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Projecting Australia on the World Stage

Public Lecture by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Chancellor of The Australian National University, to Australia in the World History Lecture Series, University of Melbourne, 29 August 2013

There is a lot to be said for modesty in the conduct of foreign policy, as in life itself. But it can be overdone. And when it takes the form of seeking and achieving less influence than that which Australia is capable of exercising, in advancing both its own interests and that of the wider international community, that is a matter for regret rather than applause.

I will in this lecture draw out some differences in what I see as the approaches of current, as well as past, Australian leaders to what we can credibly and effectively do on the global and regional stage.  I will be critical of some of those judgments, and express concern in particular about what I see as the excessive modesty of the present Coalition’s ambitions in this respect.

But I hope that what I say will not be seen as just partisan election drumbeating. I  never much enjoyed mindless party posturing even in my political prime, and I have often said – though a number of  my former colleagues on both sides would clearly disagree – that however afflicted by Relevance Deprivation Syndrome, those long departed from the fray should not try to restore their youth by rejoining it.

While complete bipartisanship in this area is probably unachievable given the long histories and distinctive cultures of both major parties, we have often found common cause in the past, and I do genuinely believe that it is desirable to find as much as we possibly can in the future.  The more we do, and the more we are seen by others to be doing, in this respect, the more it will work to our advantage as a nation and people.


While Australian political leaders were not entirely absent from the world’s stages in our first decades – most obviously (though not very helpfully for our reputation), with Billy Hughes’s performance at Versailles – Australian foreign policy, in the sense of a desire to pursue our interests combined with some independent capacity to do so, really only dates from the early 1940s. In looking at successive Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers since then – the extent to which they have been active and enthusiastic international performers, and how and why they have made their policy choices – party-political and ideological divisions don’t seem to be a complete explanation.  Personal, psychological traits are arguably just as important, and perhaps even more so.

It may be that what matters most here is whether our foreign policy leaders have been instinctivelyoptimists or pessimists, or – in Manning Clark’s wonderfully archaic variation on this theme – “enlargers” or “straiteners”. This distinction has some affinity with the traditional one between idealists and realists which so preoccupies international relations theory, but has a distinctive flavor of its own. Optimists, or enlargers, are those who believe in and seek to nurture the instinct of cooperation in the hope and expectation that decent human values will ultimately prevail. Pessimists, or straiteners, by contrast, 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.

It would not be a stretch to describe, over the broad course of our diplomatic history, the approach taken by ALP governments as essentially optimistic, and that of the Coalition essentially pessimistic.   But not all Labor governments can be described as enlargers and by no means all conservative governments have been what Clark would call straiteners.                               

The creation of any kind of systematic Australian foreign policy really came only with H.V. Evatt, whose most striking contribution was his internationalism. The part he played in 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.

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 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. It 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 1960s 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.

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, confidently optimistic internationalist path.

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 himself 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. Certainly both Fraser and his Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock both understood, as many in the Coalition for a very long time did 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.

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. And we were able to achieve a great deal, including helping create the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) and other new, cooperative, regional economic and security architecture; 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.

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 – not only clearly defined geopolitical and economic interests, but also what I used to describe as “good international citizenship interests”. This is a concept I will come back to in a little more detail shortly, because I think it lies at the heart of how we, and other countries, should conceptualise  national interests in the world of the 21st century.

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, and completely abandoned the concept of good international citizenship as a further category of national interest.  By way of compensation, it 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, more than I would have found comfortable had I been in the shoes of my very long-serving successor, Alexander Downer. Howard 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, and generally inward-looking.

It would be fair to say that in his relationships with our Asian regional neighbours, and especially China, the wheel did turn back in his latter years, and his government did make major contributions to regional stability with Australia’s role in leading the East Timor and Solomon Islands peacekeeping operations. But John Howard remained manifestly uncomfortable with the whole idea of our primary relationships needing to be in our own region, and quite unaccepting of the notion that our geography now mattered more than our history.

