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Good International Citizenship: Values and Interests in Foreign Policymaking

Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA to Sydney University Law School, 27 August 2015

Why should any country care about human rights atrocities, health epidemics, environmental catastrophes, weapons proliferation or any other problems afflicting faraway countries when they do not have any direct or immediate impact on its own security or prosperity?  Should Australians care about ISIL terrorism in Syria and Iraq only because extreme jihadist movements of this kind may recruit deluded young men who may return to threaten our homeland security? Should we care about Ebola outbreaks in West Africa only because the disease might turn up on our shores?  Should we care about refugees from Afghanistan and Iran and Sri Lanka only because they might become queue-jumping asylum seekers threatening our territorial integrity by arriving by boat? Should Australians care about the catastrophic humanitarian risks of any nuclear weapons exchange, only when our great security protector and ally, the US, tells us that it is OK to care?

Of course it is the primary business of any country’s foreign policy to advance and protect the national interest:  we should be neither naïve nor defensive about this. But I have long been concerned that foreign policymakers, and those in the media and elsewhere who influence them, far too often think of national interests only in terms of the familiar duo of security and prosperity – geopolitical, strategic, physical security-related interests on the one hand, and  trade, investment, and prosperity-related interests on the other.

The corollary of this approach is not necessarily for policymakers to ignore entirely atrocity crimes, poverty, disease, the grinding misery of displacement, the use of chemical weapons, the awful human cost of natural disasters, or the risk of deadly conflict in faraway places. Sometimes governments do make commitments which cannot easily be characterised as advancing the traditional security-prosperity duo, and explain them in terms of meeting international legal obligations, or responding to requests from allies and friends, or – more often – as value issues: doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing. It’s not in fact unusual for Australian governments, like others, to act in a value-driven way – not least in offering relief in response to natural disasters like tidal waves in Aceh or earthquakes in Nepal. And in doing so they will often find themselves reflecting genuine community sentiment:  Australians are certainly are as compassionate as anyone else in the world when their attention is engaged on humanitarian issues.

But the trouble is that most of the time when governments, both Australian and others, do act in this way their actions are seen, by themselves as others, as discretionary add-ons – not as engaging in the core, hard-headed business of foreign policy, with these issues being given the same kind of priority as the advancement and protection of the traditional security-prosperity duo.

This has wider implications for effective foreign policymaking. If governments don’t think of these responses as core foreign policy business, fitting squarely, when properly understood,  within a national interests rather than just values-based  framework,  they get increasingly drawn into the kind of ad hocery which has characterised the conduct, on both sides, of so much of our international relations as well as domestic policy  in recent years – lacking any kind of shape and coherence, lurching erratically from one position to another, and picking up and dropping aid commitments and treaty negotiation commitments and principled positions on policy issues like climate change as the domestic mood is perceived to change. 

For both sides, far too much current foreign policymaking is wet-finger-in-the-air stuff, driven by domestic political priorities, paying more attention to opinion polls and focus groups – and the sometimes idiosyncratic predilictions and prejudices of party leaders (for too many of whom foreign policy is terra incognita before they get the job, but that doesn't stop them) – than intelligent analysis and systematic priority setting.

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 we should try to find as much as we possibly can in the future, not least since it is well-established that foreign policy issues are not usually vote-changers for most voters.

Which brings us squarely to the idea of good international citizenship. I think the best way of finding common ground is to go back to basics: focusing on what are our real national interests, our capacity to advance and protect them, and the priorities for action that follow from that. I have long argued that instead of thinking of national interests in just the two bundles of security and prosperity, 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 good international citizenship, as I at least have thought of it, is a state being willing to engage in cooperative international action to advance global public goods, or – putting it another way – to help resolve what Kofi Annan used to describe as “problems without passports”:  those which are by their nature beyond the capacity of any one state, however great and powerful, to individually solve. We are talking here about that familiar list: such issues as achieving 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.

