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Australia as a Good International Citizen: Why should we care?

Presentation to Opening Dialogue Programme, Castlemaine State Festival, 25 March 2021

Devotees of Charles Dickens, as I’m sure many of you are, will well remember that wonderfully philanthropically-minded character in Bleak House, Mrs Jellyby, whose own large house is a riot of neglect – dirty and chaotic, filled with unwashed and badly dressed children, one of whom falls down the stairs completely unnoticed – where she sits in the middle of it all with a faraway look in her eyes, focused on and consumed by nothing else than the needs of the poor, benighted denizens of Borrioboola-Gha in the heart of darkest Africa. For Dickens, driving the point home with his usual sledgehammer, charity begins at home.

That sentiment has long been entrenched in Australia’s political psyche, influencing a great many policy choices. Whether it is as equally firmly embedded in the mind of ordinary Australians as most politicians seem to think is quite another matter, which I’ll come back to later in this talk. At the political level, I certainly have vivid memories during my time as Foreign Minister of the battles I fought at budget time each year with Finance Minister Peter Walsh and the Expenditure Review Committee to keep my aid program intact: they were the hardest I ever had to fight, always leaving blood on the Cabinet room floor. Cutting development assistance was always seen as the easiest of all savings to make because nobody at home would be affected, and there were always multiple competing domestic welfare needs to be met. For my colleagues, like Mr Dickens, charity did indeed begin at home.

My predecessors and successors have all had the same problem, with Julie Bishop and Marise Payne being particularly badly beaten about, to the extent that our overall aid budget has sunk now to its lowest level ever. It now hovers around 0.2 per cent of Gross National Income, as compared with the basic international target of 0.7 percent, one now met or exceeded by a number of countries with which we like to compare ourselves. We are now at the bottom end of OECD donors, with our ranking dropping from 8th in 1995 to 19th in 2019. Figures released this month reveal us as the worst performed of any rich-country donor in terms of the decline in our generosity over the last five decades.

The biggest problem in arguing for foreign aid is that it is not generally seen by the political class and senior public service as a core national interest. There are some exceptions to that, as when the present Government recently decided to increase aid to a number of Pacific Island countries to counter what was seen as China’s increasing influence there, and to donate Covid vaccines to PNG to counter the pandemic getting out of control uncomfortably close to our border.

But most of the time providing, or not providing, aid is not seen as something that directly and immediately affects our national security or our national prosperity. It’s neither a geopolitical interest nor an economic interest. It’s an optional extra. Helping poor countries to lift their people out of poverty may be a morally attractive thing to do, but this is seen as boy-scout-good-deeds stuff, not the hard-headed pursuit of real national interests.

And the same issue arises in multiple other contexts, not just aid. Should Australians care about refugees from Afghanistan and Iran and Sri Lanka and Myanmar only because they might become queue-jumping asylum seekers threatening our territorial integrity by arriving by boat? Should we care about terrorism in Syria and Iraq only because extreme jihadist movements of this kind may recruit deluded young men who may return to threaten our homeland security? Should we care about new Ebola outbreaks in West Africa only because the disease might turn up on our shores?

The big question, at the heart of it all, is why should we, not just in Australia but any country, care about poverty, human rights atrocities, health epidemics, environmental catastrophes, weapons proliferation or any other problems afflicting faraway countries when they don’t directly affect us - don’t have a direct or immediate impact on our own citizens’ safety or income?

Of course it is the primary business of any country’s foreign policy to advance and protect the national interest: we should be neither naïve nor defensive about this. But I have long been concerned that foreign policymakers, and those in the media and elsewhere who influence them, far too often think of national interests only in terms of that familiar duo – geopolitical, strategic, physical security-related interests on the one hand, and trade, investment, and prosperity-related interests on the other. And I have long been arguing, in Australia and in many forums around the world, as I’m going to do again today, 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.

