear tests in the Pacific; and accelerating Papua New Guinea’s independence, were just some of the decisions in that tumultuously active 1972-75 period which set Australia on a new, confidently optimistic internationalist path.

While the Fraser Government which followed from 1975-83 was more than happy to re-embrace Cold War verities, and all the East-West division of friends and enemies that went with it, it is to the considerable credit of Malcolm Fraser himself that on the issues which mattered most for Australia’s long-term capacity to advance its interests, especially in the region, Whitlam’s policies were not only continued, but reinforced. Certainly both Fraser and his Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock both understood, as many in the Coalition for a very long time did not, the critical importance of abandoning government-legitimised racism in any form whatsoever, at home and abroad, not least in his embrace of Vietnamese refugees, in fact less reluctantly than Whitlam.

The Hawke and Keating Governments that took us through the next thirteen years renewed that spirit of activist, optimistic adventure, which had so characterized the Whitlam period, but – at least as I remember it! – in a rather more focused and systematic fashion. And we were able to achieve a great deal, including helping create the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and other new, cooperative, regional economic and security architecture; crafting the peace plan for Cambodia; securing the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention and advancing some major nuclear weapons objectives; playing a central role throughout during the Uruguay Round trade negotiations; building, with France, a strong coalition to save the Antarctic environment from mining and oil drilling; and in being a key player in crafting the financial sanctions strategy which finally brought down apartheid in South Africa.

Throughout our term we embraced wholeheartedly the optimism and new cooperative spirit that was abroad with the end of the Cold War. And we had a sustaining model of what kind of country we wanted to be, and be seen to be: a middle power with a strong Asia Pacific orientation, pursuing confidently and actively – at global, regional and bilateral levels as appropriate – not only clearly defined geopolitical and economic interests, but also what I have long liked describe as “good international citizenship” interests. This is a concept I will come back to, because I think it lies at the heart of how we, and other countries, should conceptualise national interests – and influence how we should set our foreign policy priorities – in this turbulent new world of the 21st century.

Throughout John Howard’s long term, to 2007, foreign policy was dominated by the Prime Minister himself, more than I would have found comfortable had I been in the shoes of my very long-serving successor, Alexander Downer. Howard was and remains the quintessential pessimistic realist: over-focused on hard rather than soft power, deeply comfortable in following the US alliance lead wherever it took us, unadventurous in seeking global or regional policy change, profoundly uninterested in the UN and the whole idea of transnational problem-solving by creative multilateral cooperation, and generally inward-looking. In his relationships with our Asian regional neighbours, and especially China, the wheel did turn back in his latter years, and his government did make major contributions to regional stability with Australia’s role in leading the East Timor and Solomon Islands peacekeeping operations. But Howard remained manifestly uncomfortable with the whole idea of our primary relationships needing to be in our own region, and quite unaccepting of the notion that our geography now mattered more than our history.

When the Labor Government was returned in 2007, with Kevin Rudd the dominant foreign policy player – as Prime Minister, Foreign Minister under Julia Gillard, and then as Prime Minister again making common cause with Bob Carr – I think it is fair to say that enlargers were back on centre stage in the conduct of our international relations. That was most evident in Rudd’s work on climate change (for all the domestic horror that issue generated for him); in building the role of the G20 in global economic management and potentially on a wider front; in trying to give serious content and energy to a new global debate on nuclear disarmament; in creating (albeit after a few diplomatic slips along the way) important new regional architecture in the expanded East Asian Summit; and in moving to claw back a seat at the table for Australia in the UN Security Council. It was also evident in Australia’s support – driven by Carr, and supported by Rudd in backbench exile, but opposed by Gillard – for moves toward recognition of Palestinian statehood in the UN General Assembly.

The two year Abbott administration was more reminiscent of the early Howard period than anything we have seen before or since, narrower in its geographical focus and certainly narrower in its ideological embrace, with the US alliance relationship front and centre, and multilateral diplomacy seen as of second or third order importance (except insofar as it involved the ‘Anglosphere’). Since 2015, Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership has provided rather more continuity with his predecessor than might have been expected, in foreign as in domestic policy, helped by Foreign Minister Bishop staying in that role, maintaining an essentially transactional approach and generally less preoccupied with policy than with management – of the department, consular administration, the aid program, and the mechanics of trade negotiation.

