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The World Order Post Covid - What role can Australia play?

Address to AIIA Tasmania/University of Tasmania, Hobart, 29 June 2022

The world is a more fragile, volatile and dangerous place than has been the case for a very long time. The devastating human and economic consequences of Covid for so many countries should have been a global wakeup call, reinforcing a sense of the absolute indispensability of international cooperation in preventing and responding to cross-border existential risks. But the pandemic seems at least as often to have reinforced go-it-alone nationalism, playing too often politically into nativist suspicion of outsiders, and economically into reduced confidence in international supply chains and the more open trading system which has contributed so much to global prosperity in recent decades.

Russia’s legally and morally indefensible invasion of Ukraine in February this year has had even more alarming consequences for world order, with Putin’s unprovoked cross-border aggression amounting to the most head-on assault on a fundamental principle of global order since 1945 – with the horror compounded by the Russian military’s commission of mass atrocity crimes and Putin’s alarming revival of talk about the useability of nuclear weapons. The invasion has had a dramatic economic as well as security impact, contributing to exploding energy prices worldwide and increasingly alarming food shortages.

Add to this the tensions posed by China’s now undisguised challenge to US regional and global supremacy, and the increasingly illiberal and institutionally vulnerable character internally of too many of the world’s self-described democracies, not least the US itself, which have been the mainstay of the Post World War II rules-based liberal international order as we have liked to describe it. Putting it all together, there is a lot less optimism – and reason for optimism – now than there was pre-Covid, just three years ago, about the achievability of sustainable global peace, security and prosperity.

All this poses multiple challenges for Australian foreign policy, five in particular. First, navigating our own relationship with the United States, in an environment where for all the importance we rightly attach to our alliance, and for all the insurance we might think we have bought with all our past down-payments in blood and treasure in Vietnam and Iraq and elsewhere, we simply can no longer assume, if we ever could, that America – whoever is President – will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under threat.

Second, resetting our relationship with China, in an environment where we have to walk a tightrope – manifestly beyond our competence in recent years – whereby we continue to push back against unacceptable China overreach, both externally and internally, but at the same time recognize the reality both of our enormous economic dependence on China and the fact that geopolitically it is here to stay, and will no longer accept subordinate status, regionally or globally, to the US or anyone else.

Third, strengthening and making more obviously mutually respectful our relationships with our key Asian and Pacific neighbours, in an environment where these connections have not in recent years had the attention they deserve, given our geography will continue to matter much more than our Anglosphere-focused history.

Fourth, restoring diplomacy to centre stage in conduct of all our international relationship, in an environment where the decline in influence of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been sad to behold – totally marginalized by the current government’s obsessive preoccupation with defence and intelligence, an manifest failure to appreciate the crucial role of traditional diplomacy in advancing peace and security.

There is much to talk about in relation to all these four challenges, including the extent to which they are likely to be more effectively met by the new Australian Government – and I hope it’s not just my biases showing when I say that first impressions in this respect have been very reassuring. But for present purposes – given that my topic is the role Australia can play in the current world order – the challenge on which I want to focus today is the fifth on my list, but by no means lowest priority: restoring our global credibility as a good international citizen.

What I mean by being a good international citizen is, essentially, being a decent country: one 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. This is a dimension of our foreign policy which has too often gone missing in Australia 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 is also a dimension of international relations which in recent years has too often gone missing from the larger global stage, with many other countries behaving nothing like good international citizens. While there was a significant period of revival of international cooperation in the immediate post-Cold War years, and occasionally since – as with the G20 response to the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, and at least in the Western response to Ukraine – there is not much left of that spirit now in the UN Security Council, in many of the UN agencies and treaty organizations, in the World Trade Organization, and in most of the world’s regional organizations. We desperately need to help restore it at a time when this has never been more critical – not least in the context of the three great existential risks to life on this planet as we know it: pandemics, climate change and nuclear war.

In responding to the question what role can Australia play in the post-Covid world order – what role can we play, not only in protecting and advancing our own immediate security and economic interests, but in making the wider world in which we live safer, saner, more just and more decent – my answer, essentially, is for us to be a model good international citizen. We are not insignificant players, globally, in terms of our economic size – ranking 12th or 13th in the world – or in terms of our military capability, but we are never going to have the weight in either of these dimensions to be a really major player in major geostrategic and security issues or more than a marginal player in the global economy. Where we can be a major global player is as a role model for decency.

Australia has played that role in the past, particularly visibly, I think I can reasonably claim, during the Hawke-Keating Governments, with key examples, being our leadership role in the Cambodian peace process, the anti-apartheid campaign against South Africa, the Uruguay Round trade negotiations, bringing to conclusion the Chemical Weapons Convention, initiating the treaty banning mining and exploration in the Antarctic, and in creating significant new regional economic and security dialogue mechanisms, including APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum. We have ranked in the past alongside countries like Canada and Norway who have won lasting plaudits for various good international citizenship initiatives, including in Canada’s case sponsoring the Ottawa Treaty banning land mines and the International Commission process which led to the birth of the ‘responsibility to protect’ new international norm against genocide and other mass atrocity crimes, and in Norway’s case launching the Oslo Convention against cluster munitions.