At the core of the idea of good international citizenship is, above all, the idea of community – a key theme of this Castlemaine Festival. In this case international community – the idea that, however divided we might be in other ways, we are part of a global community and have an overriding obligation to act as good community members. That obligation arises, above all else, because of the reality of our common humanity. Whatever may be our differences in terms of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, language, caste, class or ideology, what we have in common is our status as sentient human beings: living, breathing, feeling human beings who can experience pain and suffering and humiliation, and who deserve to have our dignity as human beings equally respected.

Recognition of our common humanity means that people should be treated not on the basis of what we are as a result of our genes, or where we were born, or the circumstances of our upbringing, but on the basis of what we do, and above all on the decency or not with which we behave toward our fellow human beings. And when it comes to how we are treated and how we behave, what is true for individuals in our local and national communities is also true for whole countries in the global community.

How should we define what it is that makes a country like Australia a good international citizen? There are various ways of doing this. Sydney University’s Dr Alison Pert, for example, has written a wonderful book on the subject in which she focuses on two big themes, commitment to international law and to multilateralism, each of them with many sub-themes.[1]

My own instinct is that there are three big practical benchmarks which matter above all else: first, being a generous aid donor, supporting as best we can countries and peoples much less well off than ourselves; second, doing everything we can to protect and advance universally-recognized human rights – those enshrined in those great post-World War II charters, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic Social and Cultural Rights; and third, being an active participant in collaborative and cooperative attempts to solve global and regional public goods problems – above all the three great existential risks to life on this planet as we know it: health pandemics, climate change and nuclear war.

So, how well has Australia done on these three tests?

As to foreign aid, we started well in the 1950s with the Colombo Plan and remained high on the list of international donors in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, peaking at .65 per cent of GNI under the Whitlam Government. But our generosity has been diminishing ever since – when I became Foreign Minister in 1988 I inherited a commitment of just 0.33 per cent and, as I have already said, had an almighty struggle to hold it at that. And in recent years our record has been nothing short of lamentable: I have already made that point, and I don’t need to repeat it. If development assistance were the only test of good international citizenship, we have failed it.

On human rights, our record has been mixed, both at home and abroad – and what happens at home in the case of human rights does very much matter abroad, because all the world hates a hypocrite, a country that doesn’t practise what it preaches. In the Post-War world we started well enough with Evatt and the Chifley Labor Government’s active embrace of the new international human rights charters, but it wasn’t until the late ‘60s that racial discrimination at home – the White Australia policy and Indigenous issues - began to be seriously addressed, and later still before gender equality began to capture serious legislative attention. We have made major gains on Indigenous recognition with Mabo and the Keating and Rudd apologies, but still can’t get our act together on Bridging the Gap or the Uluru Statement’s demand for a constitutional Voice.

We were a leading international player in the struggle against apartheid, have been generally active advocates internationally for democratic freedoms and against capital punishment, and have given important support to the principle of the responsibility to protect (‘R2P’) against genocide and other mass atrocity crimes. But we remain almost alone in the world in not having a national bill of rights – an issue on which I have to concede the spectacular failure of my own advocacy both in and out of government over many years. And it has to be said that while we once had a proud record in accepting refugees from post-War Europe and Vietnam, our treatment of asylum seekers over most of the last three decades is an issue on which both sides of politics should bow their heads in shame.

My third benchmark – being an active participant in collaborative and cooperative attempts to solve global and regional public goods problems – is in many ways at the heart of what it is to be a good international citizen. What we are talking about here is 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. It’s a familiar list:: 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 cross border terrorism; and a world on its way to abolishing all weapons of mass destruction.

Australia’s record on these issues has again been mixed, periodically very positive, but not consistently so, and occasionally very poor, as with our foot-dragging on climate change. I have to say with as much objectivity as I can muster – although I can also rely on Alison Pert’s very academically stringent conclusions to the same effect – most of the positive periods have been under Labor governments: the standouts being Dr Evatt’s tenure as Foreign Minister, the Whitlam Government, the Hawke-Keating Governments, and the first Rudd Government. It is just the case that Labor in office has nearly always been more enamoured of multilateral institutions and processes than our conservative opponents.