When I first started saying, shortly after I became Australia’s Foreign Minister in 1988, that every country had a national interest in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen, I was not conscious of that phrase having been used by anyone before me, and indeed it does not seem to have been, at least in the written public record, although it is sometimes attributed to the great Liberal Canadian Prime Minister of the 1960s, Lester Pearson. I was simply groping for a way of articulating the sentiment that “purposes beyond ourselves” – in that wonderful phrase of the world-recognized Australian international relations scholar, Hedley Bull – were really at the heart of every country’s core national interests, rather than being some kind of boy-scout-good-deeds afterthought to the real business of state. 

I was unhappy with the idea that it was “Australian values” or “US values” or some superior brand of morality that was the motivator for some states being more willing than others to wrestle with what were coming to be called “transnational”, or “global public goods”, or “global commons” issues: this  was just too self-satisfied for words. Moreover, if good international behaviour was simply some kind of charitable impulse, that was an impulse that would often have difficulty surviving the rigours of domestic political debate. Politics was a cynical, as well as bloody and dangerous, trade, often with very limited tolerance for embracing what could not be described in hard-headed national interest terms.

I wanted, in short, to somehow square the circle between realists and idealists by finding a way of making the point that idealism could in fact be realistic. And I have tried to do that by making the point, over and again, that there are two very hard-headed returns for a state being seen to be a good international citizen. First, enhancement of that state’s international reputation, is bound to work, over time, to its economic and security advantage: the Scandinavians, in particular have long understood this – think of squeaky-clean Sweden becoming one of the world’s biggest armaments sellers! And second, getting the benefit of reciprocity: foreign policymakers are no more immune to ordinary human instincts than anyone else, and if I take your problems seriously, you are that much more likely to help me solve mine: my help for you today in solving your terrorism problem or environmental problem or piracy problem might reasonably lead you to be willing to help solve my refugees problem tomorrow.

In Australia, this approach became a core part of our foreign policy discourse in the Hawke and Keating Governments from 1988 onwards, but was explicitly rejected by the conservative Howard Government which followed, in favour of “advancing Australian values” language.  It was then resurrected by the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments of 2007-13, but has subsequently dropped out of sight again under the Abbott Government which has neither embraced nor disavowed it.

Internationally, my concept of good international citizenship as a core national interest has won a degree of recognition in the academic literature.1 But it cannot be claimed to have yet gained much traction with governments, despite my own multiple efforts over the years to persuade many of them around the world that they would have a much easier time selling multilateral commitments to sceptical domestic audiences if they worked harder at explaining the reputational and reciprocity benefits involved.

So that is about as far as I have taken the concept of good international citizenship in my own speeches and writings over the last three decades.  But I am delighted to acknowledge, in her presence here this evening, that we now have a scholar, Sydney University’s Dr Alison Pert, who has taken the idea a good deal further in her book Australia as a Good International Citizen, published last year.2

Alison has done not only scholars but policymakers a great service in this book. For a start, she focuses far more concentrated attention than I ever did on defining the core idea of good international citizenship, and teasing out all its possible dimensions:  not just support for multilateralism, and willingness to “pitch in” to international tasks, and doing “international good deeds”, on which I have tended to focus, but also compliance with international law, and leadership in improving or raising international standards.

Given the inherent vagueness of some of these formulations – which, as the apparent author of most of them, I readily acknowledge! – she settles on two particular benchmarks of what it means in practice for a particular country to be, or fail to be, a good international citizen: engagement with  international law (encompassing both compliance with existing law and commitment to improving its content), and multilateralism (encompassing participation in international institutions like the UN and G20, overseas aid performance, and visible commitment to cooperative multilateral problem-solving more generally). The point is that these two benchmarks are precise enough, and readily researchable enough, to enable detailed comparative analysis, either of different states, or different governments within a particular state.

Alison then, in a path-breaking analytic exercise which I hope will be emulated elsewhere, applies these benchmarks, with a myriad of very strong examples, to judge the performance of successive Australian governments over the whole period since Federation, although not including the present Abbott Government.  Her approach is measured and not at all partisan, but I was delighted to have my own prejudices confirmed in her conclusion  – applying these benchmarks – that good international citizenship, of a kind that is recognized as such elsewhere in the world, was most evident in Australia’s history during the periods of Dr Evatt’s tenure as Foreign Minister, the Whitlam Government, the Hawke-Keating Governments, and the first Rudd Government.