On the positive side of the ledger Australia under the present Coalition government was generally a very constructive contributor on a number of global security issues on the Security Council during our 2013-14 term (not least with our leadership on the path-breaking humanitarian access in Syria resolutions). We have also played an important leadership role in the General Assembly on a normative issue very close to my heart, the responsibility to protect (‘R2P’) peoples against genocide and other mass atrocity crime. Important bilateral trade agreements have been successfully concluded and plurilateral ones advanced, and a serious commitment has been made to the Asian education of next generation Australians through the new Colombo Plan.

But along the way we have gone missing on arms control, dragged our feet on climate commitments, and have exposed ourselves to a great deal of criticism on many fronts. Among other things: being caught eavesdropping on the Indonesian President and his wife and refusing subsequently to apologise; prosecuting whistle-blowers now for exposing the equally egregious eavesdropping on Timor-Leste’s cabinet in 2004; the extreme isolation of the positions we have regularly taken on Israel-Palestine (taken to grotesque extremes with our vote, alongside only the United States, in the Human Rights Council against establishing an independent commission of enquiry to report on the Gaza massacre); the international shame of some aspects – most notably the Manus and Nauru detention centres – of our asylum seekers policy (which I unhappily acknowledge has been largely bipartisan); our unwillingness to seriously call out or respond punitively to major human rights abuses in Cambodia, Myanmar and elsewhere in our region; and for the unbelievably savage slashing of our forward aid commitments, now at their lowest level (at 0.22% of GNI) since our development assistance began. And we are now beginning to stumble into zero-sum game territory in managing relations with our major economic partner and our major security ally, unnecessarily alienating China while putting too many eggs into a US basket where they are all too likely to be broken.

Criticisms of the particular failings of particular administrations aside, my more fundamental concern is that Australia’s foreign policy for most of the last two decades has had an extremely ad hoc feel about it, lacking overall shape and coherence, not founded on any systematic articulation of what our national interests are and how they are best advanced and prioritised, and certainly not enabling Australia to make the positive impact on the region and the world of which it remains capable. I have always believed in this context that while complete bipartisanship in this area is probably unachievable (other than in occasional races to the bottom, as with asylum seekers), given the long histories and distinctive cultures of both major parties, nonetheless we have often found common cause in the past, and we should try to find as much as we possibly can in the future, not least since it is well-established that foreign policy issues are not usually vote-changers for most voters.

I think the best way of finding common ground is to go back to basics: focusing on what are our real national interests, our capacity to advance and protect them, and the priorities for action that follow from that, recognizing that the logical starting point is interests, not relationships, and that how particular relationships are managed – with the US, or anyone else – should be a function of hard-headed assessment by us of our own national interests.

So what are our national interests? There is no argument about the traditional duo of geopolitical, strategic, physical security-related interests on the one hand, and economic and trade, prosperity-related interests on the other. But I have long argued that instead of thinking of national interests in just these two bundles, we need to think in terms of every country having a third national interest, viz. that in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.

And the touchstone of good international citizenship is being willing to engage in cooperative international action to advance global or regional public goods, or – putting it another way – to help resolve what Kofi Annan used to describe as “problems without passports”: those which are by their nature beyond the capacity of any one state, however great and powerful, to individually solve. We are talking here about such issues as achieving a clean and safe global environment; a world free of health pandemics, out of control cross-border population flows, international trafficking of drugs and people, and extreme poverty; a world without cross border terrorism; and a world on its way to abolishing all weapons of mass destruction.

There’s more to all this than disinterested altruism. In the world of today, whatever may have been the case in the past, these issues should be seen as core foreign policy business, nor optional add-ons at the periphery, to be pursued if you are into boy-scout good deeds, but not otherwise. My argument is that being seriously committed to cooperative international problem solving, even in areas where some sacrifice might be involved with no immediately compensating national security or economic benefit to ourselves, does indeed generate not just a warm inner glow but a hard-headed return.

