home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

National Government and Global Governance: Meeting the Challenges of International Decisionmaking

Opening Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Professorial Fellow, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne and Chancellor, Australian National University, to Australian Political Science Association (APSA) Conference, Connected Globe, Disconnected World, University of Melbourne, 27 September 2010

I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of being very much influenced by Karl Marx, even in the hairiest days of my youth, but I do confess to a longstanding empathy with that famous line of his that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it".

We academics, and I do now count myself as part of the tribe again, after a lapse of some 35 years, of course do have a responsibility to interpret – to understand, analyse, explain – the world’s recurring problems. Peering inside the works, understanding the mechanisms, how and why things happen, and communicating that understanding in our writing and our teaching, is what we do: I’d agree it’s our primary role. But I would very much hope that we don’t see our responsibilities as stopping there.

The really great universities are those that not only produce great research and teaching, but which engage comprehensively with the wider world and make a very significant contribution to policy thinking and development. And I really do think it is important that at least some serious academics – not least political scientists – occasionally tear themselves away from writing for each other and try to make the world a better place by working much more directly on current policy issues. This may not be much help for Shanghai Jaio Tong and Times Higher international ranking purposes, but universities are a bit more serious these days about taking significant policy contributions into account in appointments and promotions, and it's simply something we should spend at least part of our time doing.

It’s in that spirit that I want to take the theme of this conference, Connected Globe, Disconnected World, and focus on what we need to do to repair the disconnections that matter most in meeting the big global challenges – of peace, development and human rights – that still stare us in the face. By ‘we’, for present purposes, I mean the international policymaking community, of which academics are a too often underutilised (as often as not by their own choice) but potentially very important part – as I can well testify from my own long experience working with some of the best and brightest in the world’s universities and think-tanks as a Cabinet minister, international NGO head and member of a number of high-level international policy commissions and panels.

The conference title neatly encapsulates one of the central dilemmas of our age. On the one hand we know that the countries on this globe are more interconnected and more interdependent in more ways than they have ever been. Economic interdependence – not least between the old and new geopolitical giants, the US and China – is becoming ever more inescapable; innovation in communications technology ever more unstoppable; and “problems without passports” ever more overwhelming – i.e. those problems which cross traditional state boundaries and are manifestly beyond the capacity of any one state, however big and powerful, to solve unilaterally, including climate change, nuclear disarmament, terrorism, piracy, major organised international crime, climate change, health pandemics, refugee management, not to mention some major trade and financial imbalances.

Even issues which might have once been seen as absolutely no-one else’s business – “quarrel[s] in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”, in Chamberlain’s unforgettably dismissive phrase – can no longer be ignored. We now know, e.g., that governments that won’t, or can’t, protect their own people from mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes – are exactly the kind of failed, failing, phantom 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.

But the other side of the coin is that as interconnected as we are, we are also profoundly disconnected. Cooperative international governance of the kind we need to effectively address so many of these problems is not totally lacking, but it is very far from being an instinctive habit of mind among the world’s policymakers and decision-makers. And it is enormously far away from being institutionally entrenched to the extent it has to be: dysfunctionality is endemic in the international system at multiple levels. Moreover, within national systems of government, narrowly defined perceptions of what is in the national interest repeatedly trump broader perceptions – manifest long term advantage routinely yields to perceptions of risk or insufficient return in the short term.

The perennial problems of collective action are alive and well when it comes to global public goods of the kind we are talking about. Whether one is talking about reducing carbon emissions, nuclear disarmament, effective action to address cross-border health risks or just about anything else, every one of the familiar barriers to take-up such goods that economists describe are on display here: preservation of sovereignty (countries’ reluctance to accept international binding rules and monitoring of their own compliance with agreements); differing preferences (the fact that countries have different strategic, economic and political stakes in specific solutions to global problems); the “free rider” problem (the incentive to wait until others provide the solution and then enjoy it); the “weakest link” problem (meaning that an effective solution can only be applied when every country fully complies with a common approach); and the “summation” constraint (whereby the successful solution of a global problem is literally the sum of the individual efforts of all the separate participants, which can mean a very long wait before enough is done to make a difference).

