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Making Australian Foreign Policy in 2015: What are Australia's Real Interests?

Notes for Panel Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Australian Foreign Minister 1988-96, President International Crisis Group 2000-09, Chancellor of The Australian National University, to McKell Institute Forum, K&L Gates, Sydney, 11 February 2015

National interests must be the starting point for the discussion of any country’s foreign policy. But what are they?  Just the two traditional bundles – geopolitical and strategic interests, and economic and trade interests?  I have long argued that every country has a third national interest, viz. that in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.

At the heart of the concept is what Kofi Annan called “problems without passports” : those beyond the capacity of any single country, however great and powerful, to resolve, but in everyone’s interests to get right –  including 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.

Good international citizenship doesn’t mean a naïve commitment to boy-scout good deeds. Being seriously committed to cooperative international problem-solving is in fact good for more traditional national interests as well. 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: Sweden in particular has long understood this.

To effectivelypursue all these interests requires both opportunities for influence and capacity. Australia, inherently, has plenty of both – but it’s up to its governments to recognize the opportunities and use our capacity [1] – something that Labor governments have been much better at doing than our opponents, using the characteristic methods of “middle power diplomacy”, viz. building coalitions of the like-minded, and focusing in multilateral diplomacy on niche areas where we can really make a difference – and putting our money where our mouths have been.  

In the world as we now find it, I think there are seven broad priority challenges for Australian foreign policy:

One: Avoiding a Zero-Sum Game Developing in our Relations with China and the US.  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, 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 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 being a little cooler about the ‘pivot’, and re-establishing the visible degree of independence from Washington that I think characterized a number of our positions during the Hawke-Keating years.  We should certainly never again offer reflex support for indefensible military adventures of the kind mounted in Iraq in 2003, always making sure that we have good independent grounds for embarking on any such operation.

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 our enormous economic and military might to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog.”

With China we should equally avoid any obsequiousness, and make very clear our concerns about unacceptable positions – e.g. its ignoring of international law in its South China Sea territorial claims. It’s a matter, here as elsewhere, of simply conducting our relationships intelligently – and avoiding the kind of embarrassing idiocy which led PM Abbott, in response to Xi Jinping telling the Australian Parliament in November that his goal was “to turn China into a modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, culturally advance and harmonious by mid-century” that he had “never heard a Chinese leader declare that his country would be fully democratic by 2050” and that this was an “historic, historic statement which I hope will echo rightg around the world”. 

Two: Getting Right, and Keep Right, our Relationship with Indonesia.  This will not be easy if Jokowi proceeds with the Chan and Sukamaran executions, but we haven’t much choice but to move on after recording our opposition in unmistakable terms. Indonesia is both the fourth largest country, and largest Islamic country, in the world, and is by far the biggest and most potentially influential player in ASEAN; is fundamentally changing its governance culture, and has been doing well economically. When we have worked closely together – as occurred e.g. during the Cambodian peace process – the relationship has been extraordinarily productive.

Three: Getting Right and Keep Right our Relationship with India.  The rise of India – especially now under the new Modi government – is becoming as visibly important a phenomenon as that of China, but we are still thinking about India the way we did about China as late as late as the 1980s, as a poor country never really likely to make it as a serious global player. The obvious places for us 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.  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.  And that we continue to be generous aid donors to the region.

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 (the creation of which in its present form owes much to Kevin Rudd’s efforts) – that actually work. 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 to advance all of our national interests – both broadly and narrowly framed – we unquestionably need effective dialogue and policy cooperation structures like these, which are tremendously important in building direct personal relationships at leadership level.

Six: Playing a Significant Role in Major Global Policymaking Forums. We’ve had two major opportunities to do that in the last two years with the UN Security Council and G20 and came close to blowing them both – in the case of the G20 with PM Abbott’s cringe-making recitation of Australian domestic issues at the opening of the leader’s summit; and in the case of the Security Council with our equally cloth-eared negative vote on the Palestinian statehood issue on almost our last day in the seat. Overall though, our performance on the Council – thanks to the superbly professional performance of the diplomatic team led by Ambassador Gary Quinlan on Syria and other issues – was constructive and credible; and the extraordinary respect which Kevin Rudd had generated for his G20 role during the global financial crisis means that Australia has not entirely dissipated its credit going into the 2015 meeting in Turkey later this year, which will be important if the G20 is to consolidate its potential role as the most important standing global policy-leadership body.

There are several other critical global policy forums this year in which it is important that an intelligent Australian voice be heard – in particular the NPT Review Conference in April-May, the UN Summit on the new Sustainable Development Goals in September, and the Paris Climate Conference in December. Under the Coalition government – which has in the past explicitly rejected ‘good international citizenship’ as a guiding principle in the conduct of its diplomacy, and which remains to this day deeply uncomfortable with multilateral diplomacy in any form, at least outside the ‘Anglosphere’ – it is extremely unlikely that we will make any positive impact at all on any of these occasions.

Seven: Putting our Money and other Resources where our Mouth Is.  Generous and well-targeted aid is one of the most obvious ways of a country demonstrating its good international citizenship credentials: the reputation we were building by moving to a 0.5 per cent of GDP under Labor – putting us among the top 10 OECD donors – has now been trashed by the Abbott Government taking $3.7 billion out of the program over the next 10 years, dragging us back to 0.22 per cent of GDP and 19th place in the OECD. Making a serious contribution to international policymaking means spending more resources on diplomacy, but DFAT gets just 1/20th of what we give to Defence.

When we do apply our military resources to operations abroad, we should be prepared to do less foot-dragging when it comes to UN mandated peace operations in Africa and elsewhere, and be a little more circumspect when it comes to responding to phone calls from Washington. Our Afghanistan and more recent Syria/Iraq commitments have both been defensible – but we would be wise to characterise the latter as an exercise of  our responsibility to protect populations at risk of mass atrocity crimes rather than a commitment to wage open-ended war on terrorism

A country with Australia’s record and reputation, as an energetic, creative middle power which has played a world-leading role in international diplomacy, on both peace and security and other issues, on many occasions in the past, ought to be setting our sights higher, and acting more generously, than we have been in recent times.  And I am certain that under a Labor Government we will again.


[1] 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.