First, through simple reciprocity: my help for you today in solving your terrorism problem or environmental problem might reasonably lead you to be willing to help solve my refugees problem tomorrow. And secondly, through reputational benefit: the perception of being a country willing to take principled stands for other than immediately self-interested reasons does no harm at all to one’s own commercial and wider political agendas, as the Scandinavians in particular have long understood. One of the attractions of the good international citizenship concept is that it bridges the traditional gap between realism and idealism, by making it clear that pursuing values and interests are not necessarily completely different ways of going about things: rather, the pursuit of values can also be the pursuit of interests.

Of course, however defined, interests are not the same as influence. Opportunities for influence in pursuing national interests are, in the international diplomatic marketplace, what is left over when a country’s capacities are discounted by the constraints which inhibit it. And foreign policy priorities then define themselves as those policy areas where a major interest coincides with at least some opportunity to influence its achievement. So in the present geostrategic environment – with all its multiple challenges – what are the opportunities for Australia to raise our sights, to make a positive difference not just for ourselves but for others, to punch not just at, but above, our weight?

There can be no argument but that the present geostrategic environment is extremely challenging. Big and often disconcerting geopolitical shifts have been occurring, most of them faster and going further than almost any of us would have believed possible not very long ago. The five big ones in our own region most demanding our attention are China’s rapid rise, America’s rapid comparative decline, India’s long awaited emergence as a major player, North Korea’s rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons capability, and ASEAN’s loss of a significant amount of its coherence and credibility at a time when both have never been more needed.

But overarching all these separate issues, each of which demand our concentrated attention, is a bigger one, namely that the assumptions which have sustained and underpinned Australian security and economic policy for decades are in meltdown. The post-Second World War global order – an open, rules-based system underpinned by a robust network of security alliances, and by effective multilateral institutions in which rules could be agreed and norms reinforced – is the only one we have known in our modern history. Its maintenance has depended more than anything else on American belief in the liberal norms laid out in the San Francisco peace treaty and the Bretton Woods organisations. As the Trump administration conspicuously abandons those norms, that order is now unravelling with remarkable speed.

Other factors have of course contributed to the current uncertainty. China, no longer content to benefit from the liberal global order without trying to reshape it, is now matching its spectacular economic rise with a determination to wield major political and strategic influence, regionally and globally. Russia under Putin, after a long period of post-Cold War quiescence, is using its Security Council and military authority to play itself back into the role of regional hegemon and global spoiler whenever and wherever it can. The European Union is divided and troubled. Few other intergovernmental organizations, including ASEAN in our own region, are punching at anything like their necessary weight.

But it is above all the United States that is now tearing up the order it did so much to create, with President Trump initiating trade wars, treating allies as irritating encumbrances, preferring despots to democrats, regarding multilateral institutions with contempt, and walking away from painfully negotiated international agreements – above all the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords – in a way which has left America’s word in doubt and its soft power in tatters. Even when this President does the right thing – as with the circuit-breaking Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un – it is manifestly with such superficial understanding of the issues, indifference to process, and fragility of temperament that it is hard for anyone to be confident that the ultimate outcome, which will necessarily involve protracted multilateral diplomacy, will be one of triumph or disaster.

It has not been unknown in the past – as I have good cause to remember as a long-serving foreign minister and international conflict-prevention NGO head – for the US to be insensitive to allies’ concerns, to justify consorting with dictators as necessary realpolitik, to be keener on international law in principle than in practice, and indeed to exhaust all available alternatives before doing the right thing. Nor is it entirely unexpected that, after all its hectic – and perhaps too often underappreciated – international commitment of recent decades, there should be a mood in the US for return to the kind of isolationism which prevailed earlier last century.

But what is new, and largely unanticipated, is America behaving neither as primary defender of the liberal international order nor as a state in inward-looking retreat from it, but rather what Robert Kagan has described recently as a “rogue superpower” – active, powerful, and recognising “no moral, political or strategic commitments ... no sense of responsibility to anything beyond itself”. It may be that this characterization is overdrawn. Or, if it is not, that the Trump ascendancy will prove an aberration, and normality will resume in 2020. But there is enough truth in it, and enough reason to believe that irremediable damage has been done to the world order as we have known it, for Australia to need to do some very hard thinking as to how we respond. I think the four key elements of that response can be summarised as “Less America. More Self-Reliance. More Asia. More Global Engagement”.

