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Multilateral Engagement and Good International Citizenship

Keynote Address to Monash Model UN Conference 2021, Monash International Affairs Society, 27 September 2021

Thank you for the opportunity to join you at the opening of this 2021 Monash Model UN Conference. Like many of the rest of you I’m going a little stir-crazy with the Covid lockdowns, and would much prefer to be interacting with you physically rather than online. But doing it this way is much better than not doing it at all, and I congratulate you all for the enormous effort that has gone into bringing the Conference together, and thank you again for inviting me to speak to you.

I’ve always been – going back to my foreign minister days – a big supporter of Model UN conferences as a really important way of getting younger generation Australians interested and engaged in international issues. Let me spell out in a bit more detail why.

The biggest problems the world is going to face in the decades ahead – the years when your generation is going to be making the policy choices, and providing the political and diplomatic leadership – are all going to require cooperative, collaborative solutions. By their nature they are not going to be able to be solved by unilateral action – however big and powerful individual states may be – nor bilateral action: they will need multiple states working cooperatively together.

The problems I’m talking about start with the big three existential risks, those threatening not just human welfare, but life on this planet as we know it – climate change, global pandemics, and nuclear war. But that’s by no means the end of the list. Among the other ‘problems without passports’, as Kofi Annan used to call them, are a raft of other arms control issues, terrorism, piracy, human and drug trafficking, other organised international crime, and the cross-border movement of refugees and asylum seekers.

There’s another class of problems that are not necessarily only capable of being solved by large-scale collective again, but which nonetheless often benefit hugely from broader international engagement, support and, where appropriate, pressure. I’m thinking here about meeting struggling states’ education, health, poverty reduction and development assistance needs generally; and of human rights protection, including an effective international response to the extreme cases of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes.

In all these contexts, collective or multilateral responses have to be energised and coordinated and effectively delivered, and most of the time that means working cooperatively through international organizations. And there is no more indispensable a set of international organizations than those in the UN family. Most people haven’t the faintest idea of just how many different roles are played by the multiple departments, programs, organs, and agencies within the UN system.

They extend across the whole spectrum of security, development and human rights issues I have mentioned, and many more besides, including world heritage protection and standard-setting in global transport, communications and intellectual property – all of this delivered, as I once calculated, at about the same annual cost as the Tokyo Fire Department, and much less than the administration of New York City.

As someone who has worked in and around the UN for a large chunk of my professional life, as Australia’s Foreign Minister, as head of the International Crisis Group, and working on a variety of expert panels and commissions in the international peace and security area, it’s an organization I have always loved, not only for its ideals but for its potential, and capacity –at least some of the time – to really deliver, as with the Cambodian peace plan Australia initiated. But at the same time the gap between the dream and reality can often be hugely frustrating.

My efforts, in particular, to advance the cause of UN reform – on everything from Secretariat efficiency to the redesign of the Security Council, to ensure that it began to reflect the world of the 21st century and not that of the middle of the last – were about as unproductive as anything I ever tried to achieve. But what we all need to remember, in the immortal words of perhaps the most famous and respected of all its Secretaries-General, Dag Hammarskjold, is that “The UN was created not to bring us to heaven, but to save us from hell”.

When it comes to Australia working productively with the UN, there is a troubling partisan divide. Labor governments, going back to Dr Evatt’s seminal role in the founding of the UN in 1945, have had an instinctive attachment to the institution and to getting the best out of it, which has simply not usually been shared by our Coalition opponents. They have always been far more likely to find common ground with US Republicans – like former Secretary of State James Baker, to whom I once said in semi-jest, ‘The trouble with you Americans, Jim, is that you have a reflexive prejudice against the UN’. To which his reply, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, was ‘No, Gareth, it’s not a reflexive prejudice. It’s a considered prejudice.’

