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Idealism and Realism in Australian Foreign Policy

2012 Hedley Bull Lecture by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor, The Australian National University, University of Sydney, 14 August 2012

In an address I gave recently to students and faculty at Melbourne University Law School on my sporadic adventures in making and applying international law over the last quarter of a century, I had to begin with the shocking confession that, apart from one undergraduate subject 45 years ago, I had never formally studied the discipline, and that my grasp of its basics was lamentably shallow.

This evening, talking primarily to students and faculty of the Sydney University Department of Government and International Relations, I’m afraid I have to make what, to many of you, will be an even more shocking confession: despite having been engaged almost full time over that same quarter of a century in practising international relations – as foreign minister, head of a major international conflict prevention NGO, participant in umpteen high-level international commissions and panels, and as a university professor trying to pass on some of that experience to the next generation – I have never formally studied international relations at all.

And even worse for someone giving a lecture whose title honours the late and great Hedley Bull: although I’ve always read a lot of history and biography and foreign policy analysis, when it comes to reading anything at all about international relations theory – and trying to understand whether it might have anything useful to say about the underlying mindsets that policymakers bring to the conduct of foreign affairs, and how that might affect real world outcomes – I have the attention span of a gnat and instinctive tolerance levels to match.

That said, I do think I have a little bit of a handle on the oldest and most familiar distinction in IR theory, that between Idealists and Realists. It’s rather similar, after all, to the distinction I’ve always made between the two basic motivations that tug for attention in every politician I’ve ever known, idealism and megalomania: everybody in the business believes in at least something they want to achieve while they are there, and has some kind of tolerance for the sordid business of acquiring and wielding the power needed to do so, but in terms of what really gives pollies their jollies, the proportions vary wildly – and you don’t need me to give you examples at either end of the spectrum.

But, as you will know better than me, in international relations theory these days Idealism v. Realism is regarded these days as much too simple, kindergarten stuff. You can forget about tenure track unless you can confidently draw out the distinctions between classical, post-classical, neo-, defensive and offensive realists; and on the other side between idealists and liberals, and then between a miscellany of neo-, institutional and other-hyphened sub-species of the latter. It’s no surprise to me that among those who seem to be most at home in this discipline are my fissiparous colleagues on the far Left, who (as well explained in that excellent documentary film, The Life of Brian) have long absorbed themselves with evidently minute but apparently cosmically significant ideological differences.

Cutting across the Idealist-Realist axis is another one, which might look to those outside the academy rather indistinguishable but which I am told by my colleagues, with as much patience as they can muster, is really quite different because it’s methodological more than ideological. This is the division between Constructivists at one end of the scale – who are primarily moved by the notion that norms and ideas really matter – and Rationalists, who are not so persuaded. And then of course, out in a space of their own, are a miscellany of Post-Modernist and related worldviews of varying degrees of impenetrability, which my late and dear friend Tony Judt has sweepingly, but I suspect not entirely unfairly, described as “narcissistic obscurantism”.

All these, you will appreciate, are just the mainstream labels: you wouldn’t want to know  – though many of you here undoubtedly will – how many other eddies and pools, and whole inland seas, there are in IR theory.

I asked a colleague at Melbourne University a couple of years ago, in a genuine spirit of enquiry, which one of them he thought fitted me best. Given that over the years I have adopted positions that might be characterised as everything from institutional liberalism (in my idiosyncratic passion, for example, for trying to make the UN and regional architecture work better) to very hard-nosed realism (for example in my negotiation of Timor Sea boundaries or peace deals with the Khmer Rouge), I thought that might make me a candidate for “Analytical Eclecticism” – that new theoretical school recently identified as a home for the intellectually sluggish and disreputable who are too ill-disciplined and ignorant to fit in anywhere else.   

On the contrary, I was consoled to be told that, given my other idiosyncratic passion for spending vast amounts of time over the years participating in commissions and panels trying to change international behaviour by starting with the way in which policymakers think about tough issues – for example, how to react to genocide and mass atrocity crimes: all that “responsibility to protect” stuff that everybody has at last now come to talk about in the context of Libya and Syria – I was really, clearly, deep down inside, a Constructivist. I was rather chuffed by this, feeling rather like the bourgeois gentleman in Moliere’s play, on whom, you may recall, the thrilling revelation was bestowed when he woke up one morning that for the last 40 years of his life he had been speaking “prose’.