When the Labor Government was returned in 2007, with Kevin Rudd the dominant foreign policy player – as Prime Minister, Foreign Minister under Julia Gillard, and making common cause since with Bob Carr – I think it is fair to say that enlargers were back on centre stage in the conduct of our international relations. That was most evident in Rudd’s 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 trying to give serious content and energy to a new global debate on nuclear disarmament;  in creating (albeit after a few diplomatic slips along the way) important new regional architecture in the expanded East Asian Summit; and in moving to claw back a seat at the table for Australia in the UN Security Council. It was also evident in Australia’s support – driven by Carr, and supported by Rudd in backbench exile, but opposed by Gillard – for moves toward recognition of Palestinian statehood in the UN General Assembly.

It may be that the Labor Government’s twists and turns on asylum-seeker policy, including the most recent negotiations with neighbours to recreate the Howard Government’s “Pacific solution”, do not savour much of the qualities of principled optimism I have been describing.  Both sides of politics have exposed themselves to charges of racing to the domestic political bottom, although by committing – unlike the Coalition – to maintain an increased humanitarian intake of 20,000 places and a proper appeals system Labor can reasonably claim to be coming second in that race. That said, with the moral imperative being – I would have thought unarguably – not only to assist those genuinely needing asylum but also to avoid drownings at sea and the criminal exploitation of the vulnerable by people smugglers, the boat people issue is a textbook example of a “wicked” problem, with every single policy option having obvious downsides. And it will remain so for both sides.

The jury is still out on what kind of foreign policy will characterize an Abbott administration should the Coalition be elected on 7 September, but all the early signs are that it will be more reminiscent of the early Howard period than anything we have seen before or since.  It can be expected to be narrower in its geographical focus – with most attention devoted to the South Pacific, South East Asian and Indian Ocean near neighbourhood, with even China a priority only to the extent that economic self-interest demands. It can be expected to be narrower in its ideological embrace, with – even if Tony Abbott trains himself to stop talking about the “Anglosphere” – the US alliance relationship front and centre, multilateral diplomacy seen as of second or third order importance, and no interest in international norm promotion. And it can be expected to be generally less preoccupied with policy than with management – of the department, consular administration, the aid program, and the mechanics of trade negotiation.

The putative Coalition foreign minister, Julie Bishop, is intelligent, personable, and likely to be on top of her briefs, but seems – not unlike Julia Gillard on the international stage – to be more comfortable with the lawyerly, transactional dimensions of the role rather than high policy-making (except, perhaps, when it comes to the reflex embrace of Israeli positions, however misconceived and arguably against Israel’s own better interests that might be). There are clearly now, as there always have been, other senior Coalition figures with more open and genuinely internationalist casts of mind than others, and they might encourage the evolution over time of a less crabbed and cautious approach. But on the evidence available now, we should not be holding our breath.


Continuing to focus now on the future rather than the past, how should Australia’s foreign policy be constructed? What are our national interests, and what is our capacity to advance and protect them? What are the major challenges we confront, both regionally and globally? What influence can Australia wield in the wider world, and to what ends?

Whatever one’s ideological, philosophical or psychological biases, national interests must be the starting point for the discussion of any country’s foreign policy. But what are they?  I have long argued that instead of thinking of national interests in just the two traditional bundles – geopolitical and strategic interests, and economic and trade interests – we need to think in terms of every country having a third national interest, viz. that 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 resolving what Kofi Annan used to describe as “problems without passports” – those 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.

There’s more to all this than disinterested altruism. The argument is that, by being seriously committed to cooperative international problem solving, not only are public goods secured for everyone, but more traditional national interests are advanced.   First, through simple reciprocity: my help for you today in solving your terrorism problem or environmental problem might reasonably lead you to be willing to help solve my refugees 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 have long understood.  One of the attractions of the concept is that it bridges the traditional gap between realism and idealism, by making it clear that pursuing values and interests are not necessarily completely different ways of going about things:  rather, the pursuit of values can also be the pursuit of interests.