Overall, the practical relevance of Alison Pert’s very scholarly work is that she gives our foreign policy makers, and those elsewhere, in effect a whole new set of talking points to use in persuading possibly reluctant domestic audiences that pursuing “purposes beyond ourselves” is not a fringe activity best left to missionaries and the naïve, but something that every state worth the name should be doing, by which it will be judged by the rest of the world, and by which its citizens will directly benefit if it gets it right.

Let me spend my remaining time addressing how well Australia is currently travelling as a good international citizen.

With as much objectivity as I can muster, applying Alison’s benchmarks, it’s hard to conclude  that the Abbott Government’s record so far has been any better than mixed. Despite the Coalition’s continued adherence to its long tradition of preferring bilateralism to almost any form of multilateralism, except on an ad hoc basis when engagement is unavoidable or there is seen to be some particular advantage to be gained, and its hostility to the Rudd-Gillard Government’s pursuit of a Security Council seat after 27 years of absence from that table, Australia did generally play an active and very constructive role on global security issues  under Abbott Government stewardship during our 2013-14 term (not least with our leadership on the path-breaking humanitarian access in Syria resolutions). And at the regional level we were certainly seen as a very cooperative and generous player in the MH370 search effort.

On the other side of the ledger, we  have been an extremely foot-dragging participant in multilateral climate change negotiations; have been extremely isolated in some of the positions we have taken on Israel-Palestine, most notably being reluctant to accept the illegality of Israeli settlements under international law, and being one of the just two negative votes against the Security Council resolution last December calling for Israel to withdraw from Palestinian territories by late 2017; have made huge slashes to our forward overseas aid commitments which is bound to generate long-term fallout, particularly in Africa; and, it’s probably fair to add, took nothing like the effective advantage we should have of the major opportunity to make our global multilateral mark when Australia hosted the Brisbane G20 Summit last November.  

There are three other current issues which are likely to prove of continuing significance for our credibility and standing as good international citizen, and are worth a little more detailed attention:  our approach to nuclear disarmament; to asylum seekers trying to reach our shores;  and to countering the jihadist forces of ISIS (or Da’esh) now causing so much havoc in Iraq and Syria.

On nuclear disarmament, Australia – despite the lip-service that both sides of politics have always paid to the objective of a world free of nuclear weapons; our participation under both of them in several middle power groupings notionally committed to that cause; and the quite active leadership role that Labor governments have played in trying to advance a practical disarmament agenda (especially by establishing the Canberra Commission  in 1996 and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which I co-chaired in 2009) – we have not recently covered ourselves with much distinction in this area.

This has been most evident in our response to the “humanitarian consequences” movement, led by the Swiss, Norwegian,  Mexican, Austrian and New Zealand governments and major NGOs, which has been over the last two years energising civil society and a great many governments around the world – with the conspicuous exception of the nuclear-armed states and most of their allies and partners who think they benefit from their protection –  by bringing back to centre stage a focus on understanding just how much havoc to humanity and our global environment these weapons will cause if they are ever used. One of the key fruits of that movement has been a statement, the latest version of which was signed at the 2015 NPT Review Conference by 159 states – over 80 per cent of UN members – which contains the line “It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances.”
But Australia has objected to this language, and produced a rival statement – signed by a number of others thinking they benefit from US extended nuclear deterrence – which excludes the phrase “under any circumstances”, apparently on the basis that we do not want to be seen as questioning the possible retaliatory use of nuclear weapons. But this is nonsensical hair-splitting: even if we and other apparent true believers in the utility of nuclear deterrence wanted to preserve the possibility of retaliatory use, we could of course, consistently with that position, have joined in acknowledging that, if the worst happened, and any nuclear weapons were actually used, this would indeed threaten “the very survival of humanity”.  