The trouble is that none of these labels, in my experience, seems to get close to describing the way in which those of us in this business actually behave, year in and year out, in all those situations where some kind of policy choices are open to us. Even the most adventurous of us, and most passionately committed to human rights and universal values and norms, know that in the real world that crowds in upon us, good ideas and values sometimes carry the day but often they don’t; realities constantly intrude, and compromises constantly have to be made. It is certainly discomfiting in the extreme to sit across the table from genocidaires, as I did in the Cambodian negotiations, generating howls of indignation as a result from the John Pilgers and Noam Chomskys of this world (and no doubt other recipients of the Sydney Peace Prize as well). But engaging with those for some or all of whose behaviour you feel the utmost distaste is not the same as endorsing that behaviour, and without being able to draw that distinction, diplomacy, and with it any kind of capacity to maintain stability in international relations, and find solutions to problems and conflicts, would grind to a halt.

The fact that compromises of this kind have to be made does not mean that there are no choices to be made. On the contrary, there are choices everywhere, both in reacting to events and opportunities, and in proactively trying to set new agendas: the US didn’t have to go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, and Australia didn’t have to join it; we don’t have to give aid to Africa, or run for the Security Council, or participate in any peacekeeping operations; we didn’t have to try to change the architecture of economic and security policymaking in the Asia Pacific; we didn’t have to try to lead the way in making peace in Cambodia; we don’t have to accept any particular number of refugees; we don’t have to try to influence the global debate on climate change or nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.

I’ve never heard anyone put more starkly, and indeed wisely one of the really fundamental choices now facing US decision-makers (not least in the context of the working out of the US relationship with China in the decades ahead), than Bill Clinton. It was at a private function –at a film producer’s mansion in Beverly Hills of all places in which to find myself – just over  a decade ago, after he had left the Presidency and acquired all the wisdom that comes with hindsight and removal from the daily front-line.  I have often quoted the words he used, because I think they were pitch perfect:

We have two choices about how we use the great and overwhelming military and economic power we now possess. We can try to use it to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. Or we can use it to try to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.

One of the most interesting treatments I’ve seen of the way theory relates to practice in the real world of international policymaking was an article in International Security a few years ago entitled “The Future of US-China Relations: Is Conflict Inevitable” by the Princeton Academic Aaron Friedberg who did a stint in Vice-President Cheney’s planning office during the Bush administration. Taking as his starting point the three main camps in contemporary international relations theorizing – Realism, Liberalism, and Constructivism – he argues that what really matters most in determining their adherents’ attitudes and prescriptions on the China-US issue is a more fundamental, cross-cutting, division between Optimists and Pessimists.

So optimistic Liberals believe in the utility, and possibilities, created by interdependence, institutions, and pressure for democratization; optimistic Realists believe that China’s power will remain relatively limited and its aims constrained, and play down the security dilemma its actions create for other players; and optimistic Constructivists believe that China’s engagement in international institutions of various kinds will lead to shifts in its strategic culture and in the norms of international behaviour accepted by its leaders.

On the other hand pessimistic Liberals see the Chinese leadership as struggling with political change, and prone to hyper-nationalist assertiveness, and too much internally-driven US democratization and human rights pressure as potentially counter-productive; pessimistic Realists see China’s power as growing, its aims expanding, the security dilemma this poses as intense, and the need as a result for maintaining a strong competitive posture very strong; and pessimistic Constructivists worry that an excessively competitive approach by the US will result in a hardening of Chinese leadership mindsets.

For optimists of all other theoretical stripes and colours what matters, above all else, is believing in and nurturing the instinct of cooperation in the hope and expectation that decent human values will ultimately prevail; pessimists on the other hand, see conflict of one kind or another as more or less inevitable, and either embrace enthusiastically or accept with resignation a highly wary and competitive approach to the conduct of international relations.

There’s another, perhaps more provocative and certainly more literary, way of expressing the difference between optimists and pessimists, and that’s Manning Clark’s wonderfully Old Testament-orotund distinction between the “enlargers” and the “straiteners” of this world. Although, given life’s complexity and variability, any classification of human instincts or behaviour in starkly bipolar terms runs the risk of sliding into parody – and although there are some unkind souls who would argue that everything he wrote about Australian history ran that risk – I can’t help but think that Manning was on to something. 

As I look out at the world around us, and certainly at the way in which policymakers and decision-makers address most of the public policy issues with which I have been concerned over my own professional life, there does seem to be on, the one hand, a mindset which is basically open, embracing inquisitive, adventurous and positive, and on the other hand, one  which is narrow, confined, cautious, and negative. Most people do seem to line up, instinctively or intuitively, on one side of this line or the other. And when they are influential in policymaking, it really does matter which way they do line up.  Not least for their own careers: enlargers – with whom, you’ll hardly need me to tell you, I personally identify  –  do tend to get into much more trouble than straiteners!

