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Australia's Foreign Policy Response to Global Challenges, Gareth Evans

Address by Gareth Evans, President and CEO of the International Crisis Group, to Advance 100 Global Australians Summit, Sydney Opera House, 19 December 2006

It’s easy enough to spell out what the major global challenges now are. They have been defined for us over and again in recent years in summits and commissions and high level panels by the global great and good (and various other hangers-on like me). Basically they go to the three great inter-related objectives of the UN Charter - peace, development and human rights:

ending once and for all interstate conflict; internal conflict, including civil war, genocide and other large-scale atrocities; the spread and possible use of weapons of mass destruction; and international terrorism;

ending what for so many are the death sentences of extreme poverty and infectious disease; and ensuring that economic growth and development do not put at risk the planet itself – the challenge of climate change; and

recognizing that those countries best placed to avoid the horrors of conflict and to overcome obstacles to development are those which are governed with the consent of their citizens, and respect their human rights to speak, worship and associate freely. To what extent should meeting these challenges be part of any country’s foreign policy? Getting most countries’ political leaders to take most of these issues of peace, development and human rights seriously – building not just occasional speeches but actual foreign policy action around them – is like pulling teeth, and John Howard has been no exception to that rule.

Foreign policy is of course like any other aspect of government policy in that at its heart must be the protection and advancement of one’s own country’s national interests. And most leaders are very comfortable with defining those interests in quite narrow security and economic terms - what’s necessary or desirable to protect the country from threat or attack, and to increase the income and quality of life of its people. Sure we have to closely tend to our relations with our major friends and major potential enemies, and our major trading partners and sources of investment capital - but that’s where the basic business of external policy stops.

But that’s a position that has become much more difficult to sustain, intellectually and practically, in recent decades, as the world has become ever more globalised and interdependent. It has become harder and harder to say that neither our security nor our economic interests are affected by, as Chamberlain famously put it in the 1930s, ‘quarrels in far away countries between people of whom we know nothing’.

I’ve argued this over and over again, for example, in the context of making the case for accepting an international ‘responsibility to protect’ in the case of people subject to massive human rights violations in their own countries. The point is that governments that won’t, or can’t, protect their own people from atrocity crimes are exactly the kind of failed or failing or rogue state governments that won’t, or can’t, stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other such risks affecting other countries’ people worldwide. Many problems in remote parts of the world that seem at first to have nothing to do with us have to be addressed, because if we don’t they’ll come back to bite us on the tail.

Of course there’s something else involved here: we can’t just ignore the pain and distress of our fellow human beings, because we diminish our common humanity if we do so. Governments should act on catastrophic human rights violations, or on contributing a significant share of our GDP to development assistance, or work to stop drug trafficking and human trafficking, or for that matter on responding to climate change, not just because our own narrow economic or security interests might be directly or indirectly advanced now or in the future, but simply because it’s the right thing to do. Governments do have, as that enormously influential Australian expatriate scholar Hedley Bull once famously put it, ‘purposes beyond themselves’.

For those governments and leaders who remain resolutely tradition-minded, and reluctant to see these concerns as anything more than discretionary and entirely dispensable add-ons when it comes to foreign policy, I have argued for a long time that they should look at the issue in different way, and see the pursuit of all these global challenges as being actually a third category of national interest: in addition to security and economic interests narrowly defined, there is every country’s interest in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.

The idea, in a nutshell, is that to seek to make a contribution to meeting a whole range of the global challenges I have referred is not just the foreign policy equivalent of boy scout good deeds, but works to a country’s advantage in two main ways:

First, because much of good international citizenship is not really selfless at all: in a globalised, interdependent, fast-travelling, fast-communicating world, a lot of what at first sight seem to be just remote and abstract values issues really do have the capacity, in the ways I’ve already suggested, to impact quite strongly on our traditional security and economic interests;

Secondly, to the extent that selflessness is involved, to the extent that we support, and spend time and energy and political and financial capital on, things that are much more important to others than to us and from which we don’t stand to derive, directly or indirectly, any obvious economic or security benefit - like a particular aid project in a country in central Africa with no oil or mineral resources, or trying to mediate a far-away conflict like Norway in Sri Lanka – nonetheless a reputational advantage accrues which can be very useful indeed when an issue comes along that is more important to us than to others, and on which we want others’ support. There are all sorts of ways in which doing the right thing reaps its own reward – and, for that matter, in which converse trade-offs can also come into play. To take one current example, I think as the Australian government now tries to make a case to the world for a global carbon emissions trading system, it would find the going rather easier if it had been a rather better international citizen when it came to the signing of the Kyoto treaty.

