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The Future Of Foreign Policy Is First Nations. Where Then Are Our Voices?

05 Aug 2022
By James Blackwell
Image of Sovereignty artwork at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, OPH Canberra.
Source: James Blackwell (Author)

First Nations have a lot to offer international affairs and foreign policy and have recently come to the foreground of many debates and announcements. But where are the First Nations voices, and why is this exclusion important?

It’s a remarkable time to be First Nations in international affairs. Australia’s foreign minister, Senator Penny Wong, seeks to centre First Nations, pledging to work with Aotearoa-New Zealand and the Pacific to strengthen First Nations ties. States such as Canada are working on issues of global First Nations trade, while Aotearoa-New Zealand, despite accomplishing very little thus far, with limited understanding of how they are putting it in practice, remains committed to a First Nations foreign policy agenda which centres Māori voices.

Domestically, on issues such as a referendum on a First Nations Voice to Australia’s Parliament, which will further cement our voices in policy and reshape the political structures of power in this country, work continues apace under the Albanese government. The future truly is First Nations. And yet, when you look at discussions being had in international affairs spaces, and how we as First Nations are positioned, you might be left wondering, where the bloody hell are we?

Take just some of the outside organisations which populate the international affairs space. The Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), a leading organisation in the field and the publisher of this piece, has zero First Nations board members, and only appointed a First Nations fellow in 2021, Wiradyuri journalist Stan Grant Jr. The AIIA, hosting over 150 events annually, also has not, as far as anyone can tell, held events focused on First Nations issues in international affairs or highlighted First Nations voices in their work.

The AIIA is one of the many organisations that helps frame debates and set the agenda within foreign policy spaces, especially for students, yet somehow is not able to include First Nations in meaningful ways. With a government and foreign minister so focused on the advancement of First Nations within foreign policy, our exclusion here says much.

The Lowy Institute, another influential foreign policy think tank, also lacks First Nations peoples on their board, nor are there any First Nations people as staff “experts.” The Australia Institute, perhaps a little too unsurprisingly, is not any better, with no identified First Nations staff or researchers, although it does have one First Nations Director, the ANU’s Professor Asmi Wood.

One of the worst offenders is the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a place which highlights their work in First Nations spaces, despite having, as far as anyone can tell, no current First Nations staff. This doesn’t stop them of course from writing about us, or holding events about us. Take a recent piece from two of their staff, simultaneously published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Using NAIDOC Week to centre their own voices, rather than those of First Nations, these pieces seek to explain what First Nations values are, and how we should develop these into foreign policy. Of course, they completely miss the mark, mining our identities and approaches to instead promote their own analysis and approach. But they also further ideas about First Nations and First Nations foreign policy that are completely misguided, while failing to cite a single First Nations person. An abysmal performance this is, and in other fields would not be acceptable.

The university sector is not any better. There are so few academics in the First Nations space who work on foreign policy or international relations they could probably all fit in my Subaru. There are also very few courses for students exploring such issues and perspectives that First Nations bring to international affairs. This does a disservice to students, and to future professionals in the field.

First Nations peoples outside academia and the think tank world, in spaces not valued by these organisations, have immense knowledges and expertise to contribute when it comes to First Nations and international affairs. From those in the UN system, to those working on international trade, to people from grassroots organisations and communities advocating for their own mobs on the global stage, even to our knowledge holders and elders preserving and revitalising culture and language. All of these people have valid contributions and perspectives policymakers and academics ought to be engaging with, and yet, where are they?

We are too often treated as subjects, not participants. And we are sometimes not even treated as subjects in international affairs. There are many First Nations voices which deserve uplifting, and which have contributions to make to international affairs. And yet with so many organisations and universities, we remain neither seen nor heard. To paraphrase an excellent article by Morgan Brigg, Mary Graham, and Martin Weber, this is “scholarly mining” of First Nations peoples for mainstream society’s own projects; where our worth is extracted, and is only useful to serve mainstream ends, while us as First Nations pushed to the sidelines.

Even in government, the outlook is bleak. While the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) may have First Nations staffing population parity levels, currently none of the Assistant or Deputy-Secretaries are First Nations, and as far as one can tell, only one Australian representative overseas, Australia’s Consul-General in Houston, Benson Saulo, is First Nations. Saulo, a Wemba Wemba and Gunditjmara man, is not listed on the main DFAT website for official representatives.

This discussion of government would not be complete if it failed to mention DFAT’s previous Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda (IDA). The IDA failed to deliver change for First Nations, or present a vision inclusive of our abilities and destiny, instead placing us in the role of victims, rather than peoples with “sovereign agency” in policy development. Our values were useful to bring advantage to the state, and improve the mainstream, while our unique approaches to diplomacy and national identity were sidelined.

Hopefully, the Indigenous Diplomacy Agenda is now shelved, in favour of a potentially much more inclusive and genuine approach. Say what you will about the work Senator Wong is taking to First Nations foreign policy, and I myself have planted views strongly on the issue, but these policies are framed by desire to engage with our communities, with us leading the agenda and discussion. It is finally an attempt by government to take us seriously on foreign policy and international relations.

The promise of First Nations foreign policy is extremely large and beneficial. It has the ability to not only transform how Australia acts and interacts on the world stage, including with its allies and partners, but it also has the potential to fundamentally reshape how Australia sees itself, and the world around it.

Look no further than the work already being done by First Nations scholars, on the transformative and relational nature of First Nations approaches, to see the impact and prospects First Nations bring. But all of this is meaningless if those inside and outside government sideline us. I am heartened by the work of Minister Wong, but more time is needed to see if her actions on engagement and partnership match her words.

The point of First Nations foreign policy is to change the way we think about the national interest, the nation’s relationships and responsibilities, and even the way we think about our country. It also challenges us to rethink the very nature of the Australian state, both in terms of how it views itself, but also how it represents itself abroad. But most importantly, First Nations foreign policy is about bringing in the voices and perspectives of First Nations and centering our perspectives in diplomacy and foreign policy. To exclude us is to miss the point, and miss this moment.

James Blackwell is a proud Wiradyuri man and Research Fellow in Indigenous Diplomacy at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs on Ngunnuwal & Ngambri Country in Canberra.

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