I won’t say anything more about “enlargers” and “straiteners”. In fact the only reason I’ve sneaked in this language is again confessional: it’s a way for me to own up, bearing in mind that this is the age of Turnitin software, that just about everything I’m saying to you tonight I’ve said before, in my 2011 Manning Clark Lecture in Canberra, entitled “Enlargers, Straiteners and the Making of Australian Foreign Policy”. But I do want to talk a lot more about the distinction between optimists and pessimists, because I do think it helps us understand, better than just about any other theoretical IR construct, the main currents in the practice of Australian foreign policy.


It would not be a stretch – and should not be taken as crude partisanship – to describe over the broad course of history, at least since we have had something resembling an independent foreign policy, the approach taken by ALP governments as essentially optimistic, and that of the Coalition essentially pessimistic. But not all Labor governments can be so described, and nor by any means can all the conservative ones.

Australian foreign policy – if we think of this as a desire to pursue our external interests accompanied by some independent capacity to do so – dates only from the Second World War. It was not until 1940 that our first diplomatic posts – beyond the High Commission in Britain – were established. From 1901 until then Australian leaders, Labor and non-Labor alike, from time to time did show that they were interested in the world outside Australia, especially on issues such as race and immigration, regional security, and relations with the US and Japan. But apart from Billy Hughes’s table-thumping at Versailles on German New Guinea (at the same time as he was fiercely resisting Japan’s proposal to have a racial equality clause in the new League of Nations Covenant), it was not until late 1941, when Curtin made his celebrated appeal to the US, that Australia showed itself capable of addressing a fundamental issue about its place in the world other than reflexively, instinctively and dependently as a member of the British Empire.

The creation of an Australian foreign policy really came only with Evatt, whose most striking contribution was his internationalism – his very real commitment to the building of cooperative multilateral institutions and processes to address both security and development objectives. His contribution to the founding of the United Nations is the stuff of which legends are made, and rightly so – especially in his fight for the rights of the smaller powers against the great powers in the respective roles of the General Assembly and the Security Council, and in his faith in the UN as an agent for social and economic reform and as a protector of human rights. No previous Australian leader had anything like Evatt’s passion for cooperative internationalism, nor anything like his success in creating practical foundations for it.

But there were of course aspects of Evatt’s worldview, very much shared by the Labor Party of the time, which were not remotely broad-minded. Right up until the Whitlam era, White Australia and the prejudices which nourished it, and the perception of the world (and particularly our own region) as a dangerous place from which Australia needed to be protected, were very strong strands in the party’s thinking. The early support from Evatt and Chifley for Indonesia’s independence struggle against the Dutch was perhaps the closest we came to understanding the new forces at work in our region, and our need to reposition ourselves accordingly. This never became, however, a sustaining or dominant theme in our foreign policy at the time, and it certainly did not become one in the conservative era that followed, from 1949 to 1972.

There wasn’t much left of Evatt’s cooperative internationalism by the end of Menzies’s and his succesors’ long reign. If is true that with the Cold War rendering the UN more and more impotent, and multilateral processes generally more and more sterile, there wasn’t much to pursue – other than as a regional extension of alliance relationships. And true it is that we developed, particularly under Casey, cordial diplomatic relations with the emerging new nations of the region; that Spender’s Colombo Plan made a very useful contribution to our long-term relations with Asia; that McEwen deserves credit for the 1957 treaty with Japan and the optimism and foresight that went with it; and that men like Hasluck, and particularly Gorton and Holt, had a quite open-minded international outlook.

But against all this there has to be weighed Menzies’s excruciating Anglophilia; the maintenance until the late 60s of the full vigour of the White Australia policy; the stridency of our support for Verwoerd’s South Africa; the intensity of our antagonism toward China; the totality of our dependence upon the US; and the ultimate comprehensive misjudgement of our intervention in Vietnam. All this combined to reinforce the image, and the reality, of an Australia largely isolated and irrelevant in its own region, deeply unsure of its identity, utterly pessimistic about its ability to be a force for change in its own right, and in any event wholly unclear about what kind of change it would want to pursue if it could.