How has Australia done in meeting these global challenges over the last ten years? Let me try offer a check-list, being as non-partisan as I possibly can be (and after seven years away from the abattoir of Australian political life, that’s not as hard as it used to be). There is no doubt, for a start, that some things have been done very well:

First, there were the timely, generous and efficiently targeted and delivered response to two major regional crises, the Asian financial crash in 1997 (with huge support, both financially and in terms of advocacy with the US and IMF, given to Thailand and Indonesia), and the tsunami at the end of 2004 - rich country responses that were models of their kind.

Secondly, there were the applications of combined diplomatic and military skills shown in heading the UN mission in East Timor, and the operations to stabilize situations rapidly getting out of hand in the Solomons and elsewhere in the South Pacific.

-- Although the East Timor intervention would probably not have been possible without the happy coincidence of an APEC meeting being held at the time (which sensitized the US on the issue, and led it in turn to pressuring Indonesia to accept the mission) all these missions were successful, not least in playing to the real strength of the Australian military, for which it has a well-deserved international reputation, in handling both sharp-end peace enforcement and the more complicated business of contemporary, stabilization, peacekeeping and nation-building operations.

Thirdly, it is the case that Australia’s bilateral relationships with the key players in the Asian region - China, Japan, Indonesia and India - are all now on a very sound footing. At the symbolic acceptance level, we have now been admitted as members of the East Asian Summit (after having earlier been given the bum’s rush in our efforts to participate in other emerging regional forums like ASEM and ASEAN Plus Three), and we have close working relations on a whole variety of issues that go beyond high-level setpiece diplomacy – e.g. the cooperation of our police and intelligence agencies with Indonesia on anti-terrorism is, again, a model of its kind. But I also have to say, being as dispassionate as I can be, that lots of things over last ten years have not been done well, and for the most part have not played well internationally, at all:

First, there was the resurrection of Australia’s racism and xenophobia bogeys with the reactions to the Pauline Hanson phenomenon a decade ago, reinforced by the Tampa refugees affair a few years later : this may or may not have been good domestic politics, but it all played terribly internationally, and does still resonate to some extent.

Secondly, there has been the AWB affair, with Australia emerging as by far the biggest international violator in the corruption surrounding the UN’s Iraq Oil-for-Food program – with others in the world (including those in the South Pacific being rightly preached at for their governance problems) being not nearly as quick as Canberra would like to distinguish between the responsibility of a commercial organization and that of the government which certified its actions.

Thirdly, there was the series of setbacks in our relations with the Asian region, and most of the key countries within it, that we can all remember accompanying the first years of the Howard government.1 The point is that our relationship with the region, although now again sound, as I’ve described, should not have had to be recreated – it could and should have been a straight-line development of the excellent relationships built up under the Hawke and Keating governments (which I think Alexander Downer always perfectly understood and would have been very content with: the problem was with his indifferent and counter-suggestible boss).

-- Paul Kelly, in his fascinating account of the Howard foreign policy decade in a recent Lowy Institute paper, puts the best possible face on this sequence by describing the Prime Minister variously, and rather grandly, as a ‘response agent’, ‘an agent of synthesis’ and as ‘lay(ing) claim to his own brand of engagement’. I think a more accurate characterization is that, while he got there in the end, he was a bloody slow learner.

Fourthly, there has been the well-documented lack of interest in Australia playing, energetically and creatively, the kind of middle-power role in building constituencies for change on a range of global and regional policy issues of which we have shown ourselves very capable in the past. When it came to following up on the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Weapons of Mass Destruction, or playing the kind of constructive role that Canada has done on landmines or the development of the ‘responsibility to protect’ concept, or taking anything like the peace initiative we did on Cambodia, or playing the international role we did on the Chemical Weapons Convention or on Antarctic environmental protection, we’ve just been missing in action - no longer active players on the global scene, but just moo cows in a paddock watching the passing traffic.

-- And on those odd occasions when we have been active or visible, it’s as often as not been in ways – as with the Kyoto climate negotiations - that have neither helped meet global challenges nor advance our international reputation. On the Arab-Israeli peace process – probably the key more than anything else to unwinding the alarming growth of Islamic extremism – we seem to have been keener to give reflex endorsement to some of the US’s most unhelpful positions2 rather than using the undoubted access we have to encourage it to change policy course.

-- The concept of ‘good international citizenship’ as a national interest, which had been key part of our foreign policy vocabulary in the Hawke-Keating years, was in fact completely dropped from foreign policy white papers of 1997 and 2003, quite deliberately and self-consciously in favour of the notion of - ‘giving expression to the aspirations and values of the national community in foreign policy’ or simply ‘projecting Australian values’ - which sounds as cloth-eared to international audiences as talk of ‘projecting U.S. values’ always has.