I remember my friend and former colleague, US Secretary of State Jim Baker, once saying to me, in another context, “Well sometimes, Gareth, you just have to rise above principle”.  Maybe sometimes you do have to make uncomfortable compromises to achieve defensible results. But I can’t believe that – whatever the procedural context – being seen to contest, or deny, or simply to be trying to evade wholeheartedly acknowledging the sheer horror of nuclear weapons, the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised, can ever be remotely defensible.  For a state which should want to be seen as ranking highly on the good international citizenship scale, it’s not a very good look for Australia to be out of step with more than 80 per cent of the international community.

Nor has our position on asylum seekers been a very good look in this context. While both sides of politics have been engaged in a populist race to the bottom on this issue in recent years, I think the nadir was reached with our response in May this year to the plight of the 7000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis stranded at sea, when Malaysia and Indonesia said they would allow them ashore on condition they could be repatriated or resettled within a year. Asked whether Australia could help with that resettlement, Prime Minister Abbott’s reply was “Nope, nope, nope”, which neatly combined a perception of distaste for multilateral problem solving and indifference to our common humanity.

Nobody who has wrestled with the issue can ignore the awful reality of boat people deaths at sea, and the necessity to have some barriers and deterrents in place to stop people smugglers plying their awful trade. But it’s hard to accept that the ugliness of the Manus and Nauru offshore detention and processing centres, and the shamelessness of the Cambodian resettlement option, have any part in a good international citizen’s policy response. Maybe a boat turnback process, properly agreed and implemented in cooperation with Indonesia and other countries of boat origin, does have to have a continuing place. But only in combination with a much increased humanitarian intake, and a renewed effort to have a decent regional processing system in place, negotiated with all the relevant players and with significant Australian financial support (in effect revisiting the ill-fated Malaysian solution proposed by the Gillard Government, which was finally defeated by the Coalition uniting with the Greens – the latter as so often making the best the enemy of the merely good, and ending up with the worst). The ALP at its recent National Conference indicated a willingness to revisit and soften its policy in a number of key respects, but not to the extent of ending entirely the shame of Manus and Nauru.

We seem overall to have lost any sense of proportion about the scale of the Australian boat people problem, which even at its height – with thousands in transit and hundreds dying at sea –   paled almost into insignificance compared with the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and other would-be migrants continuing to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, and the  many thousands who have been lost at sea in the process. Our own response does have to be a rational one, but it does not have to be as absolutist and as heartless as it has been.

The remaining example of a current issue testing our good international citizenship credentials is how we should be reacting to the enormous problem posed by the jihadist forces of ISIS (or Da’esh) now causing so much havoc in Iraq and Syria: in particular whether we should not only maintain our present military engagement, supporting the US by mounting airstrikes in Iraq, but extend that to cross-border operations in Syria. The Government seems to see the issue almost wholly in traditional national security interest terms – waging war on offshore jihadist terrorism to ensure that it never comes onshore to us, and doing whatever it takes to maintain our undying commitment to our alliance with the US.

My own strong view is that the issue should, rather, be approached almost entirely in humanitarian terms, and that our Government’s failure to do so is another example of it thinking of any action driven essentially by disinterested altruism as, ipso facto, a discretionary add-on, having nothing to do with the core national interest.  If one adopts the approach I have urged, of characterising “being and being seen to be a good international citizen” as a national interest in its own right, right up there alongside the traditional security and prosperity duo, then one has a much better chance of getting our foreign policy priorities right.

In the present case, there is, in my judgement, one very good reason for expanding our present military operations into Syria, which is sufficient to justify it, and three very bad ones which should not be relied upon at all.
The good reason is to try to stop ISIS perpetrating further mass atrocity crimes against the people of the region, as we know all too well, from the experience of the Yazidis in the Iraq north and people in the towns they have occupied, that it is all too capable of doing.  There is ample moral and, in a sense, political justification for that under the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) principle adopted unanimously by the UN General Assembly in 2005, which requires the wider international community to take “timely and decisive” action to protect those whom their own state is “manifestly failing” in its responsibility to protect them from genocide, ethnic cleansing, other crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Of the three bad reasons, the first is to drain the Middle East swamp of terrorists. Of course we want that to happen, for good homeland security reasons among others. But for the West  to see its role more in terms of destruction than containment – to wage, militarily,  an ill-defined, more or less open-ended  “war on terror”, killing a lot of terrorists but also inevitably causing a lot of collateral damage in the process – will inevitably,  we have already learned from hard experience,  generate more than enough recruits to the cause to replace the jihadists it kills. 

