home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency

Lecture to IDFR Distinguished Lecture Series, Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kuala Lumpur, 23 November 2023

Everyone gets it that the traditional core business of any country’s foreign policy – Australia’s, Malaysia’s or anyone else’s – is how we protect and advance our national interests in two big ways: ensuring our physical security and our material prosperity. My argument is that there is a third dimension to any country’s national interests which should also be regarded as our core business, just as much as those two traditional dimensions, 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 one’s 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 not only a moral imperative but also a hard-headed national interest imperative to be, and be seen to be, a good international citizen.

There is no standard, agreed definition of good international citizenship, and opinions will vary as to the best ways of assessing national performance. An obvious conceptual starting point is the Charter of the United Nations, which clearly states the new global organisation’s four defining objectives as peace and security (‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’), human rights (‘to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women’), international law (‘justice and respect for the obligations arising from … international law’) and development (‘to promote social progress and better standards in larger freedom’).

There have been some notable scholarly efforts to translate these broad themes into specific operational benchmarks. Sydney University’s Alison Pert, e.g., builds a checklist around two big themes, each of them with a great many sub-themes: respect for international law (encompassing both compliance with existing law and commitment to improving its content) and multilateralism (encompassing visible commitment to cooperative multilateral problem-solving in the UN and elsewhere). My own instinct is to distil all this into just four big practical benchmarks which I think matter above all else when one is assessing the record of any country as a good international citizen. They are:

  • doing everything one can to protect and advance universally recognised human rights—those enshrined in those great post–World War II charters, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
  • being, to the extent that one has the economic capacity to be so, a generous aid donor, supporting as best we can countries and peoples much less well off than ourselves;
  • doing everything one 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 collaborative and cooperative attempts to solve the biggest of all collective-action problems: the great existential risks posed by health pandemics, global warming and nuclear war.

Let me say at the outset that my own country’s performance against all of these benchmarks is, I’m afraid, nothing to brag about. Australia likes to think of itself as a good international citizen and from time to time has deserved to be so regarded. I hope we were during the Hawke-Keating Governments of which I was a part, particularly those eight years from 1988-96 when I was Foreign Minister and very explicitly made Good International Citizenship one of the guiding pillars of our foreign policy. And I hope, and expect, we will be again under the Albanese Government elected last year.

But, as I describe at length in my little book on this subject published early last year, our overall record has been, frankly, patchy at best and lamentable at worst. Certainly it remains embarrassingly poor, for example, on overseas aid, where we have been the worst-performed of any rich-country donor in terms of the decline in our generosity over the last five decades, and our present contribution, with ODA at just 0.19 per cent of GNI, puts us toward the bottom of the OECD list, not a matter of pride when we rank as the 13th richest country in the world by nominal GDP.

I would not presume for a moment to make any judgement about Malaysia’s performance against my four benchmarks: that’s for you to assess, not me. But I have no doubt that your new Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim – whom I have personally known, admired and respected since we were both Cabinet ministers in the 1990s – shares my sense of the larger responsibility that every state has toward making the world a better place for all its citizens, and would want Malaysia to be and be seen to be a good international citizen in all the ways I have mentioned.

While his empowering vision for Malaysia Madani – ‘Civil Malaysia’ – published in 2022 is essentially domestic in focus, at least two of its core concepts have direct and immediate relevance to our present topic: ‘Care and Compassion’ (or ihsan in Malaysian), involving concern for the health and welfare of others, and ‘Respect’ (or hormat), involving regard for the opinions, desires and rights of others. As Anwar himself said in his address to the UN General Assembly in September this year, all six of the core values articulated in his Madani vision (SCRIPT in the English acronym) – sustainability, compassion, respect, innovation, prosperity and trust – are essential in fostering a harmonious, flourishing and peaceful society, and “these basic principles and moral values also apply in the context of our relations with other countries”.

But to begin at the beginning: why does all this matter? Why should any country care about poverty, human rights atrocities, health epidemics, environmental catastrophes, weapons proliferation or any other problems afflicting people in faraway countries when they do not, as is often the case, have any direct or immediate impact on our own security or prosperity? Should Australians, for example, care about terrorist atrocities in the Middle East, and the actions of countries who breed them, only because extreme jihadist movements seek to recruit deluded young men who may return to threaten our homeland security? Should we care about Ebola outbreaks in West Africa only because the disease might turn up here? Should we care about the catastrophic humanitarian risks of any nuclear weapons exchange only if radiation-cloud or nuclear-winter impacts are likely to reach our own shores?