Fifthly, there has been the equally well-documented lack of interest or engagement, at senior governmental level, in multilateral institutions and processes: most obviously the UN itself3 (where I wouldn’t want to be in Robert Hill’s job if we tried again to win a seat on the Security Council, although it’s over 20 years now since we were last there); but also regional organizations like APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum (which have both largely lost their way in recent years, with nobody playing the kind of leadership role that Australia did at the outset), and even the WTO (where Australia has been as guilty as anyone in succumbing to the siren song of preferential bilateral trade agreements, which have done as much as anything to undermine the Doha round and any real global commitment to continuing multilateral liberalization).

Sixthly, and this is really the bottom line, there has just been too overwhelming a devotion to the bilateral relationship with the US, at the expense of what should be our other foreign policy priorities. The US has a huge capacity for doing good, and is for the most part unquestionably a force for good in the world - as I know better than most Australians (except a lot of those at this conference today!), spending as I almost a week a month there, with offices in New York and Washington, knowing quite well personally many policy makers, and understanding pretty well what they are trying to achieve.

-- But the country does keep screwing things up, as we are all – including most Americans - now increasingly acutely aware, nowhere more so than in the greater Middle East where, as the British columnist Timothy Garton Ash wrote last week, the scoresheet for Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt now stands at ‘worse, worse, worse, worse, worse, worse and worse’.

-- And it’s just not in any country’s interest, when the role model has that of kind of record, to play the role of devoted, utterly uncritical acolyte. That may win a lot of affection, but it’s not a great way to win respect.

-- A key part of the problem is that the PM seems to have premised a very large part of his foreign policy thinking on the conviction that US power, absolutely and relatively, would become ever more and not less important in the world. But the tectonic plates have been shifting – most obviously with China’s extraordinarily rapid resurgence - and that’s a harder position to sustain than it was even a decade ago. Some leading Americans have I think absorbed the lessons of all this rather faster than we have, no-one more so than Bill Clinton, who I heard not so long ago put the issue of American power in a way which, to my internationalist ear, was just pitch-perfect: We in this country have a choice. We can use our great and unprecedented economic and military power to try to ensure that we stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or we can use it to create a world in which we will be more comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.

So what are Australia’s choices now in approaching global challenges? There is no doubt that, for all the preponderance of negatives in the balance sheet as I have described, Australia has during the course of the Howard government recovered quite a lot of the ground that it lost through earlier policy mishaps. Life is a learning experience, even for U.S. neo-cons, and it has certainly been one for Australia’s political leadership over the last decade.

But there is quite a lot of ground still to be covered before we can do what we are capable of doing, and should be doing, to help meet the great global challenges that are still out there. My parting prescriptions to this, or any future, Australian leadership are quite simple, and would be exactly the same whoever is in power:

Recognise that as a country Australia does have fantastic international strengths – in terms of our political and economic stability; the leverage that our resource base gives us (in playing perhaps a leading global role in the emerging nuclear power debate); the professionalism of our military; the extraordinary quality (recognized word-wide) of our best human resources; and the reputation for creativity and energy and stamina in seeing things through that we have won for our middle-power diplomatic efforts in the past.

Recognise that for a country like Australia, that will never have the political or economic or military clout to force our own way, our future depends ultimately not on our friendships and alliances with the great and powerful (comforting, reinforcing and important to maintain though they may be) but on a rules-based, not power-based, international order, and that effective multilateral institutions and processes, global and regional, are a crucial part of securing that.

Recognise that any decent foreign policy must be a judicious mix of idealism and realism. Bombing for democracy is not a brilliant way of advancing the idealist cause, but equally a foreign policy founded only on hard-headed realism is one that can all to readily descend into cynical indifference – of the kind that led the world to ignore the unfolding nightmare of Rwanda in 1994.

Recognise that while it may not always be easy to capture domestic public support for action on many of the global challenges we are talking about, or to win immediate public understanding and affection for the notion of universal values as distinct from just national values, and that good international citizenship as a core national interest, those difficulties are not unique to Australia. People do understand what these issues are about – the interdependence of the modern globalised world, the need to act sometimes just out of a sense of common humanity but how that can be nationally advantageous as well. But they often have to have these issues articulated and explained. And providing those explanations, systematically and seriously and in a way that moves rather than just follows public opinion, is what’s called leadership.

Unfortunately there’s not a lot of that round in the world today. And there’s certainly not as much as there could and should be in this great country of ours.


1 See for example Paul Kelly’s 2006 Lowy Institute Paper 15, p5.

2 As with our vote in the UN General Assembly in 2004 against a resolution endorsing the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the illegality of the Palestinian separation barrier, in which we stood alone with the US, Israel, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau - raised with me as recently as last week by the head of the Arab League.

3 Which for all that has gone wrong has actually compiled an excellent record of achievement since the end of the Cold War in diplomatic peacemaking, peacekeeping and post-conflict peacebuilding - as well documented for the sceptical by, among others, the U.S. Rand Corporation, not a liberal bridgehead.