I could say a lot more about how that Coalition prejudice has manifested itself in Australia– including in opposing (thankfully not successfully) our last campaign for membership of the Security Council – but would like to spend my remaining time opening up a broader issue for you to think about, of which this attitude towards the UN is just one part.

I am concerned that there is an established mindset in Australian politics and policymaking – and one from which my own Labor side of politics is by no means immune – that sees the only international relations issues that really matter as being those that contribute directly, immediately and obviously to protecting or advancing our traditional security and economic interests, with all the rest being discretionary add-ons, and not the core business of foreign policy.

So, fine if the UN system is delivering us a commercial opportunity, or an improved security environment in an area of possible threat to us. But why should we regard as anything more than optional extras anything else – fine if we are feeling generous or our consciences (perhaps stimulated by a domestic lobby) are starting to trouble us, but not otherwise compelling? Why, when there are unmet welfare needs at home, should we strive to meet the UN target for overseas aid of 0.7 per cent of GNI (which neither side of our politics has ever got close to, but which is now under the Morrison Government at absolute rock bottom, heading for less than 0.2 per cent)?

There is a real question as to how far we should take this kind of argument. Is it really the case that we should 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?

My own approach, which was applied by the Hawke-Keating governments when I was foreign minister— but rejected by the Howard Government which followed us, and has largely dropped out of sight since – is that answering these questions humanely goes to the heart of what it is for a country to be a good international citizen. And that being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen is not a discretionary add-on to the conduct of core foreign policy business, but should be regarded as part of its very heart.

My argument, which I am currently writing up at short-book length for the Monash National Interest series, and which will be published early next year under the title Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency, is, in short, this. Being and being a good international citizen is not only a moral imperative, based on the reality of our common humanity, but should be seen as a hard-headed third national interest in its own right, sitting alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests.

There are three very direct kinds of hard-headed returns delivered by good international citizenship. The first is that it gives progress a chance on global and regional issues requiring collective international action which might not otherwise be achievable. If countries only ever engaged in solving those problems where there own security or economic interests were immediately at stake, it would be almost impossible to build the broad consensus needed for policy change, with Climate here being Exhibit One.

The second return is reciprocity: if I take your problems seriously, you are that much more likely to help me solve mine.

And the third return, more intangible but perhaps most significant overall, is reputational: whether one is seen as a good country to invest in and trade with, to visit, to study in, and to trust in security terms; a good country to support for responsible international positions and to work with in solving those transnational issues generally.

The point overall is that good international citizenship squares the circle between idealism and realism: efforts motivated by idealism can generate realistic practical returns.

As to how one assesses whether any country is a good international citizen, a number of criteria have been suggested, including compliance with international law, and degree of commitment to multilateralism, including engagement with the UN. My own view is that there are four key benchmarks, all very concrete, which matter most in assessing any country’s record as a good international citizen. They are its foreign aid generosity; its response to human rights violations; its reaction to conflict, mass atrocities and the refugee flows that are so often their aftermath; and its contribution to addressing the global existential threats posed by climate change, pandemics and nuclear war.

And when it comes to judging how Australia’s record stands up against these benchmarks, my assessment, for what it’s worth is that it has been patchy at best, lamentable at worst, and is presently embarrassingly poor.

You’ll have to wait until my little book comes out before you can assess for yourself whether, on the evidence I compile and the argument I make, that judgement is too harsh. But I hope that you won’t wait until then to judge that there is something missing in the current mindset of our politicians and policymakers when it comes to taking as seriously as we should our global responsibilities.

If that mindset is going to change for the better, and we really are going to accept that being a good international citizen is not just a matter of boy-scout good deeds to be done when the mood strikes, but squarely in our national interest, it’s going to be up to you – the next generation of Australian leaders – to make it happen.

In preparing for that role, participating in this kind of Model UN Conference will get you off to a flying start -- so make the most of this experience, and the best of luck for the brilliant careers, and I hope in many cases brilliant international careers, that I’m sure lie ahead of you all.