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Human Security and Australian Foreign Policy

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA, Chancellor, The Australian National University, of Dennis Altman, Joseph A Camilleri, Robyn Eckersley and Gerhard Hoffstaedter (Eds) Why Human Security Matters: Rethinking Australian Foreign Policy (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2012), University of Melbourne, 8 October 2012

I have never been in any doubt, in all my years of engagement in international policymaking in one way or another, that ideas do matter in international relations. Of course they are not the only drivers. Traditional realpolitik calculations about national interest, narrowly conceived in strategic or economic terms, are often in play; personalities matter – whether a leader is ego-driven or self-effacing, aggressive or passive, all-IQ or all-EQ or something in between; psychological factors often matter a lot more than is acknowledged – considerations of national status and prestige, pride and humiliation.

But the impact that ideas can have in engaging, capturing, energising policymakers – and sometimes also repelling them – should never be underestimated.  Big framing ideas can, and sometimes do, affect basic mindset that policymakers bring to an issue – how they conceptualise it, prioritise it and act upon it, fit it within their comfort zones.
While I’m not sure that any of this is enough to make me a constructivist – I’ve spent a lifetime avoiding any immersion in international relations theory, and I’m not going to start now – there are certainly some big ideas that have mattered a lot in shaping my own world view, and which I’ve tried with varying degrees of success to inflict on others. Olof Palme’s concept of ‘common security’ – that security is best achieved with others, not against them – was influential in the transition out of the Cold War, and for me a very important ingredient (along with the ideas of collective security and comprehensive security) in the umbrella concept of ‘cooperative security’ which I tried to popularize in the early ‘90s. No-one took much notice then, although – focusing as that concept did on the need for a cooperative international response to a whole range of non-military threats to human livelihood – ‘cooperative security’  is now to some extent subsumed in the idea of ‘human security’ we are discussing today.

Another big idea that has been extremely influential in the environmental debate is the concept of ‘sustainable development’ emerging from the Brundtland Commission in 1987. To the extent that it enabled common conceptual ground to be found between environmentalists and development advocates hitherto almost completely talking past each other, I found this inspirational – in the completely different context of responding to mass atrocity crimes – in developing the concept of ‘the responsibility to protect’ (R2P) as a way of bridging the divide between global North advocacy of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and global South resistance to any kind of external intervention in internal state affairs. R2P, as it has evolved over the last decade, has become one of the central elements in most people’s idea of what human security embraces, and I am pleased to see it featuring  prominently in this book.

‘Human security’ itself – the concept that was introduced into mainstream discourse in the UNDP report of 1994 ­­– is certainly a very big idea that has made an impact: both its core theme and a number of its subsidiary elements (like R2P)  have had real resonance in international debate over the last decade. This book is as good an analysis as has been published anywhere of its key elements, and the issues and arguments that surround it, as well as being the only book to explore it in a specifically Australian context.

As originally conceived by the authors of the Human Development Report, human security was the answer to the need they saw, conceptually and politically, to link together in a single coherent framework what had hitherto been the quite separate preoccupations of developed countries with national boundaries and institutions, and military threats and responses, and those of developing countries with feeding, clothing, sheltering, healing and educating their populations. The idea was that whereas issues of state security had dominated international discourse in the past, what really mattered was how all of this affected people’s lives. The concept of human security was broad enough to advance both freedom from fear and freedom from want.

Since then human security has become a thoroughly accepted and familiar part of international public policy vocabulary, spawning a large literature of its own to which this volume is a very distinguished addition. Though debate continues – very well encapsulated in different contributions to this book – as to how analytically or conceptually coherent and how operationally useful the concept of human security actually is, I think it is fair to say that it has already had a number of positive impacts over the last few years:

  • In general terms, it has helped policymakers see the interconnectedness of their narrow specialties, and to capture some of the widespread mood that looking at even traditional ‘hard’ security issues through wholly state-centred lenses is to miss much of what is happening in a fluid, globalizing world – a world in which non-state actors are increasingly important and in which deadly conflict is much less likely than it has in the past to involve states waging war with each other. 
  • It has also helped to focus more systematic and orderly attention on the group of transnational policy problems – like climate change, unregulated population flows, health pandemics, people and drug trafficking, terrorism and catastrophic human rights violations – which are now broadly seen as beyond the capacity of governments to solve except by cooperative action. These featured occasionally in policy discourse in the past, with many of them being described e.g. in my 1989 ministerial statement on regional security, as ‘non-military’ threats to security, but ‘human security’ language gives them a new coherence.
  • At least one government – Canada, at least for a time, under the Liberals and Lloyd Axworthy as foreign minister – made it the leitmotif of its whole external policy, to some extent in the way Joe Camilleri and Anthony Burke propose here: issues as disparate as land mines, the development of international criminal law, child soldiers, governance, human rights, peace operations and peacebuilding all flew under this banner (until the Harper government very deliberately tore it down).
  • It is certainly arguable that the ‘people first’ perspective that human security discourse encourages has helped mobilize campaigns  around issues such as the establishment of the International Criminal Court that might otherwise have struggled to find a voice.

To those academics and others who have been inclined to dismiss human security as more a matter of hot air than serious intellectual innovation, all these considerations make it reasonable to reply – as the Canadian scholar and diplomat Don Hubert has done – that they are rejecting an idea that ‘worked in practice but not in theory’.

And yet.  I have to say that, for all its positives, human security does have rather serious limitations as both an analytical and operational tool.  Even adopting the relatively narrow definition favoured by those like Joe Camilleri in this volume, and resisting the broad approach of Stephen James here, who would embrace within it domestic social welfare policy and much more as well, there are so many different issues and themes that nest comfortably under the wing  of human security that it really is difficult to extract any prescriptions about how to deal with any of them other than to look at problems in a ‘people first’ kind of way – which  may be a necessary but is hardly a sufficient condition for good policymaking.

For all the enthusiasm with which Joe Camilleri makes the case for a comprehensive institutionalization over time of human security in Australian foreign policy doctrine and organization, and with which Anthony Burke actually spells out what a model national security strategy might look like, I cannot imagine that any Australian government of any political persuasion would begin to be tempted by such a course, not least when what is proposed seems to not only involve reclothing almost every single substantive issue in Australian foreign policy, but ultimately requires the embrace of every tier of government and indeed the whole-of-society. I’ve always admired ambition, but for ambition on this scale I’m afraid life’s too short.

I believe a more realistic approach would be one with the following three elements:

  • First, ministerial statements would keep alive human security language, whenever appropriate, as a way of recognizing new global realities, and the constant need to maintain a people centered rather than purely state centred approach to the resolution of global problems.
  • Second, the Australian government would reinstate in its general policy pronouncements the idea of being and being seen to be a good international citizen as a third element in the description of national interests, sitting alongside the traditional duo of strategic security and economic prosperity. ‘Good international citizenship’ earns a few sporadic mentions in this book, but not in the context in which I have long argued for it (and succeeded for a time in incorporating it in official Australian policy), viz. as giving a self-interested, national interest, rationale (in terms of reciprocal and reputational benefits) for active policy engagement in addressing what for the most part can be described as international human security issues.
  • Third, and most impotantly, the government would pay close continuing attention to the specific international problems and issues which are most commonly accepted as being embraced under the human security umbrella, and advance very specifically formulated operational solutions to deal with them –  good examples being the kinds of specific policy responses discussed by Alex Bellamy on R2P, David Mickler on engagement with Africa, and Robyn Eckersley on climate change.

But don't let me sound as though I’m carping. This is an excellent book which will stimulate debate for a long time to come on issues of acute international relevance, and of acute relevance for Australia and our place in the world.  It is a tribute to its four editors – Dennis Altman, Joe Camilleri, Robyn Eckersley and Gerhard Hoffstaedter – and the other authors who supplement their contributions. And it’s a handsome volume which is a tribute to its publishers, Allen & Unwin, and all those others involved in its design and production.  I am delighted to declare it duly launched.