Of course, however defined, interests are not the same as influence. Opportunities for influence in pursuing national interests are, in the international diplomatic marketplace, what is left over when a country’s capacities are discounted by the constraints which inhibit it. And foreign policy priorities define themselves as those policy areas where a major interest coincides with at least some opportunity to influence its achievement.

There are obvious constraints limiting the exercise of Australia’s diplomatic authority. We are not a great, or major power, with economic or military might to match.  We are somewhat geographically isolated, though much less than in the past.  As a rusted on US ally with an unbroken record for more than a century of fighting Washington’s wars alongside it, we are not always seen, especially by the global South, to be as independently minded as we like to think of ourselves. Memories linger of our past racist policies, and we have to be more careful than most about charges of double standards or hypocrisy if our immigration or other policies are either wrong-headed or misunderstood internationally.

But against all this we have wonderful strengths: assets and capabilities giving real weight to our standing and reputation. We are by most measures the twelfth largest economy in the world; by any measure we are the sixth largest by landmass and with the third largest maritime zone; we are one of the most multicultural countries in the globe; we have a strong commitment to our Indigenous people, as the whole world applauded with our apology to the stolen generation; we bring to the table a unique geopolitical perspective, bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; Australians working in international organizations, both official and non-governmental,  and Australian peacekeepers, have won almost universally outstanding reputations; we have had a strong and longstanding commitment to a rule-based global and regional order; and we have had a long record  of demonstrated national commitment to the UN system in all its security, social and economic justice and human rights dimensions.

Beyond that, we have been seen for many decades as a creative middle power with global interests and a long – if not, again, unbroken – record on both sides of politics of active and effective diplomacy, on global and regional as well as bilateral issues. Not that both sides of politics have embraced with equal fervour the notion of Australia being a “middle” power. In John Howard’s government, “middle power” language was explicitly rejected, and disappeared entirely from our diplomatic vocabulary: for Foreign Minister Alexander Downer we were a “pivotal” power, and it was demeaning to suggest otherwise. As he put it on one occasion, “My predecessor Gareth Evans talked about Australia as a ‘middle power’ and Labor seems to have a middle child complex when it comes to our place in the world. We are not ‘middling’ or ‘average’ or ‘insignificant’…we are a considerable power and a significant country”.   

I hope I will be forgiven for suggesting that this rather comprehensively misses the point. I am the last to want to talk down Australia’s capacity to make a difference, and a recurring theme of this lecture is how important it is that we be more ambitious in this respect than Mr Downer’s side of politics has traditionally been. The point is that in international parlance, “middle power” has no connotation at all of mediocrity or insignificance.  The initial lists of middle powers that started appearing in the 1980s in fact tended to incorporate countries like China, France, the UK and Japan – leaving the top group to contain just the “great powers” of the day, viz. the U.S. and Soviet Union. 

These days the term is not used so much to describe countries by reference to  comparative population sizes or GDPs or military budgets.  There is no generally agreed list – long or short – of those who by some agreed objective measures are neither great nor small. Rather the term is most commonly used to describe the kind of diplomacy – creative, energetic and making up with persuasion what it lacks in military and economic firepower –  which is typically practised by a relatively small and distinctive group of states: Australia, Canada and the Scandinavians usually listed among them (although, in all of us, commitment to this style of diplomacy has waxed and waned with changing political leadership).

The characteristic motivation of “middle power diplomacy” is good international citizenship, with all the returns for this I have described.  And the characteristic method is coalition building with “like-minded” countries, usually also involving “niche diplomacy”, which means using one’s persuasive skills and reputation to maximum effect by concentrating resources in specific areas best able to generate returns worth having, rather than trying to cover the field.


In confronting the priority challenges that lie ahead for Australian foreign policy – and in this last part of my talk I will identify six of them in particular – I think we would be well served by keeping that concept, and the basic style of diplomacy it entails, very much in the forefront of our minds.