It is easy enough to feel so dispirited by the magnitude and persistence of these constraints that one abandons the apparently unequal struggle to make a difference. But we shouldn’t. None of us are ever going to be able, single-handedly, to change the way the world does its business in any major or fundamental way. But most big problems can be broken down into smaller, more graspable ones, and there are all sorts of ways that, in our thinking, writing and advocacy, we can very usefully move the game forward a piece at a time.


Meeting the challenge of improving global governance is about as impossibly big a problem as there is. But it becomes a lot more manageable conceptually – and I think ultimately practically – if one breaks it down into the five distinct sub-problems which Thomas Weiss and Ramesh Thakur identify in their recently published Global Governance and the UN. To find effective solutions to most current global problems there are five big gaps that need to be closed, which we have done so far only very erratically and incompletely: knowledge gaps, normative gaps, policy gaps, institutional gaps and compliance gaps. I will say a little about what is involved in each of these, taking examples from the peace and security area, and in particular the issues of nuclear disarmament, mass atrocity crimes and conflict prevention, on which these days I spend most of my time.

Knowledge Gaps.

The first requirement for getting something done about an international problem is ensuring that all the relevant players know that it exists. In the case of conflict prevention, it is critical that there be such knowledge of the fragility of particular situations and the risk of impending violence, and effective mechanisms in place to ensure that. That said, far too often lack of early warning is an excuse rather than an explanation, with the real problem being lack of timely response. The US response to the Rwanda tragedy in 1994 is a classic example, with declassified CIA briefing material now making clear how hollow was President Clinton’s claim after the genocide that “[we] did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed in this unimaginable terror.”

The really critical need is that there be detailed knowledge of the factors at work — political, economic, cultural, personal — in each particular risk situation. The basic point about conflict is that it is always context specific. Big overarching theories – whether cast in terms of clash of civilizations, ancient ethnic enmity, economic greed, economic grievance, or anything else — may be good for royalties and undergraduate lectures, not to mention keynote speeches and, to be fair, may also be quite helpful in identifying particular explanatory factors that should certainly be taken into account in trying to understand the dynamics of particular situations. But they never seem to work very well in sorting between those situations which are combustible and those which are not. For that you need detailed, field-based case by case analysis, not making assumptions on the basis of experience elsewhere, or what has gone before, but looking at what is under your nose, right now.

This is an area where the performance of governments and intergovernmental organizations is incredibly patchy – sometimes first rate, more often lamentably inadequate - but where in recent years a lot of the gap has been filled by global NGOs like my own International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch, often working with academic consultants or secondees. That is by no means an optimal solution, but it has contributed importantly to some of the much better international performance on conflict prevention and resolution we have in fact seen, most people’s intuition to the contrary, over the last two decades.

In the case of nuclear issues, when it comes to militaries, defence ministries, weapons research laboratories and think tanks and research institutes generally there is still a substantial pool of specialist technical knowledge on nuclear weapons systems and arms control strategies. But it is not clear that enough of these specialists and scholars are finding it possible to make the transition from Cold War thinking to that required in today’s world, where nuclear weapons are far less the solution than the problem.

There needs to be a renewed emphasis on formal education and training, in schools and universities. High school curricula should find a place for explaining the history of the nuclear arms race, the huge risks that the world faces if it continues in any form, and the sheer enormity of the horrors that are involved in any actual use of nuclear weapons. And an associated need is for more specialized courses on nuclear-related issues – from the scientific and technical to the strategic policy and legal – in universities and diplomatic-training and related institutions.

Normative Gaps.

Knowing about an actual or emerging international problem is one thing, but having enough concern to want to take some action in response is something else, particularly if it may involve the expenditure of national blood or treasure. One of the most crucial factors in determining whether there will be an appropriate response is the existence or absence of relevant international norms, i.e. generally accepted standards of proper behaviour for the kind of situation in question, especially as recognised and embodied in UN resolutions and declarations (at the soft end of the normative spectrum) and conventions and treaties (at the harder end). The UN may not win plaudits in many contexts but given its universal membership it does have an important norm-setting role whenever all, or the great majority of, its members do agree on what are appropriate responses.