Less America. Continued US engagement in the region is certainly highly desirable, and I am not in any way suggesting that Australia should walk away from the alliance, from which we unquestionably benefit in terms of access to intelligence and high-end armaments, and – however flimsy the ANZUS guarantee may prove to be in reality – the notional deterrent protection of America’s massive military firepower. But less reflexive support for everything the US chooses to do is long overdue. “Whither thou goest, there I goest” might be good theology, but it is not great foreign policy for a country that values its independence and wants international respect. My own experience strongly suggests that periodically saying “no” to the US when our national interests are manifestly different, makes for a much healthier and productive relationship than one of craven dependence.

Neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat. While that was almost certainly also the reality under previous administrations, it has been thrown into much starker relief by Trump’s ‘America First” approach, and it should not be assumed that anything would be very different in a post-Trump era. I think the reality is, as Hugh White has repeatedly put it, that “we need to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America”.

More Self-Reliance. This certainly means being more of a diplomatic free agent: adding to our reputation and credibility with an activist foreign policy that is creative, proactive, value-adding and unconstrained by constant urge to look over shoulder to Washington. But more than that, it does entail, in military terms, building defence capability that involves not only more bucks than we are usually comfortable spending but getting a bigger bang for each of them. It certainly means maximising our capacity to protect our shores and maritime environment (including the South West Pacific) from hostile intrusion, but also means having a capacity to engage in military operations wider afield if there is a good national interest (including responsible global citizen) reason for doing so.

While defence expenditure has been increasing, with both sides of politics committed to maintaining it at a credible 2% – or slightly more – of GDP, given the size of our continent our capacity to defend ourselves against any really existential threat is limited. I am optimistic enough to believe that in today’s world the costs and risks of waging war so wildly outweigh any conceivable benefits for any significant player that the likelihood of a major conflict in the foreseeable future is very low. But defence planning always has to be based on worst case assumptions, taking into account potential adversaries’ capabilities, not just known intent, and in that context we are going to have to get used to doing more.

More Asia. This to me has two dimensions: on the one hand, strengthening our relationships at all levels with key regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, as a collective counterweight to a potentially overreaching China; and on the other hand trying to develop a more multidimensional relationship, not just a one dimensional economic one, with China itself.

As much as I would welcome Australia developing an even closer relationship with ASEAN as a whole – with all its potential for harnessing the region’s collective middle power energy and capacity – and to see that relationship perhaps extending to some form of associate membership rather than just partnership, I suspect that for the foreseeable future internal divisions, and the organization’s culture of extreme caution, make that unlikely, and that our efforts in South East Asia should be focused on its two heaviest players, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as our traditional partners Singapore and Malaysia. If some or all of we five countries were, for example to mount regular combined freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), quite independently of the US, in the contested waters of the South China Sea, China would need to think very long and hard about any retaliation. While China manifestly does not want to provoke violent conflict anywhere, it is clearly intent on recreating as much of its historical hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern neighbours as it can get away with, and a united front of middle powers might be more effective in resisting this than relying on an increasingly erratic United States.

There are also, of course, less potentially confrontational ways of giving clear messages to China that the region is not prepared to lapse into tributary-state mode. For example there would seem to be considerable scope for maritime cooperation on search and rescue (MSAR) and humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations – including involving Australia, India, Japan, and the US, alongside ASEAN members – which would promote greater interaction between armed forces without triggering so many political sensitivities.

It was in this humanitarian context, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, that in fact the idea of the ‘Quad’ was born – close military cooperation between the US, Japan, India and Australia. This is now, after a false start in this direction in 2007, being reborn as a more overtly strategic response to China’s new assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. While this has not yet developed further than four-way talks between each country’s admirals, with India remaining reluctant to have Australia join its annual Malabar naval exercise with the US and Japan, China paints it as having all the makings of a polarising alliance dedicated to its containment. While it is no bad thing, again, for China to get the message that overreaching behaviour will be met with pushback, it would be prudent for the Quad to be seen for now – and characterised by its participants – not as a grand new strategic alliance, but rather as a mechanism for greater working level foreign and security policy dialogue and military-to-military interaction in a newly uncertain environment. And a mechanism for which the particular attraction for Australia is closer engagement with India and Japan, not just relying on the US.

