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The Hard-Headed Case for Good International Citizenship


Professor the Hon Gareth Evans reflects upon the strengths and shortcomings of Australia’s foreign policy orientation.

The quality of public debate on issues of peace and war, and international relations generally, has never been breathtakingly high in this country, and it has never been more necessary for intelligent and principled voices to be heard – voices like that of the late Peter Underwood, and those whom the AIIA exists to encourage.  We heard one such voice earlier this week, although it didn’t get as much mainstream media attention as it deserved, in the statement of the National President of the AIIA, John McCarthy, lamenting that the Australian Government succumbed to intense pressure from Washington in declining China’s offer for us to become a founding member of its new Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, saying that “[w]e have lost our way on Asia”, and that we are now seen in the region simply as a United States satrap, or subordinate.

And this is from a man who speaks with the authority not only of his AIIA office, but as one of this country’s all time outstanding diplomats, having served with huge distinction as our ambassador to Vietnam, Mexico, Thailand, Japan, India – and the United States. My own view, after years of exposure to that kind of pressure when I was Foreign Minister, is that unthinking reflex commitment to America’s perceived interests, of the kind we have just seen again with this decision, is never likely to be reciprocated with reflex commitment to our own, and that if we are to successfully protect and advance our own interests, we must be a much less subservient and more independent alliance partner than we have again become. It is neither dignified nor intelligent to approach this relationship with pink tummy exposed, four paws waving and tongue lolling.

There is much more to be said about this and other bilateral relationships, but I want to focus in this talk on the multilateral dimension of Australian, and indeed global foreign policy, not least because it has become so apparent that so many problems that impact upon us – whether they involve terrorism, or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or health pandemics or people or drug trafficking or environmental catastrophes – are simply incapable of resolution by any country, however big or powerful, acting alone. There is an extraordinary amount of attention being given now to what are variously described as transnational issues, or non-traditional threats to security, or global public goods or protection of global commons issues, and the kind of cooperative diplomacy that is necessary to successfully address them.

Australia’s record on these issues over recent decades has not been too bad, but it has waxed and waned with different governments and their varying ideological preoccupations. Despite the instinctive aversion to multilateralism which Tony Abbott brought to the Prime Ministership, like John Howard before him, he has quickly learned on the job – in his case with the need to forge an effective international response to the downing of MH17 in Ukraine – and it is fair to say that, with the help of some very professional diplomacy from our representatives in New York, Australia has emerged with real credit from our two-year term on the UN Security Council.

But what I find missing from our approach to multilateral affairs under the present government, neither it nor Australia has been at all alone in this respect, is any kind of guiding philosophy articulating with any coherence why we do what we do, and don’t do.  We have a tendency to lurch from one ad hoc response to the next:  generous with cyclone and earthquake relief; cautious to point of callousness in our initial response to Ebola; totally reluctant starters on climate change; clear in our humanitarian response in Syria, but confused in our response to the emergence of Da’esh (or ISIL, ISIS or IS) in Iraq.  Sometimes ‘Australian values’ are invoked; sometimes there is a clear yielding to alliance pressure; sometimes there is just inarticulate confusion.

I have long argued that the only way of approaching these multilateral issues which has a chance of being intellectually coherent, morally credible and politically persuasive is to embrace the concept of ‘good international citizenship’ – and more particularly to embrace the idea that being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen is right up there as a mainstream national interest, alongside the traditional duo with which everyone is familiar and everyone invokes, i.e. geopolitical, strategic, security interests and economic interests.

Prime Minister Abbott does on occasion use ‘good international citizen’ terminology, but invariably just as some variation on the theme that Australia stands generally for ‘decency and good values’.  The usage which I have advocated, and which was adopted quite explicitly by the Hawke-Keating and Rudd-Gillard Governments, is much more sharp-edged. It is that ‘purposes beyond ourselves’, in Hedley Bull’s wonderful phrase – be they concerns about poverty alleviation, or environmental problems, or nuclear arms control, or faraway human rights atrocities or other issues which seem to have no immediate security or economic consequences for a particular country – are really at the heart of that country’s core national interests, rather than being some kind of boy-scout-good-deeds afterthought to the real business of state.

The argument is that there is a hard-headed return for any state in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen, respecting international law and actively engaged in finding cooperative solutions to these kinds of problems. First, enhancement of that state’s international reputation, which is bound to work, over time, to its economic and security advantage: 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.

In short, the idea of good international citizenship as a national interest squares the circle between realists and idealists by making the point that idealism can in fact be realistic. If good international behaviour is simply some kind of charitable impulse, we know from hard experience that this is an impulse that will often have difficulty surviving the rigours of domestic political debate. Politics is a cynical, as well as bloody and dangerous, trade, often with very limited tolerance for embracing what cannot be described in hard-headed national interest terms. [Good international citizenship] is just one of a large number of foreign policy issues, both multilateral and bilateral, needing much more public debate in Australia than they have traditionally received.

The Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA is a former Foreign Minister of Australia and Labor MP.

This is the first in a series of three articles publishing an edited version of the address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA at the inaugural Government House Lecture and Reception, Tasmania Branch, Government House, Hobart, 7 November 2014. A copy of the full speech is available here. 

Published December 5, 2014

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