The complete elimination of nuclear weapons is a normative goal which is best described as work in progress, as perhaps is the case with other major issue areas like responding to climate change and corruption and global poverty. But there are some important recent examples of normative gaps being significantly filled in the peace and security area. The emergence of strong international sentiment against landmines and cluster bombs through the Ottawa and Oslo treaty processes are two of them. But the one closest to my heart is the growing recognition that mass atrocity crimes occurring within sovereign states are everyone’s business, and simply cannot be ignored. So long as this issue was cast, as it was through the horror years of the 1990s, in terms of “the right to humanitarian intervention”, with the policy choices being either to send in the Marines or do nothing, there was never a prospect of any kind of global consensus being reached about how to respond to even the most catastrophic genocidal situations, like Rwanda and Bosnia, or Cambodia before them: the global North focused on coercive military intervention but the South, for understandable enough reasons, was deeply resistant to any opening up of the traditional sovereign immunity from any external intervention in internal matters.

The great achievement of the Canadian-government commission I co-chaired in 2001, whose basic recommendations were unanimously endorsed by the UN at head of government level in 2005, and have been re-endorsed since despite the many efforts of spoilers to unwind them, was to re-conceptualise the whole issue in terms not of the “right to intervene” but the “responsibility to protect”, placing the primary responsibility on sovereign states to protect their own people from mass atrocity crimes, a secondary responsibility on others to help them to do so, and only then – if a state proved unable or unwilling to act appropriately emphasising the responsibility of the wider international community to engage in any way necessary to halt or avert catastrophe. Much still needs to be done to ensure the effective implementation of the new norm in practice but no government can be heard to argue these days that sovereignty is a license to kill.

Policy Gaps.

Knowledge that something is a problem, and a concern to do something about it, will not be enough by themselves to generate effective action: the other requirements are understanding of and agreement about the right policy levers to pull and getting agreement about them, having the institutional capacity to deliver that policy response – and of course, the indispensable implicit element in filling all these gaps, having the political will to do so (as our new Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd emphasized in his excellent speech to the UN General Assembly on the weekend).

In the area of conflict prevention and management, there is a well-established toolbox of possible policy measures that can be deployed to deal with high-risk situations: political and diplomatic measures, legal and constitutional measures, economic and social measures, and security sector and military measures as the case may be. The crucial thing is to recognise not only that each situation has its own characteristics, and that one-size spanners don’t fit all, but that each situation is likely to require a complex combination of measures, the balance between which is bound to change over time as circumstances evolve.

In the peace and security area generally there is a well-established set of existing institutions which can properly be described as having policy-making responsibility, in the sense of the capacity to pick and choose between appropriate response options and, at least notionally, to energise the necessary action. The problem with a number of these is not so much in their structure and role but their delivery: a classic example, on which Kevin Rudd focused in his General Assembly speech at the weekend, is the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, which – despite some big achievements in the past – has been totally unproductive for the last twelve years.

For present purposes the important point to note is that the international system cries out for a workable global policy formulation mechanism that recognises the reality that in the contemporary world security, economic and other major policy problems like saving the global environment overlap, and that will consolidate ideas, debate options, and generate policy conclusions that have an inherent credibility and momentum and universal take-up potential. The UN Security Council, quite apart from some other problems I’ll come to in a moment, has a mandate too narrowly defined for it to be able to play this general policy formulation and coordination role, and we need to look elsewhere.

The G8 (United States, Canada; France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom; Japan; Russia) has long had aspirations to play that role, but its composition prevents it from being seen as a legitimate policy leader. The best available practical solution – certainly from Australia’s perspective, as Kevin Rudd recognized with his intense diplomatic activity on this front – lies in the further evolution of the G20, from a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in 1999 to an all-purpose global policy formulation and advocacy body, meeting regularly at the head-of-government level, as it has now done since the onset of the global financial crisis. The present G20 structure (United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico; France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, the United Kingdom; Russia; China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia; Saudi Arabia; South Africa), does incorporate all major regions, some 80 percent of world trade, 85 percent of global GNP and roughly two thirds of the world’s population. It is just small enough to make decisions, but large enough to be genuinely representative-encompassing all, or nearly all, of the world’s major and emergent strategic and economic powers.