To take just one example of useful Australian activism on global public goods issues, the issue of weapons of mass destruction. We took a major initiative in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, for which we received a lot of international credit, to bring to a conclusion the path-breaking Chemical Weapons Convention. And on nuclear weapons – the most indiscriminately inhumane of them all – we initiated in 1996 the Canberra Commission, which was the first international blue-ribbon panel to make a compelling case for their outright elimination, and in 2007 the jointly Australia-Japan sponsored International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which developed detailed blueprints for both cooperative risk minimisation and ultimate abolition.

While non-Labor governments have generally remained unhappily lovesick about nuclear deterrence, and the joys of sheltering uncritically under whatever nuclear umbrella Washington might be inclined to hold up for us in a crisis, I am happy to acknowledge that they have always been solid at least on non-proliferation – on resisting new players joining the nuclear-armed club – and did during John Howard’s reign play a critical role in bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to conclusion in the UN General Assembly.

If Australia has been much less consistently good than it could have been as a good, cooperative international citizen, it is important to appreciate that, here as in other countries, the problem lies more with our governments than the negative attitudes of our people. Among the most recent of the many opinion surveys making this clear is last year’s global Pew Research Centre Survey of over 14000 people across 14 countries, including Australia, which found huge majority (81 per cent) support for the proposition that ‘Countries around the world should act as part of a global community that works together to solve problems’, not ‘independent nations that compete…and pursue their own interests’, and clear majority (58 per cent) support for taking others’ interests into account and compromising with them. Other international surveys show consistently very strong public support for basic civil and political rights including free expression, fair judiciaries and regular competitive elections.

But what about foreign aid? Isn’t it the case that in Australia, as elsewhere, public opinion surveys reinforce the argument that it’s not just governments but ordinary people who are driven by the notion that charity begins at home? When the then Australian Minister for International Development stated in 2018 that '80 per cent of Australian do not support any further increase in foreign aid' she was in fact relying on a 2017 Lowy Institute Poll finding to that effect.

But survey questions can sometimes conceal more than they reveal. The 2017 Lowy Poll prefaced its question by telling respondents that the current aid budget was $3.8 billion. When its researchers revisited the question the following year they took a different approach. Instead of stating a dollar amount for the current program, they asked respondents how much they thought we should be spending on overseas development assistance. It turned out – and this is consistent with other research findings elsewhere about public attitudes to foreign aid – that average Australians had a wildly inflated perception of the size of the program. They believed it constituted about 14 per cent of the federal budget and should be capped at a lower level, about 10 per cent. But in reality aid’s actual proportion of the budget was 0.8 per cent. In other words, people thought we invested 17 ½ times the amount we actually did, and wanted us to be 12 ½ times more generous than we actually were!

That generosity of sentiment, it is important to appreciate, reflects what we also know about the compassion and generosity of ordinary Australians when it comes to actually donating themselves to international humanitarian causes. After the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 devastated communities in Indonesia around the region, while the Australian Government donated $60 million for disaster relief, the contribution from the general public through NGOs was $330 million! Australians are as compassionate as anyone else in the world when their attention is engaged on these issues.

So if the problem is not popular hostility to good international citizenship, in all the dimensions I have mentioned, what do we have to do to make our governments more committed?

In answering that question, I should say at the outset that of course it is not the case that Australian governments, even the most conservative and inward-looking of them, ignore entirely atrocity crimes, poverty, disease, the grinding misery of displacement, the use of chemical weapons, the awful human cost of natural disasters, or the risk of deadly conflict in faraway places. Sometimes governments do make commitments which cannot easily be characterised as advancing the traditional security-prosperity duo, and explain them in terms of meeting international legal obligations, or responding to requests from allies and friends, or – more often – as value issues: doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing.

It’s not in fact unusual for Australian governments, like others, to act in a value-driven way – not least in offering relief in response to natural disasters like tidal waves in Aceh or earthquakes in Nepal. And in doing so, as we have seen, they will often find themselves reflecting genuine community sentiment.