The Whitlam Government well and truly broke this mould, undaunted by Cold War constraints and showing a great capacity, as Evatt had done, to match Australian foreign policy to the mood and needs of the time. Recognising China; bringing home our last troops from Vietnam; finally burying the White Australia policy; taking France to the World Court for its nuclear tests in the Pacific; and accelerating Papua New Guinea’s independence were just some of the decisions in that tumultuously active 1972-75 period which set Australia on a new path. There was a confidently optimistic internationalism about it all, combining a strong commitment to process (especially international treaties and international law, Gough’s obsession with which is the stuff of legend) with a particular sensibility to the then relatively new agenda of decolonization and North-South dialogue.

The brief tenure of the Whitlam government meant that it did more initiating than consolidating (although I suspect that somewhat Rudd-like disposition might have continued even had it stayed in office ten years…). While the Fraser Government which followed from 1975-83 was more than happy to re-embrace Cold War verities, and all the East-West division of friends and enemies that went with it, it is to the considerable credit of Malcolm Fraser that on the issues which mattered most for Australia’s long-term capacity to advance its interests, especially in the region, Whitlam’s policies were not only continued, but reinforced. In particular Fraser and his Foreign Minister, Andrew Peacock, both understood as many in the Coalition for a long did not – and perhaps in some cases still do not – the critical importance of abandoning government-legitimised racism in any form whatsoever, at home and abroad, not least in his embrace of Vietnamese refugees, in fact less reluctantly than Whitlam. This undoubtedly helped foster closer links in our region and saved Australia from becoming the international pariah it would have been had opposition to apartheid and manifest discomfort with decolonization persisted.

The Hawke and Keating Governments that took us through the next thirteen years renewed that spirit of activist, optimistic adventure, which had so characterized the Whitlam period, but – at least as I remember it! – in a rather more focused and systematic fashion. I was fortunate enough, as Foreign Minister for more than half that period, to have been left some major legacies by my predecessor Bill Hayden: in particular his success in redefining our relationship with the US (albeit in what might be described sometimes as creative tension with the PM); developing a real role for Australia in the international peace and disarmament movement; and having us accepted as a responsible and knowledgeable voice on Indochina, which helped me enormously when I took on the Cambodia challenge early in my own tenure.

Within the niche role that is inevitably assigned to middle and lesser powers, we were able to achieve a great deal during those Labor years, including helping create APEC and other new, cooperative, regional economic and security architecture, all within a frame of reference, which Kevin Rudd later made his own, of an ‘Asia Pacific community’ (in the Chinese literal-translation sense of ‘big family’ rather than the capital ‘C’ European sense of economic integration) ; securing the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention and advancing some major nuclear weapons objectives; playing a central role throughout during the Uruguay Round trade negotiations; building, with France, a strong coalition to save the Antarctic environment from mining and oil drilling; and in being a key player in crafting the financial sanctions strategy which finally brought down apartheid in South Africa. We also played a very visible role in reshaping ideas, although not with anything like the success in implementing them I would have liked, about how the UN should be reformed to more effectively carry out its role in the post-Cold War environment.

Throughout our term we embraced wholeheartedly the optimism and new cooperative spirit that was abroad with the end of the Cold War. And we had a sustaining model of what kind of country we wanted to be, and be seen to be: a middle power with a strong Asia Pacific orientation, pursuing confidently and actively – at global, regional and bilateral levels as appropriate – clearly defined geopolitical interests, economic interests, and what can and should be described as good international citizenship interests.

In many ways one of the innovations of which I was most proud as Foreign Minister was just this concept of good international citizenship, which I spelt out in a speech in December 1988, just a few months after I was appointed, and which remained for me very much a sustaining motif. The basic idea is very simple. Instead of thinking of national interests in just the two traditional bundles of geopolitical and strategic interests, and economic and trade interests, think of the commitment that the country can make to the achievement of other goods and values as amounting to a relevant and vibrant third category, viz. a country’s national interest in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.

At the heart of the concept is the notion that every country has a major interest in seeing the achievement of global public goods, or – putting it less technically – the resolution of what Kofi Annan used to describe as transnational ‘problems without passports’, which are by their nature beyond the capacity of any one of them, however great and powerful, to deliver or resolve. They include a clean and safe global environment; 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.

In a sense these various goods are what used to be called “purposes beyond ourselves” by Hedley Bull – who did actually write penetrably and interestingly about the nature of international order, and in particular about arms control and disarmament issues, but you’re in for a long and less-penetrable talking-to if you ask any of his latter day colleagues whether, or in what proportions, he was a Realist or a Liberal or a Constructivist!  

But there’s more to all this than disinterested altruism. It’s the harnessing of values and principles to very practical, and indeed self-interested ends, bringing together – if you want to put it that way – dreamy idealism and hard-nosed realism, or the perspectives of both optimists and pessimists.