One: Avoiding a Zero-Sum Game Developing in our Relations with China and the US.  It hardly needs spelling out how much Australia would suffer if the relationship between far-and-away our most important economic partner and far-and-away our most important security partner were to end in tears. The bilateral relationship between the US and China is in reasonable shape at the moment, surviving some sharp exchanges not so long ago on territorial waters issues in the South China Sea, and it will for the foreseeable future be held in check by the realisation that both countries are “joined at the wallet”. But there still remains the huge underlying issue of how the US will respond over time to the dramatic acceleration in China’s economic growth, and all the stretching of wings, not least in rapidly increasing military capability, that is going with that.

China is hard-headedly realistic about our alliance relationship with the US – in no doubt at all on which side we would be on if the nightmare scenario of a military confrontation were to arise, conscious of the difference between hedging against a possible scenario and talking up a threat, and not inclined to let defence issues inhibit the other dimensions of its relationship with us. But it is important to show some reciprocal understanding and restraint of our own – as we did in the language of our most recent Defence White Paper – and do our best to persuade the US and our other friends in the region likewise. I don’t agree with Malcolm Fraser’s argument that we should walk away from the alliance. But we would do ourselves a substantial service by re-establishing the visible degree of independence from Washington that I think characterized a number of our positions during the Hawke-Keating years. And we  should certainly never again offer reflex support for indefensible military adventures of the kind mounted in Iraq in 2003.

Another useful contribution we can make, recognizing just how grating and confronting these words sound now to Chinese ears,  is to constantly urge our friends in Washington to avoid using what I call the ‘DLP’ words – maintaining the dominance, or leadership or primacy of the US in East Asia.  We should be saying, and believing, that the real choice for America – as I once heard Bill Clinton put it privately, and I wish he would say it publicly – is not to try to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity, but to use its enormous economic and military might to create a world in which it (and its allies) will be comfortable living when it is no longer top dog.

It’s not always easy for Australia’s voice to be heard in the halls of Washington and Beijing, and I wouldn’t wish to exaggerate our influence (or for that matter anyone else’s) there. But what I have always found amplifies that voice is when we are perceived as a useful player – as an active middle power with a mind and a voice of our own, and coalition building and policy delivery capability of our own – in advancing objectives which these great powers need help to achieve. The paradigm example for me has always been the Chemical Weapons Convention, now unhappily very much back in the news, which the US – like many others – wanted and which Australia’s engagement was crucial in eventually delivering in 1992. As then Secretary of State James Baker said to me at the time, in almost these words, Washington needed, to make the running, a country which was both perceived as having a mind of its own, and wouldn’t frighten the horses as the US itself would. 

Two: Getting Right, and Keep Right, our Relationship with Indonesia.  Although political leaders on both sides of politics periodically pledge to reverse this – and both Government and Opposition are making the right noises at the moment – one of the many enduring mysteries of Australian public policy is why Indonesia simply hasn’t attracted the same level of attention, understanding, and sustained high level commitment from our political leaders that other Asian countries have received, and which it so manifestly deserves. Many people seem to forget, if they ever knew, that Indonesia is both the fourth largest country, and largest Islamic country, in the world; is by far the biggest and most potentially influential player in ASEAN, although for most of its history has punched below its weight; has managed a fundamental democratic transformation and is in the process of fundamentally changing its old governance culture; and has been doing well economically.

I can’t help but remember the way in which the extraordinarily productive relationship I developed as Foreign Minister with my counterpart Ali Alatas as we cooperated in a number of multilateral forums, not least during the Cambodia peace process, played back into and very significantly consolidated our then extremely fragile bilateral relationship.  There are multiple ways in which we can now add bilateral ballast to the relationship. We ought to be leveraging personal contacts – not leas with the present Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natelagawa, who spent his most formative years throwing newspapers over Canberra front fences to help support himself as a student at ANU – into a much more comprehensive effort.  Not only to develop with Indonesia  expanded people-to-people programs of the kind that both the Government, with its Asiabound program, and Opposition, with its proposed New Colombo Plan, are now offering, but like-minded middle-power niche diplomacy initiatives across a range of global public goods issues. All the building blocks have been laid for that kind of cooperation, including as fellow members of the G20 and as groups like ‘Friends of the Responsibility to Protect’ in New York:  it just takes the will and persistence to see things through.

