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Good International Citizenship: The missing dimension of Australian Foreign Policy

Address to Australian Institute of International Affairs (Victoria Branch), Melbourne, 10 March 2022

What this essay is about is a dimension of our foreign policy which has too often gone missing in recent years, but which in my view is critical both to our sense of self-worth as a nation, and our international standing.

It was written some months before the Ukraine crisis erupted, but let me say right at the outset that Australia’s strong bipartisan response to Russia’s legally and morally indefensible invasion is a welcome example of exactly the kind of good international citizenship I am talking about: acting in response to a catastrophe unfolding far from our shores, not because there is anything immediately, directly or obviously for us to gain by doing so, but simply because it is the right thing to do.

Everyone gets it that the traditional core business of any country’s foreign policy is how we protect and advance our national interests in ensuring our physical security and material prosperity. There is a lot to discuss about how we manage both these dimensions – for example, in Australia’s case, how we should be navigating between the US and China, and how we should be building our defence capability in the present highly volatile international environment – but that’s not my focus here.

My argument is that there is a third dimension to any country’s national interests which should also be regarded as core business, and not an optional extra – and that is being and being seen to be a good international citizen. Or if you like, putting it even more simply, being a decent country.

What I mean by being a good international citizen, or a decent country is, essentially, being a country that others respect, trust and want to emulate, being not just wholly inward-looking, and wholly self-interested. Being a country that genuinely cares about poverty, conflict, human rights atrocities, health epidemics, environmental catastrophes, weapons proliferation and other problems afflicting people very often in places far from our own shores, and very often having little or no direct or immediate impact on our own security or prosperity.

The response one often gets from political hard-heads, as I can testify from my own Cabinet experience, is that this is really just boy-scout stuff – something nice to do from time to time if there’s not much cost involved, and maybe if there is some domestic pressure group to be accommodated – but not the real business of national government. My answer, which I hope will be seen as compelling, is that we have both a moral imperative and a national interest imperative to be, and be seen to be, a good international citizen.

Moral Imperative. The starting point in making the case for good international citizenship is simply that this is the right thing to do—that states, like individuals, have a moral obligation to do the least harm, and the most good, they can do. Answers will vary, depending on one’s philosophical or spiritual bent, as to what is the source of that obligation. But the striking thing is just how much convergence there is around basic principles, whether one’s approach to ethics is religiously or humanistically based, and whatever the cultural tradition in which one has been brought up.

We should think of advocates for different approaches to moral reasoning – whether Christian or Utilitarian or Kantian or Rawlsian or anything else – as a British philosopher has put it, as ‘climbing the same mountain from different sides’. In their different ways the different ethical traditions, both religious and secular, all point in essentially the same direction: demanding at their core respect for our common humanity. And recognition of, and respect for, our common humanity is the moral core of the concept of good international citizenship.

National Interest Imperative. But the second part of my case for good international citizenship is that the returns are more than just warm inner glows. Decent behaviour can generate hard-headed, practical national advantage of the kind that appeals to realists—and political cynics—as well as idealists.

I argue that here are three kinds of hard-headed return for a state being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.

The first return is reputational. A country’s general image, how it projects itself—its culture, its values, its policies—and how in turn it is seen by others, is of fundamental importance in determining how well it succeeds in advancing and protecting its traditional national interests. Over many decades of active international engagement I have witnessed, over and again, how this ‘soft power’ matters. It matters in determining 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. And it matters in being seen as a good country to support for responsible international positions and to work with in responsible decision-making forums.

The second return from good international citizenship is 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. The reciprocity involved is not always explicit or transparent, and subtlety will often be an advantage in achieving it. But no practising diplomat will be unaware of the reality, and utility, of this dynamic, and no government policymaker should be oblivious to it.

The third return is getting more stuff done – making progress on issues where the whole world, including us, does ultimately benefit, like climate change, but where the national costs for many players might seem for a long time to outweigh the benefits, and where the necessary collective international action is accordingly very hard to achieve. The more states that have a cooperative, collective, good-international citizenship mindset, the better the chance of these things getting done.