Isn’t all this sentimental-extra stuff, not the real business of national government? What has it got to do with what any country should really care about—advancing and protecting its national interests? These questions are often asked by self-described political realists – certainly in Australia, and I would be surprised if your experience is any different – and they have to be answered. My own answer, as I have foreshadowed, 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 Moral Imperative. At the heart of 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, whether one approaches the issue from a religious or secular perspective, 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. In the words of the British philosopher Derek Parfit, defenders of different approaches to moral reasoning are ‘climbing the same mountain on different sides’.

The main ethical traditions do not necessarily produce precisely the same answer to every practical problem to which one might seek to apply them. But the reality remains that they are all intuitively, emotionally or rationally attractive, and all point in essentially the same direction: demanding respect for 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. This is an understanding admirably captured in Anwar’s Madani vision, running consistently throughout its entire text.

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 towards 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. Recognition of, and respect for, our common humanity is the moral core of the concept of good international citizenship.

The National Interest Imperative. 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 foreign policymakers, and those in the media and elsewhere who influence them, far too often still think of national interests only in terms of the familiar duo of security and prosperity: geopolitical, strategic and physical security-related interests on the one hand, and trade, investment and prosperity-related interests on the other.

This does not mean they have ignored entirely some of the core business of what I describe as good international citizenship—mass atrocity crimes, poverty, disease, the grinding misery of displacement, 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—indeed—as value issues, where you are taking action just because it is the morally right thing to do. It is not in fact unusual for governments to act in a value-driven way—as Australia for example has many times in offering relief in response to natural disasters like tidal waves in Aceh, cyclones in the Pacific or earthquakes in Nepal. And in doing so they will often find themselves reflecting genuine community sentiment.

But the trouble is that most of the time when governments do act in this way, their actions are seen, by themselves as well as others, as discretionary add-ons—not as engaging in the core, hard-headed business of foreign policy. These issues are simply not given the same kind of priority as the advancement and protection of the traditional security–prosperity duo. This has wider implications for effective foreign policymaking. If governments do not think of these responses as core foreign policy business, fitting squarely, when properly understood, within a national interests rather than just values-based framework, they get increasingly drawn into the kind of ad hocery which I have to acknowledge has characterised the conduct, on both the Coalition and Labor sides, of too much of Australia’s international relations as well as domestic policy in recent decades, with too much decision-making lurching erratically from one position to another.

If decent international behaviour, of the kind I am describing as good international citizenship, is simply some kind of charitable impulse, the reality is that in our political culture—like that of many others—this is an impulse that will often have difficulty surviving the rigours of domestic political debate. That’s why I have long argued that the returns from good, selfless international behaviour are more than just warm inner glows: that such behaviour can generate hard-headed, practical national advantage of the kind that appeals to realists—and political cynics—as well as idealists. I have wanted, in short, to somehow square the circle between realists and idealists, by finding a way of making the point that idealism could in fact be realistic.

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

The first is progress on issues requiring collective international action which might not otherwise be achievable. Good international citizenship requires, almost by definition, a cooperative mindset—being willing to engage in collective international action to advance global and regional public goods. Putting it another way, this means helping to resolve what former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan used to describe as ‘problems without passports’: those which are by their nature beyond the capacity of any one state, however powerful, to individually solve. The list of issues requiring such multilateral diplomacy is familiar, covering a large proportion of what I describe in this essay as benchmark issues for assessing good international citizenship performance. They include bringing global warming under control, and achieving 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.

For states like both Australia and Malaysia, being willing to participate actively in such collective problem-solving does not—given the number of factors always involved, and their complexity—guarantee that solutions will actually be found, and that we will always benefit directly from them in security or economic terms. But while good international citizenship might not be a sufficient condition for such success, it is a necessary one, in the sense that collective-action problems will never be solved without enough states bringing a collective-action mindset to them.

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. My help for you today in solving your terrorism problem or environmental problem or piracy problem might reasonably lead you to be more willing than you might otherwise be to help solve my people- or drug-trafficking problem tomorrow. And our help in meeting your priority development assistance needs might not be entirely unrelated to your willingness to support our candidacy for a UN committee or key international post. 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, more intangible but perhaps most significant overall, 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 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 in responsible decision-making forums, and as one good to work with in solving those transnational issues that are beyond the capacity of any country to solve by itself. To be, and be seen to be, a good international citizen, in all the ways described in these pages, is a key element of what Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye has famously described as a state’s ‘soft power’. Such power derives from a combination of foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority), political values (when the state is seen to live up to them, both at home and abroad) and culture (where it is attractive to others).