Three: Geting Right and Keep Right our Relationship with India.  The rise of India is becoming as visibly important a phenomenon as that of China, but the India-Australia relationship still has a long way to go to achieve the weight and priority that it should have. It is one that has not been terribly good at taking small bumps in its stride, as a genuinely mature relationship does.

The environment for forward movement has been created with the removal two years ago of the uranium ban, which I for one accept  there was no point in us maintaining, once the wider international community had sold the pass on this issue. And the way forward is for both India and Australia to focus on their respective national interests, rethink what these mean in the new economic and geopolitical environment of the Asian Century, and recognize that they can be very usefully enhanced by moving our thinking beyond cricket, curry and the Commonwealth and consciously trying to develop some new and enhanced dimensions to our relationship.

There are obvious places to start, in the burgeoning economic relationship with a comprehensive and liberalizing trade agreement, and in the defence and security area with some really serious efforts at maritime security cooperation, aimed at addressing transnational seaborne challenges like piracy and people-smuggling, and developing further disaster management capability.  Thinking and talking, as policymakers are beginning to, of the wider region we inhabit not so much as the “Asia-Pacific” as  the “Indo-Pacific” (from Bollywood to Hollywood, as someone recently put it)  would  over time contribute to getting India much more embedded in our collective consciousness, as it needs to be.

Four: Getting Right and Keeping Right our Relations with our Pacific Island  Neighbours.  It’s a welcome change from the neglect, or alternatively perceived heavy-handedness, that has characterized some past governments, that both Government and Opposition are now strongly and publicly committed to respectful, constructive engagement with the countries of Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia where we have long had an intricate maze of economic, political, development, defence and personal connections.

Because of the size of the countries involved, these are never going to be our most important relationships in economic and security terms, but this is our own most immediate neighbourhood, and it is crucial – in terms of our credibility both there, and our reputation when it comes to projecting ourself in the wider developing world – that we maintain close and committed friendships with all those involved, and handle with sensitivity and finesse the problems which occasionally arise.

Five: Winning and Keeping a Place at the Table at the Major Regional Policymaking Forums. Australia has worked very hard, and rightly so, over the last couple of decades to put in place regional economic and security mechanisms – from APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum to the new East Asia Summit – that actually work. To advance all of our national interests – both broadly and narrowly framed – we unquestionably need effective dialogue and policy cooperation structures, with meeting-deadlines focusing policymakers’ minds and the meetings themselves enabling the building of those direct personal relationships at leadership level which are always a crucial element in productive diplomacy.

We certainly don’t need in any of this just another expensive series of photo-opportunities with set-piece speeches endorsing pre-cooked lowest-common denominator communiqués, not to mention line-ups of men wearing silly shirts. But at the same time we should not expect too much too soon in the way of hard decision-making from these mechanisms. For all the impatience this occasionally generates in Australians like me, there is much to be said for our South East Asian colleagues’ view that the great value of multilateral engagement is as a process through which trust and confidence are built over time. 

Six: Playing a Significant Role in Major Global Policymaking Forums. Globally, we have right now two high institutional priorities, for neither of which the Coalition has shown much interest or affection, an attitude that will need to rapidly change if it comes into power. 