My argument that good international citizenship is both a moral imperative and a national interest imperative – that it is possible to be simultaneously both idealistic and pragmatic – might be thought by some political leaders to be too complicated a story for them to tell. My answer is to remind them of the famous admonition of Scottish Labour MP Jimmy Maxton, in the 1930s: ‘If you can’t ride two horses at once, you’ve no right to be in the bloody circus.’

Benchmarks. There are four big practical benchmarks which matter above all else when one is assessing any country’s record as a good international citizen. Being a generous aid donor. Doing everything we can to protect and advance universally recognised human rights. Doing everything we reasonably can to achieve international peace and security: to prevent the horror and misery of war and mass-atrocity crimes, and to alleviate their consequences, including for refugees fleeing their impact. And being an actively committed participant in attempts to meet the great existential risks posed by health pandemics, global warming and nuclear war.

Australia likes to think of itself as a good international citizen and from time to time has deserved to be so regarded. But only from time to time. Against these benchmarks – as I spend most of the essay, over 50 of its 82 pages, spelling out in detail – our overall record has been patchy at best, lamentable at worst, and is presently for the most part embarrassingly poor.

I’ll be happy to give more chapter and verse on all these issues in question time should you wish, but in short the story is this:

  • On overseas aid, we have been the worst-performed of any rich-country donor in terms of the decline in our generosity over the last five decades.
  • On human rights, where what happens at home very much matters abroad – nobody likes a hypocrite – our record has been at best mixed, sometimes ahead of the game, but sometimes lagging badly behind.
  • So too with our contributions to international peace and security. I’ve said that our response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an example of good international citizenship at its best (as I would argue was our response to the first Gulf War in 1991- Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait). But the general record has been patchy:

    • In peacemaking diplomacy, and responding to mass-atrocity crimes, we have played some important positive roles, notably in Cambodia.
    • As international peacekeepers we have always done well, but accepted too few such obligations in recent years.
    • In the case of actual warfighting we have been at our best when making our own decision to fight just wars, lawful under the UN Charter, and at our worst - as in Vietnam or Iraq 2003 - when persuaded to go to war for less just causes in the hope of buying alliance insurance protection against possible future threats to ourselves.
    • In meeting our responsibilities to refugees and asylum seekers, our record has been at times in the past a very proud one, but in recent years little short of shameful (though hopefully our response to Ukrainian refugees will balance the ledger a little)

  • As to helping meet the three great existential risks to life on this planet as we know it, our international performance has been underwhelming or worse:

    • A bare pass in the case of pandemics - reasonably responsible in our international response (the Chinese enquiry-call brainfade notwithstanding) but doing much less than we could and should have done in PNG in particular, and in financially supporting the international COVAX program
    • But a dismal fail on climate change, where our response has been grudging, minimalist, and done nothing to redeem our now well-established international reputation as a climate laggard.
    • On nuclear weapons, we have played a useful role in the past, and can again, in advancing both risk reduction and the ultimate goal of elimination, but in recent years our contribution has been more of an encumbrance than an encouragement.

The Politics of Decency. What is intriguing is that, on all the available evidence – as I describe in the last section of the essay, on ‘The Politics of Decency’ -- the problem lies not with the negative attitudes of our people, but our too often too cynical governments. Australian polling conducted by the Lowy Institute over the last fifteen years shows clear, and often overwhelming, public support for just about all my benchmark tests of good international citizenship. Aid at first sight seems the big exception, but on closer examination, it is anything but. People think we are spending much more than we actually do, and are willing to spend more than we actually are.

When governments have taken strongly principled good international citizenship positions, they have had no obvious difficulty in taking the community with them. The nervousness so many of them have shown has not had any obvious political justification. Maybe these issues are not sufficiently central and salient to win elections, but there is no evidence of which I am aware that they lose them.

A country with Australia’s general record and reputation as an energetic, creative middle power which has many times in the past played a world-leading role in international diplomacy, should be setting its sights higher. The bottom line is that we have just one planet, we are a global community, and our political leaders should give more weight than too many of them have done to what Abraham Lincoln famously called ‘the better angels of our nature’.

As I say in the essay, those in high office might rather prefer Berthold Brecht’s solution to what they perceive as a not very sympathetic electorate – ‘Dissolve the people and elect another’.

But the right course for the rest of us is to persuade our political leaders, on both moral and national interest grounds, to change their ways – and vote them out if they don’t.