So far as China itself is concerned, it is critical – and I am glad to see last year’s Foreign Policy White Paper spelling this out quite clearly – to approach the relationship in a spirit of multi-dimensional engagement. We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for our prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on anything to do with security issues in the hope and expectation, almost certainly now misguided, that the US will do the heavy lifting for us on that front. None of this means becoming Beijing’s patsy, any more than we should be Washington’s: we should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values, and should be prepared to push back when China overreaches, as it has in the South China Sea.

But it does mean recognizing the legitimacy of many of China’s own security and economic national interest claims, including the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative: with us being a little less anxious about its regional security implications, and being prepared – with appropriate commercial caution – to be an active participant in the enterprise. And it certainly means recognizing the legitimacy of China’s demand to be now not just a rule-taker but a participant in global rule-making. In that context, one of the most productive ways of building content into Australia’s relationship may be to work more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on which China has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised.

More Global Engagement. Which leads me back, finally, to the proposition that more global engagement generally should come back into focus as a sustaining theme of Australian foreign policy, picking up the idea that ‘ being and being seen to be a good international citizen’ really is itself a core national interest, sitting alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests. Looking back over the course of the diplomatic history that I summarised earlier, it’s hard to argue with the proposition that Australia has been at its best, and our standing in the world highest, when we play to the national strengths I described at the outset, and have projected ourselves effectively on to the world stage as a country deeply committed to our common humanity and determined to do everything we can to make the world safer, saner, more prosperous and just.

In the contemporary world, every state’s security, prosperity and quality of life is best advanced by cooperation rather than confrontation, and Australia should be a relentless campaigner for just that. There are many global public goods issues on which we could make a positive difference, using our own strengths as a capable, credible middle power and the strategies of international coalition building that are the essence of effective middle power diplomacy.

To take just one example, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, where we have played a major role in global agenda setting in the past with the Canberra Commission initiated by Paul Keating and the Australia-Japan Commission initiated by Kevin Rudd, but badly dropped the ball toward the end of President Obama’s term. Had we then – along with South Korea and Japan, who could have been persuaded – supported Obama’s move toward a ‘No First Use’ commitment, the world might have taken a significant step toward reducing the salience and legitimacy of the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, and the most immediate risk to life on this planet as we know it. There is an urgent need now to bridge the widening gulf between those who want to do nothing and those who clamour hopelessly impractically for global zero now, and Australia is genuinely capable of playing a global leadership role in that process.

Opinion polls sometimes suggest, like the Lowy Institute’s in 2016, Australians are more or less evenly divided when confronted with a general question as to whether we should seek to play a more influential role in the world or just mind our own business. But when questions are put more specifically – e.g. whether our participation in the UN Security Council and G20 was worth the effort and cost -- other Lowy findings in 2013 and 2015 show very strong, two-thirds or more, support.

My own strong belief is that Australians just don't accept that we are another also-ran, and that any government which adopts a posture which concentrates just on our immediate neighbourhood and more obvious bilateral relationships, and remains myopic about what is capable of being achieved if we engage in a whole variety of multilateral forums with the skill and stamina which has served us so well in the past, will be a government that will simply not be playing the confident external projection role which most Australians want it to.

Our track record over many decades overwhelmingly shows that Australia and individual Australians are decent and committed international citizens, independently minded – and with a real egalitarian streak, something which plays well with a great many other countries with our strong record, everywhere from peacekeeping missions to diplomatic forums, of neither sucking up to the powerful nor kicking down at the powerless.

Playing to that instinct of decency, focusing on cooperative problem solving, using all the energy and creativity that has traditionally been associated with Australian middle power diplomacy at its best, will be far and away the best way of ensuring in the years and decades ahead, in a region and world in which the tectonic plates are shifting and every possible kind of uncertainty abounds, that this great country of ours not only survives but thrives.