One is to develop the role of the G20, where Australia has a seat at the table along with all the other major players, as an across-the-board global policymaking organization, addressing a range of global public goods issues and not just the core economic ones. Like almost everything else multilaterally, that will take time, but I think there are more than a few of his political opponents who would acknowledge that we played a blinder with Kevin Rudd in 2008-09 in lifting the G20’s game in response to the global financial crisis, and we are not incapable of doing so again. It is deeply unfortunate that, because of the Australian election we will not be represented at prime ministerial level at next week’s Moscow meeting, but hosting the Brisbane summit in 2014 is as big an opportunity as we will ever have to paint on this enormously significant global canvas.  

The other priority here is  to make the most of our present two-year tenure on the  UN Security Council – after an extraordinary 27-year absence, which would have been prolonged indefinitely if the present Opposition had had its way.  Periodically taking a rotational seat at the apex of the global system for maintaining peace and security is not some kind of optional icing on the cake, likely in fact to be more trouble than it’s worth, but absolutely in Australia’s national interests, however conceived. Our troops serve in Afghanistan and elsewhere under Security Council mandate. The Security Council is the only body legally able to mandate the use of force. And it imposes sanctions we are obliged to implement, in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere. A country like Australia not only benefits from the global system but has a responsibility, in our own interests as well as everybody else’s, to ensure that it works effectively.

The non-Permanent Five members of the Council normally have only one or two opportunities to make any kind of proactive mark on its deliberations, as distinct from reacting to the flow of events – and that’s when their alphabetical turn comes to take the rotating Presidency for a month. Unfortunately Australia’s first turn is next month, again coinciding with our national election.  This has meant, among other things,  an unwillingness for us to take on any really major or sensitive topic, of a kind which might even begin to take Council members outside their well-established comfort zones, not least because that would require detailed prior planning and high-level political consultations of a kind which are just not now possible.

One such topic on which I have argued that Australia could take a lead, and a further Presidency opportunity will arise in November 2014 for us to do so, is in initiating a discussion on how to re-establish the consensus on the Council – that did exist two years ago – as to how to apply the “responsibility to protect” principle in the most extreme mass atrocity crime situations, but which has gone missing since over Libya, and now Syria. There are some constructive ideas around about this, and they need to be explored.  Sitting on the Council is partly an end in itself. But for a country with Australia’s record and reputation we ought to be setting our sights higher.


Let me conclude by drawing attention to two very significant findings from the 2013 Lowy Institute Poll, the latest of their annual surveys of Australians’ attitudes to the world and our place in it.  One was that, notwithstanding all the negative commentary about the time and money and possible risks associated with our Security Council win, a clear majority (59 per cent) thought that occupying the seat will be “good for Australia” and only 2 per cent thought it would be bad. The other was in relation to the G20: not only had 79 per cent of respondents heard of it, but nearly nine out of ten (88 per cent) saw it as either very important or somewhat important that Australia be part of it.

These findings do suggest that there is strong support in the wider community for Australia projecting itself effectively on to the wider world stage, and a genuine sense of achievement when we do.  Australians just don't accept that we are another also-ran, which should focus on our own interests, defined in the narrowest possible way, not really caring much about the wider world we live in, and deserving to be treated accordingly.

Any government which adopts a posture which concentrates just on our immediate neighbourhood and more obvious bilateral relationships, and remains myopic about what is capable of being achieved if we engage in a whole variety of multilateral forums with the skill and stamina which has served us so well in the past, will be a government that will simply not be playing the confident external projection role which most Australians want it to

The truth of the matter, and our track record over many decades overwhelmingly shows it, is that Australia and individual Australians are decent and committed international citizens, independently minded – and with a real egalitarian streak, something which plays well with a great many other countries, with our strong record, everywhere from peacekeeping missions to diplomatic forums, of neither sucking up to the powerful nor kicking down at the powerless. 

Playing to that instinct of decency, focusing on cooperative problem solving, using all the energy and creativity that has traditionally been associated with Australian middle power diplomacy at its best, will be far and away the best way of ensuring in the years and decades ahead, in a region and world in which the tectonic plates are shifting and every possible kind of uncertainty abounds, that this great country of ours not only survives but thrives.