There is a growing fear around UN circles in New York that although the G20 has so far focused more or entirely on economic affairs, it won’t be long before some major political crisis thrusts security issues on to its agenda, sidelining the Security Council in the process. If that energizes the Security Council to start seriously reforming its own composition – an issue I’ll return to in a moment – so much the better. But it’s important, I think to recognize that the Security Council’s role under the UN Charter is crucial to the maintenance of a rule-based international order, and what we should be talking about with the G20 is policy formulation, advocacy and coordination rather than formally making, implementing and enforcing executive decisions. There is room, and need, in international governance for both.

Institutional Gaps.

In many different contexts, there are huge gaps in institutional capacity to deliver effective results, even when there is knowledge of a problem, normative consensus that something needs to be done about it, and available policy strategies that will actually make a difference. Many of the institutions in which we have invested responsibility for today’s most pressing global questions are manifestly not fit for the purpose. If the urge to cooperate is to translate into effective international cooperation in practice, then some significant institutional renovation is going to be necessary.

Before I turn to the problems, though, I think it is important to keep things in perspective by recognising that – on all the available evidence, particularly that meticulously compiled by Andrew Mack’s Human Security Report group in Canada – since the early 1990s, despite all the terrible cases we all remember, and all the terrible cases still ongoing in the Congo, Darfur, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, there has been an extraordinary decrease, around 80 per cent in each case, in the number of wars (defined as those with 1000 or more reported battle deaths in a year), the number of episodes of mass killing, and the number of people dying violent battle deaths. On average, more conflicts each year have stopped than started.

There are various explanations for these figures, but the best is simply the huge upsurge in conflict management, and post-conflict peacebuilding activity that has occurred since the early 1990s, a good deal of it being spearheaded by the UN itself, but with very significant roles being played by a number of regional organizations, major NGOs, and some individual states.

But plenty more does remain to be done. In the case of conflict generally, early warning and response mechanisms need to be better developed within intergovernmental organisations, as well as national governments. An important first step, now being widely implemented, is for them to establish ‘focal points’ within their systems staffed by officials whose full-time day-job it is to keep track of the relevant information, evaluate it, ensure that it gets on to the relevant desks, identify response options and follow them through.

In the case of mass atrocity crimes there is a real need to go beyond that and develop both civilian and military response preparedness, fully trained and resourced, and available on a rapid reaction standby basis, across the full range of capabilities that may be needed. There is much more recognition now than there was a decade ago of the need here, but we are still years away from serious readiness.

Ultimately the most crucial institution for the maintenance of global peace and security is the UN Security Council, the only international body with full, universally accepted executive decision-making authority. But its composition, together with the veto powers vested in its five permanent members, of course reflects far more the power realities of 1945 than those of the 21st century. If it remains unreconstructed and unreformed, it is only a matter of time –maybe another fifteen years at best – before its credibility and authority will diminish to dangerous levels in the eyes of most of the world. Having worked this issue for a number of years – and played with every possible formula for its resolution – I have to concede that this is not one of those problems for which intellectual creativity will be much help: it all boils down to whether the political will can eventually be found among enough of the key players to make the necessary compromises to keep a key lynchpin of the international system in place.

The second most crucial institutional gap to fill is strengthening the regional organizations which both the UN Charter and practical experience tell us are crucial in the maintenance of international peace and security. That applies to the notionally most advanced and sophisticated such organizations like the European Union (still anything but an effective union in terms of its foreign policy clout; to the important but still very incompletely developed, such as the African Union (AU) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); to the barely functioning, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Despite their origins in economic cooperation, all these organisations have very important roles to play in peace and security issues, and will need to take up more of the burden in this respect in the future.