Australia can play that role again, but we have a lot of catching up to do. To me, 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 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 our overall record has been patchy at best, lamentable at worst, and is presently embarrassingly poor:

  • 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: strong, for example, on apartheid and in our support in principle for the responsibility to protect against genocide and mass atrocity crimes, but weak on Israel in the Occupied Territories and more recently on Myanmar.
  • So too with our contributions to international peace and security. In peacemaking diplomacy we have largely gone missing in recent years, but have played some important positive roles in the past, notably in Cambodia. And I do certainly think that our strong bipartisan response to the current horror-story in Ukraine – where we have no direct or immediate security or economic interests at stake, but where the issues of international law and morality have been crystal clear - has been a classic good international citizenship response.
  • As international peacekeepers we have always done well, but accepted far too few such obligations in recent years: currently just four deployments with a grand total of less than fifty personnel.
  • 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 when persuaded to go to war for less just causes – as in Vietnam and Iraq in 2003 - 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, with my own party joining the race to the bottom, and still submerging its better instincts on issues like offshore processing.

In helping meet the three great existential risks to life on this planet as we know it, Australia’s international performance has been underwhelming or worse;

  • On climate change, manifestly our score has been, until now, a dismal fail, with our response grudging, minimalist, and earning us an unenviable international reputation, not least in our own Pacific neighbourhood, as a climate laggard.
  • In the case of pandemics, we have achieved at best a bare pass, though not matching our promise with actual performance in the South Pacific, and with our financial contribution to COVAX – the global program for distributing vaccines equitably, which is way behind its 2021 target – has been among the least generous of any developed country.
  • On nuclear weapons, the existential risk issue with which I have personally been most actively involved – now, extraordinarily, the subject of new threats by Russia, which cannot be entirely dismissed as bluff – Australia in fact has played in the past a major role in global agenda setting, not just on nuclear non-proliferation but disarmament, in particular with the major international commissions sponsored by the Keating and Rudd Governments. We can play such a role again in the future, if those on the non-Labor side of politics, and some on my own, can overcome their lovesickness with nuclear deterrence, and the joys of sheltering uncritically under whatever nuclear umbrella we believe the United States might be inclined to hold up for us in a crisis. A good start would be for us to support the growing international movement for the universal adoption of ‘No First Use’ doctrine by the nuclear-armed states. But that will need not only the election of a Labor government, but one that has recovered its mojo on these issues.

My hopes and expectations are high that the new Labor Government will do much better than its recent predecessors on all these fronts, and we are already seeing some changes, most obviously on climate policy. But a major change of direction across the whole spectrum of issues I have spelt out cannot simply be assumed. There any many competing claimants for any government’s attention, and many competing domestic priorities. When it comes to issues where there is no immediately obvious direct return to our national security or prosperity, the response one often gets from political hard-heads, both in parliament and the bureaucracy, 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 have spelt out at length in my recent little book, Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency, and 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.

The starting point in making the case for good international citizenship, not only to Australian policymakers, but those anywhere else m 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.

But the second part of my case for good international citizenship is that the returns are more than just warm inner glows. I have long argued that being and being seen to be a good international citizen is not just a moral imperative, but a national interest imperative in its own right, deserving to rank alongside the traditional due of national security and national economic interests. Decent behaviour can and does, I believe, 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. Sweden is not a bad case for the hard-heads to ponder: universally seen as squeaky-clean right across my decency checklist, a country with which no-one is reluctant to deal, it is – not entirely coincidentally, I would suggest – one of the world’s biggest conventional arms suppliers…

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.’

This leads me to the final leg of my argument for good international citizenship being an overtly core element of our foreign policy – the politics of decency. Behaving decently internationally, even when there is no obvious, immediate or direct security or economic return, is a lot more politically palatable, and saleable, than most policymakers, here in Australia as elsewhere, tend to assume. On all the available evidence, the problem in delivering decency lies not with the negative attitudes of our people, but our governments. Australian polling conducted by the Lowy Institute over the last fifteen years – and my understanding is that similar polling in the countries with whom we like to compare ourselves – shows clear, and often overwhelming, public support for just about all my benchmark tests of good international citizenship.

Overseas aid at first sight may appear to be the big exception, but on closer examination, it is anything but: it all depends on how the question is asked. The 2017 Lowy Poll, much quoted by Morrison Government ministers, told respondents that the current aid budget was $3.8 billion, recorded 73 per cent of respondents describing Australia’s aid as too much, or at best about right, certainly not justifying any increase. But 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 what percentage of the national budget they thought we should be spending on overseas development assistance. People believed it constituted about 14 per cent of the federal budget – $14 of every $100 spent – and should be capped at a lower level, about 10 per cent, or $10 per $100 spent. But in reality aid’s actual proportion of the budget was at the time just 0.8 per cent, or just 80 cents in every $100 spent. The arithmetic is revealing: people thought we invested seventeen-and-a-half times the amount we actually did, and were happy for us to be twelve-and-a-half times more generous than we actually were!

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. Decency is good politics. There may be room for argument as to whether these issues will ever be sufficiently central and salient to win elections – though the success in the recent Australian election of those campaigning for decent climate policy, and less indecent government behaviour generally, should give sceptics pause for thought. Certainly there is no evidence of which I am aware that taking a strong stand for decency in the conduct of international relations – against the kind of benchmarks I have described – has ever lost elections.

The bottom line is that 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 much higher than we have in recent years. 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’. Countries can be global leaders not just as a function of their economic and military might, but by the force of their example. It’s time for Australia to once again play that role.