The argument is that, by being seriously committed to these objectives, national self interest is advanced two ways. First, through reciprocity: my help for you today in solving your drugs and terrorism problem might reasonably lead you to be willing to help solve my environmental problem tomorrow. And secondly, through reputational benefit: the perception of being a country willing to take principled stands for other than immediately self-interested reasons does no harm at all to one’s own commercial and wider political agendas – as the Scandinavians in particular seem to have long well understood.

When the Howard Government came to office, one of its first products, in 1997, was – disappointingly but perhaps not surprisingly – a foreign policy white paper, In the National Interest, which reverted to the traditional duo of security and economic interests, completely abandoned the concept of good international citizenship as a third category of national interest, and by way of compensation restored to centre stage, as a third guiding light, ‘national values’. Not universal values, but national ones, explicitly described as reflecting our ‘predominantly European intellectual and cultural heritage’ – although, to be fair, when listed they did go a little beyond the rule of law and ‘commitment to a “fair go”’ to include racial equality and building support for human rights institutions.

Foreign policy was dominated throughout Howard’s long term, to 2007, by the Prime Minister himself – not my extremely long-serving successor, Alexander Downer, who I always suspected was instinctively not a pessimist: someone who, given his head, would have been just as comfortable (though he always gets very irritated when he hears me saying this) in maintaining basic continuity with the Hawke/Keating agenda, particularly in the Asia-Pacific and the UN, as Fraser was in continuing Whitlam’s, but soon had that squashed out of him. Howard, by contrast, was and remains the quintessential pessimistic Realist: over-focused on hard rather than soft power, deeply comfortable in following the US alliance lead wherever it took us, unadventurous in seeking global or regional policy change, profoundly uninterested in the UN and the whole idea of transnational problem-solving by creative multilateral cooperation, generally inward-looking and, until the wheel turned back a little in the last part of his term, manifestly uncomfortable with the whole idea of our primary relationships having to be in our own region, with geography well and truly trumping history.

Since the Labor Government was returned in 2007 the wheel has turned again. Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, though he knew everything about everything, was manifestly most comfortable, and successful, with foreign policy, and did unquestionably – with such help from his colleagues as they were allowed to muster – achieve the return of confident optimism back to centre stage in the conduct of our international relations. That was most evident in his work on climate change (for all the domestic horror that issue generated for him); in building the role of the G20 in global economic management and potentially on a wider front; in creating (albeit after a few diplomatic slips along the way) important new regional architecture in the expanded East Asian Summit; in trying to claw back a seat at the table for Australia in the UN Security Council; and in trying to give serious content and energy to a new global debate on nuclear disarmament. All of these themes he continued to pursue as Foreign Minister, and there has been no discernible change of direction under Bob Carr – with both of them being left largely to their own devices by a new Prime Minister with no background in foreign policy and no discernibly strong views of her own on any of these themes.

If Labor has reverted to traditional type, so too has the Opposition, which has not shown any sign under Tony Abbott of anything other than being very Howard-era pessimistically inclined indeed, with dog-whistling about race, religion and refugees not totally absent from its collective repertoire. But there are clearly now, as there always have been, senior Coalition figures with a much more open and genuinely internationalist cast of mind; just as there are, as there always have been, those on the Labor side who, no doubt for the best electoral reasons, are rather less ready than most of their colleagues to optimistically embrace the region and the world, and more ready to pander to populist sentiment.

But at this point I will resist any temptation to plunge any further into the reeds and weeds of current policy debates. You may find this disappointingly and uncharacteristically timid, but it is because I do have a view, albeit one clearly not shared as strongly by all my former colleagues on both sides, that – however afflicted by Relevance Deprivation Syndrome – those long departed from the partisan fray should not try to restore their youth by rejoining it.

There is just one plea that I would conclude by making, partly to my Labor colleagues – although here I think I am preaching largely to the converted  – but especially to those on the other side of the House. Please think hard about restoring, as a central guiding theme in the conduct of our international relations, the concept of good international citizenship, not just as an optional add-on for the soft-headed and charitably inclined, but as the third key pillar of our national interests.

It is not a matter of left or right ideology, but simply recognizing that, in this interdependent world of ours, with all the multiple stresses that confront it, if civilization as we know it is going to survive and thrive, then we have to recognize that we are all in this together. The future not only of this country, but this planet, lies at the end of the day not with the pessimists but the optimists, those whose mindset is open, embracing and positive, and who are prepared to be adventurous, and take risks, in pursuing those things in which they deeply believe.