The second bad reason, of which we have not heard much in Australia but certainly motivates some policymakers elsewhere, is to re-establish the rapidly eroding boundaries of states in the region and to create thereby the conditions for sustainable peace. That may or may not be a worthy, or achievable, geopolitical objective, but again, I think it is not a fight for which we want to be putting Australian lives at risk.

The third bad reason – but unquestionably an important motivator for the present Australian Government, and some in the Opposition as well  – is to extend our military commitment  simply because the US wants us to do this, or we think they want us to do it (or, perhaps, because we want the US to want us to do it). As I have often said: “Whither thou goest, there I goest” might be good theology, but it is not great foreign policy for a country that values its independence.

If Australia does embrace, as I think it should, the humanitarian, good-international-citizen national interest rationale for expanding its military commitment here, rather than any more narrowly defined traditional national security interest, that still does not address the legal issue as to whether there is sufficient international law justification, or the  practical, operational issue as to how  the containment of mass atrocity crimes can actually be achieved with the kind of largely airborne military intervention proposed here. 

The legal justification is very grey in this area but I think is just sufficient to make defensible the extension of the operation into Syria without that state’s consent. There is no UN Security Council resolution authorising military action under Chapter VII of the Charter, and there is no sufficient basis for claiming Australian national self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter. But what does give some kind of cover is the notion of collective self-defence under that article, to the extent that we – along with the US – would be assisting Iraq to defend its own people from attack initiated or commanded across the border. That in turn would only enable a military response against the ISIS/Da’esh source of that attack:  not against the Syrian government, because they are not the source of the threat to the Iraqi people at the moment. There is some international case law saying that collective self-defence does not apply when the threat comes from a non-state actor, as distinct from another state, but that  is controversial and may well be revisited.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and the US State Department have advanced another legal justification: that the relevant part of Syria is ‘ungoverned territory’ –in effect, completely empty space, where international forces can do more or less do what they like. I don’t think that stands up to very close scrutiny, because whatever we think of ISIS/Da’esh, it is certainly occupying and governing that space at the moment. Rather better to hang one’s hat on the collective self-defence justification, with all its limitations and all its uncertainties.

The operational effectiveness issues are rather harder to address. Airborne attacks are only likely to be really effective in civilian protection operations where there is some concentration of hostile forces, not inextricably intermingled with innocent civilians. That condition can be satisfied in situations like Gaddafi’s march on Benghazi in Libya in 2011, or the ISIS attacks on the Yazidis in northern Iraq, or when it was entering towns like Mosul, or where there are identifiable  command and control centres.  But targeting will always be problematic, and the general objective realistically has to be one of containment, rather than degrading or destruction, of the hostile forces in question.

Nobody, least of all me, suggests that approaching foreign policymaking through the lens of good international citizenship is going to provide anything like all the answers we need in wrestling with complex problems of the kind I have been discussing.  But it does give us, I believe, a much more helpful framework for dealing with the complexities of the highly interdependent world of the 21st century, with its multitude of transnational issues only capable of being solved by cooperative multilateralism, than an approach which focuses almost wholly on traditional, narrowly defined,  security and economic interests.

And focusing attention on what it means to be, and be seen to be, a good international citizen also sets us a challenge. A country with Australia’s general record and reputation as an energetic, creative middle power which has on many occasions in the past played a world-leading role in international diplomacy – in institution building, and on peace and security and other issues – ought perhaps to be setting our sights rather higher, and acting rather more generously to those who share our common humanity around the world, than we have tended to in recent times.  I hope very much that is a challenge which both sides of politics now rise to meet.

1.E.g. , Nicholas J. Wheeler & Tim Dunne, ‘Good International Citizenship: a Third Way for British Foreign Policy’, International Affairs 74,4 (1998) 847-870

2.Alison Pert, Australia as a Good International Citizen, The Federation Press, 2014, xx + 268 pp