But the trouble is that most of the time when governments, both Australian and others, do act in this way, their actions are seen, as I stated at the outset, as discretionary add-ons, the foreign policy equivalent of boy-scout good deeds. This has wider implications for effective foreign policymaking. For both sides, far too much of this policymaking is wet-finger-in-the-air stuff, driven by domestic political priorities, paying more attention to opinion polls and focus groups – and the sometimes idiosyncratic predilictions and prejudices of party leaders (for too many of whom foreign policy is terra incognita before they get the job, but that doesn't stop them) – than intelligent analysis and systematic priority setting.

The bottom line is that if good international behaviour is just some kind of charitable impulse, and nothing more, that is an impulse that will – not always but often – have difficulty surviving the rigours of domestic political debate. Politics is a cynical, as well as bloody and dangerous, trade, often with very limited tolerance for embracing what cannot be described in hard-headed self-interest terms.

Which all brings us squarely back to the idea of being, and being seen to be, a good international citizenship as a national interest in its own right – needing and deserving to be thought of as a third category, right up there alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests. I don’t want for a moment to step away from the values dimension of good international citizenship actions – they will always be worth doing simply for their own sake. What I want to add to the argument is the idea that these actions serve not only our values but also our hard-headed national interests.

There are in fact two very hard-headed returns for a state being seen to be a good international citizen. First, enhancement of that state’s international reputation, is bound to work, over time, to its economic and security advantage. The Scandinavians, in particular have long understood this – think of squeaky-clean Sweden becoming one of the world’s biggest armaments sellers! Votes for contested seats at the table in influential international institutions are very often won or lost on the basis of country’s general reputations for decent and cooperative behaviour.

And second, being a good international citizen generates a will for 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: my help for you today in solving your terrorism problem or environmental problem or piracy problem might reasonably lead you to be willing to help solve my refugees problem tomorrow.

Another way of making the point I want to - that might appeal to those of you who have ever had the misfortune of having to study international relations theory – is to say that the idea of good international citizenship as a national interest squares the circle between realists and idealists, by showing that idealism can indeed be realistic.

What chance, finally, does this pragmatically idealist approach of mine have of actually being adopted by governments?

In Australia, this approach did in fact become a core part of our foreign policy discourse in the Hawke and Keating Governments from 1988 onwards, after – as you might expect - I became Foreign Minister. But it was explicitly rejected by Alexander Downer and the 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 under the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments, which have neither embraced nor disavowed, but simply ignored, it.

Internationally, my concept of good international citizenship as a core national interest has won a degree of recognition in the academic literature[2]. 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.

It is never easy in the conduct of international relations to get the balance right between that which you might want to do and that which you can do, and to take the community with you when you make hard choices. I don’t think I have ever been quite as cynically pragmatic as my friend and former colleague, US Secretary of State Jim Baker, when he memorably said to me once, in the context of an argument we were having about nuclear disarmament, ‘Well sometimes, Gareth, you just have to rise above principle’. But I did face many such dilemmas during the course of my own political career, and did have to make some tough compromises, as no doubt some of you will be quick to remind me when we get to question time…

So I am not pretending that it will always be easy for our governments to be good international citizens to the extent we might ideally like them to be. But the bottom line is that we have just one planet, and we are a global community, and they should give more weight than they traditionally have done to what Abraham Lincoln famously called ‘the better angels of our nature’.

The great utility of thinking of the concept of good international citizenship not just as a moral obligation but as a hard-headed national interest in its own right, is that it gives political leaders a whole new way of persuading themselves, and sometimes 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.

In short, there not just one but two big reasons why we should care that Australia is, and is seen to be, a good international citizen – because it is the right thing for us to do morally, and because it is our national self-interest. And if our political leaders think that being simultaneously idealistic and pragmatic is too complicated a story for them to tell, they should be reminded of Jimmy Maxton’s famous admonition as a Scottish Labour MP in the 1930s: 'If you can’t ride two horses at once, you’ve no right to be in the bloody circus'.

[1] Alison Pert, Australia as a Good International Citizen, The Federation Press, 2014

[2] E.g., Nicholas J. Wheeler & Tim Dunne, 'Good International Citizenship: a Third Way for British Foreign Policy', International Affairs 74,4 (1998) 847-870