In our own Asia Pacific region, the biggest institutional gap – and it’s a policy gap as well – has been the absence of any dialogue and cooperation forum bringing together at leadership level all the key players to discuss economic, security and other key issues and the interconnections between them. APEC focuses only on economic issues and does not include India, the ASEAN Regional Forum focuses only on security issues and at ministerial rather than head of government level, and the more recently East Asian Summit does not include two key players, the US and Russia. The basic point of Kevin Rudd’s much derided ‘Asia Pacific community’ initiative was to bridge that gap, and the good – but so far largely unrecognised – news is that he appears to have succeeded, as a result of ASEAN’s very recent agreement to invite Washington and Moscow to participate in an expanded EAS.

Compliance Gaps.

The most profound difference between international and national governance is the inherent huge weakness of the former when it comes to enforcing compliance with specific decisions or broader norms generated by international bodies. Even the Security Council itself, whose decisions are supposed to have, at the formal level, the force of law, has to rely on individual member states to apply the diplomatic isolation, or economic sanctions or in extreme cases forceful military action on which it might agree. The decisions of the International Court of Justice are not self--executing, and in any event apply only to those states who accept its jurisdiction.

The hugely important recent development of international or hybrid judicial tribunals to try breaches of international criminal or humanitarian law, above all the establishment of the new International Criminal Court, has not been accompanied by the creation of any international marshall’s service, fully supported by the whole international community, which would enable its indictees to be apprehended, brought before the court, and effectively punished, and give the Court really substantive rather than mostly symbolic teeth. Here as with most of the other gaps I have been identifying, there are no quick and easy fixes: just a long, grinding process of identifying areas where greater cooperation is required, and encouraging governments to provide it.

In the nuclear area, there are many weaknesses in the present safeguards system supposed to inhibit proliferation, and even more in the kind of verification and enforcement measures the world will need to have in place if we are ever to move seriously toward, as we must, a world with zero nuclear weapons – not the one we now have with over 23,000 such weapons, many still on high alert and many more still dangerously deployed, with a combined destructive power of 150,000 Hiroshimas. The Commission which I co-chaired has recommended that a Global Centre on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament be established to coordinate work worldwide on this and other conceptual issues that would involved in drafting an effective Nuclear Weapons Convention as a serious vehicle for eventual disarmament negotiations: my hope is that with the support of the Gillard Government that Centre could be established at least partly in Australia, and be able to draw on the high levels of expertise we have here in these areas, in universities and other research institutions.


I have been referring in all of this to international governance or decision-making as if this were something separate and distinct from national governance. But of course it isn’t. Most international organisations don’t have much of a life of their own away from the governments that created them, fund them, critically watch their every move and often directly constrain them. With strong leadership they can sometimes carve out real space, but that is the exception rather than anything like the norm – and it’s a key reason why these days so much attention is focused on the contributions to good global governance that can be made by non-official players who are not so constrained.

What is crucial at the national governance level is that there be real buy-in to the improvement of global governance in all the ways I have been describing: a real willingness to pursue a foreign policy that takes seriously the big challenges of peace and security, development, and human rights and dignity that remain, and puts the necessary human resources and financial resources into meeting them. But that kind of commitment is much rarer than it should be.

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, the argument goes, 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. 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 to 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 – 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.

Back in ancient times – now lost in the mists, when I was Foreign Minister – ‘good international citizenship’ was recognized in Australia’s foreign policy doctrine, the formal white-paper variety, as the third pillar of our national interests, properly ranked alongside economic and security interests in the way I have been describing. This was then explicitly abandoned by the Howard Government in its own white papers of 1997 and 2003, which made a central motif of its foreign policy ‘projecting Australian values’ (although it was kind enough to spare us formal commitment to the equally cloth-eared ‘Anglosphere’). I hope I won’t be seen as too hopelessly nostalgic, or proprietorial, if I take this opportunity to suggest that maybe it's time for good international citizenship to make a reappearance.

Of course there is a straightforwardly moral dimension to all this as well: if we ignore the pain and distress of our fellow human beings, we simply diminish our common humanity. 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 scholar Hedley Bull once famously put it, ‘purposes beyond themselves’. There can perhaps be no more appropriate forum than this APSA conference to urge that, in this respect at least, the great man’s ideas live on.