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Book Review: Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency

22 Mar 2022
Reviewed by Professor Derek McDougall

Good international citizenship” (GIC) was a major theme in Gareth Evans’s role as Australia’s foreign minister and has also featured in his post-parliamentary career. It is helpful to have his perspective on this matter elaborated in this short, very readable book.

Gareth Evans has done it again, this time with an excellent contribution to Monash University Publishing’s “In the National Interest” series. The book’s main sections cover the moral and national interest imperatives for good international citizenship: Australia’s record (overseas aid; human rights; conflict, atrocities and refugees; and pandemics, climate and nuclear weapons) and “the politics of decency.” The writing is succinct while also conveying a good level of detail, particularly in the analysis of Australia’s record. The author was directly involved in several of the issues he discusses, such as overseas aid (a constant issue when he was in cabinet), the Cambodian peace settlement in 1991-1993, the “responsibility to protect” issue (through co-chairing the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2000-2001), and attempts to control if not eliminate nuclear weapons (through co-chairing the Australia-Japan sponsored International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, initiated in 2007). Even where Evans was not directly involved in an issue, he shows impressive command of the detail and has many sharp insights. The book provides a useful overview of a key set of issues in Australian foreign policy, helpful to both Australian and non-Australian readers seeking a better understanding of these issues.

However, this book is more than an analysis of relevant GIC issues. In discussing the moral imperative, Evans sketches Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” and Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s utilitarian approaches, as well as referring to more recent contributions from writers such as John Rawls, a contractarian, and Peter Singer, a utilitarian. His own ethical journey helps to abbreviate the discussion but is also relevant given Evans’s background as a political actor. The notion of different traditions climbing the same mountain is appealing, but perhaps oversimplifies some of the differences and conflicts. As Evans writes, the different traditions “do not necessarily produce precisely the same answer to every practical problem.”

While ethical discourse has focused on the obligations of individuals, Evans argues that it is imperative for states to be part of this discourse, not only for moral reasons but for “national interest” reasons, giving attention to benefits arising from international cooperation, reciprocity, and enhanced reputation. These points are well argued. On a more critical note, it might be said that all political behaviour, including international political behaviour, involves moral judgement. “National interest” focuses on the protection of security and economic wellbeing. However what this entails can vary, with “national interest” being a legitimising device to advance one’s political preferences. Quite apart from that point, there is an assumption that the protection of citizens and all residents within a state is a moral good that a state is obliged to pursue. GIC issues are clearly moral issues, but so are security and economic wellbeing.

Evans recognises that the primary appeal of GIC is to “idealists,” but that it should also appeal to “the most hard-headed of realists.” The term “idealists” could be broadened to include “liberals” in the sense of describing those who support a rules-based international order emphasising cooperation and upholding human rights. Liberals generally have an optimistic disposition, and Evans described himself as an “incorrigible optimist” in the title of his memoirs.

“Realist” here refers to those who view themselves as “realistic” or “practical.” Within international relations there is the school of classical realism represented by Hans Morgenthau, emphasising the need for caution. Realists such as Morgenthau are more pessimistic about human nature, criticising the ideological expansionism of liberalism in some contexts, such as the Vietnam War. It is not just a matter of evil sometimes manifesting itself, but in the words of Paul’s letter to the Romans, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” In relation to East Timor, there is no doubt that Evans had good intentions, believing that support for human rights and autonomy within a context of Indonesian rule was the most “practical” approach at the time. On the broader point Evans is no crusading liberal of the “making the world safe for democracy” variety, in relation to human rights his emphasis is on universalism rather than the export of “Western” values, implying the need for international cooperation in advancing this agenda.

In the last section on “the politics of decency,” the book draws attention to the frequently positive public attitudes in Australia on GIC issues. There is a need to harness “the power of emotion.” But how is that to be done? Opinion leaders such as Evans himself can play a role here. However, there needs to be more discussion of the political process within Australia, covering such matters as the role of political leadership, the bureaucracy, the political parties, the impact of the electoral process, the media, and relevant external influences. This is a tall order of course, but these points could have been mentioned. While recognising some technical flaws, Evans expresses support for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. However, should a Labor government emerge after the next federal election, how is that issue likely to play out in the political process? With AUKUS, the federal parliamentary Labor leadership acted swiftly to minimise debate within the Labor caucus and to avoid it altogether in the wider party. Evans is optimistic that AUKUS “will be managed consistently with our non-proliferation responsibilities,” but what about the example provided to other countries that might be less conscientious?

In the event of a Labor government coming to office in coming months, Evans (and no doubt other “retired” senior Labor figures) will have some influence on foreign policy. In Evans’s case this would be a positive factor in moving Australia to embrace more fully GIC. This might move Australia closer to the outstanding GIC countries as mentioned by Evans – the Scandinavian countries, especially Sweden and Norway, Canada, and New Zealand. Canada has the distinction of having a border of 8891 kilometres with the United States, the longest border between two countries in the world, in turn shaping its strategic culture. The other GIC countries are small powers. Australia’s strategic culture emphasises traditional military security and the need for “protection” through the US alliance. This preoccupation makes it more difficult – but not impossible – to shift to a stronger GIC emphasis.

This is a review of Gareth Evans, Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency (Monash University Publishing, 2022). ISBN 9781922464972.

Evans launched Good International Citizenship at AIIA Victoria on 10 March 2022. Subscribe to @AIIAVision on YouTube to receive an alert when the recording of the event becomes available.  

Derek McDougall is a Professorial Fellow for the School of Social and Political Sciences as well as Research Affiliate with the Initiative for Peacebuilding at the University of Melbourne.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.