Having the kind of reputation which generates soft power is particularly important for middle powers like Australia and Malaysia, those of us who are by no means insignificant in the global scheme of things, but are never going to be big enough and strong enough militarily or economically to demand that our interests be accommodated. We have to depend, rather, on our capacity to persuade, and to work cooperatively and constructively with others. In international diplomacy, as in life itself, the keys to being persuasive, and to working cooperatively and constructively, are being seen to be inherently decent. Being seen to be empathetic. Being seen to understand and be willing to accommodate the interests and values of others to the maximum extent possible. And being seen to be constantly searching for common ground, rather than just standing selfishly and defiantly and unthinkingly on one’s own.

One example I have often used of a state’s good international citizenship generating very traditional national interest returns is Sweden. Its well-deserved squeaky-clean reputation, developed over many decades, for aid generosity, human rights promotion, opposition to weapons of mass destruction, peacekeeping contributions and the like, has helped it to be, for many decades, a leading world supplier of conventional weapons, through firms like Bofors, Kockums and Saab. Sweden is not a country with whom anyone is reluctant to do business. For some, this argument takes pragmatism a step too far. I think of the Foreign Policy interviewer who asked me some years ago: 'Don’t you find it ironic that the example that comes to mind to justify the benefits of good international citizenship is the prospect of competitive advantage to the arms trade?’ To which my answer then, as it would still be now, was this: 'I'm being deliberately ironic because I want to make the point, very strongly, that good international citizenship is not just the equivalent of boy-scout good deeds. What you need to be able to do is translate the kind of values that might be cherished by those of us who are boy scouts at heart into the hard-edged vocabulary of political discourse.'

It is inevitable that the primary appeal of the concept of good international citizenship will be to idealists, those who don’t need additional arguments to be persuaded that good foreign policy must extend to ‘purposes beyond ourselves’, to employ that wonderful phrase of the great Australian international relations theorist Hedley Bull. But, properly understood, it should be equally attractive to the most hard-headed of realists. Focusing on the benefits to traditional national security and economic interests that will flow from systematically pursuing good international citizenship objectives will be crucial in convincing less idealistically inclined audiences, in the wider community but especially in government itself. It will be crucial in persuading them that such pursuit is not a fringe activity best left to missionaries and the naïve, but rather something that every state worth the name should be doing, and 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.

The Politics of Decency. One of the reasons why – despite the force of these arguments – governments in countries like mine have acted as good international citizens much less often, and consistently, than they could and should have, is that they tend to see domestic political risks in so acting. Charity, they will argue, for most people begins at home. We should be seen as focusing on our own needs, not others’; spending taxpayers’ money on ourselves not others. We’ll lose votes if we’re not seen to be acting on these priorities. And we’ll lose votes jetting off to rub shoulders at international conferences which, if they are about anything understandable at all, are far more about solving other peoples’ problems than our own: better to stay at tome.

But what is intriguing is that, on all the available evidence the problem seems to lie 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. Foreign aid at first sight seems the big exception, but on closer examination, it is anything but. Responses are negative because people think we are spending far more than we actually do, and they are in fact willing to spend much more than we actually are.

When governments have taken strongly principled good international citizenship positions, they have had no obvious difficulty, certainly in Australia, 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. True, things are possibly changing, and the kind of totally self-absorbed, inward-looking nationalist populism associated with Donald Trump and all who sail with him may be gaining more of a foothold in more of our countries than I am prepared to acknowledge. But I’d like to see much stronger numerical evidence for the decline of decency in our populations before declaring lost the case for our governments practising it.


I don’t pretend to have invented the phrase ‘good international citizen’, as applied to states as distinct from individuals: a Canadian governor-general is on record in 1967 describing his country in terms, the language has obvious rhetorical appeal, and no doubt other such quotes can be found. But insofar as there has been recognition in the international scholarly literature of the concept of good international citizenship operating as a practical pillar of state foreign policy – and, in particular, the idea of its pursuit by a state being accepted as a core national interest, not just a value – this has been squarely attributed to its embrace in Australia by the governments of which I was a part. In that literature the concept has been generally warmly received, and seen as a model worth following elsewhere in the world. But I can’t pretend that it has yet gained much traction with any other government of which I’m aware.

I hope I’ve done something to persuade you, nonetheless, that this approach has some real merit, both in principle and practice, and is worth embracing as a core element of national foreign policy. Here in Malaysia – with PM Anwar, with his Madani vision, having shown himself so receptive to the kind of commitment it involves – I hope I will be pushing at an open door. But it’s for you to now tell me whether I am on to something useful, or simply being delusional!