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Toward a More Ethical Australian Foreign Policy

28 Oct 2022
By Professor Derek McDougall
Richard Marles attends the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) Opening ceremony | Kigali, 24 June 2022. Source: Paul Kagame

The major emphases in the foreign policy of the new federal Labor government are already clear. The ethical assumption is that such policies will protect or improve the position of the Australian community broadly conceived.

Most Australian governments focus on the protection of economic and security interests. Labor is no exception. Its rationale is “national interest,” but on the assumption that Labor is better at achieving the preferred goals than was its Coalition precursor. Is this approach ethical?

While there is a widespread assumption that policies based on realist or pragmatic grounds do not have an ethical rationale, I argue to the contrary. The creation of foreign policy based on the national interest is a form of egocentrism within an international context.

From its election in May 2022, the Labor government sprang into action in the international arena. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Foreign Minister Penny Wong immediately flew to Tokyo for a meeting of the Quad. Wong made three visits to the Pacific island countries within a few weeks, subsequently making further visits to this region and to Southeast Asia. In June, Albanese went to Indonesia and to a NATO meeting in Madrid, also visiting Paris to facilitate the repair of relations there.

Former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans argues that Australia can extend its moral compass by focusing on “good international citizenship” (GIC), contributing to a better world in numerous ways but coincidentally gaining stature that, in turn, can advance Australia’s own position from a realist perspective. Areas highlighted by Evans include overseas development assistance (ODA), policies relating to nuclear proliferation, climate change, contributions to international peacekeeping, and refugees.

How does the Labor government’s record look in relation to these areas? The government has undertaken to increase Australia’s ODA. On nuclear issues, the commitment to acquiring nuclear-powered submarines under AUKUS remains, although there is a stipulation that this programme needs to be consistent with Australia’s nuclear non-proliferation obligations. Australia attended the conference of the parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Vienna in June 2022 as an observer. The commitment to combating climate change has strengthened but could go further. Contributions to peacekeeping under UN auspices are currently minor. Refugee policy is largely the same as that followed by the Coalition, with the implementation of the Refugee Convention remaining incomplete.

Apart from refugee policy, the new government is making genuine efforts in each of these areas, but there is room for improvement. Often there are contrary pressures that undermine progress towards a more ethical perspective. While Evans’s advocacy of GIC provides an academic and “practitioner” perspective on developing a more ethical Australian foreign policy, both the United Nations (UN) and the Commonwealth are important political-institutional contexts. In the former case, “Our Common Agenda,” issued by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in September 2021, provides a detailed guide to action for the world community. Erika Feller and John Langmore have highlighted a number of areas where Australia needs to engage more strongly, including ODA, human rights, peacebuilding, refugees, and meeting “existential risks” such as climate change and nuclear weapons.

Wong, in her address to the UN General Assembly in September 2022, referred to a number of relevant areas, including ODA, food security, commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, and climate change. Treasurer Jim Chalmers announced an increased commitment to ODA in the federal budget on 25 October 2022: over four years, there would be a AU$1.4 billion increase, meaning that Australia would remain on 0.2 percent for spending on ODA rather than slipping to 0.18 percent. Still this is very low in relation to comparable donors.

As far as the Commonwealth is concerned, this is clearly on a smaller scale than the UN. However, Australia, along with the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand, has privileged access to what has become a Global South grouping. The themes from Our Common Agenda also feature in the Communiqué and Leaders’ Statement from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Kigali, Rwanda in June 2022. There are opportunities for Australia to engage in GIC in this context, concurrently helping to build support for progress on these issues in the UN.

While Wong did an excellent job in her address on Australia’s behalf at the opening of the current UN General Assembly, it is a sign of a government’s commitment when the head of government delivers this statement. Albanese has prioritised attendance at international meetings where national security, more narrowly conceived, is foremost, most notably the Quad meeting in Tokyo and the NATO meeting in Madrid. In the case of the Rwanda CHOGM, which the Australian prime minister would normally have attended, the deputy prime minister and defence minister, Richard Marles, represented Australia, possibly expanding the minister’s engagement with non-traditional security issues.

Going beyond the areas that might come under the heading of GIC, there is scope for the central areas of international engagement underpinned by a broader perspective than “national interest.” Australia needs to allow more scope for a global perspective that would contribute to the wellbeing of its neighbours and the global community. Particular attention should be given to those parts of the world where poverty is most dire. Notably, the increased spending on foreign aid announced in the 2022 budget had a strong focus on the Pacific island countries and Southeast Asia, in line with the government’s geostrategic priorities.

A more ethical perspective also entails reflection on the great issues of war and peace as they affect Australia. How should policymakers assess Australia’s position in relation to China, the US alliance, and Ukraine? How do they assess the justice versus peace arguments in relation to such issues as Taiwan and Ukraine? National interest is not the only criterion.

Going beyond GIC and the broadening of national interest, s need to examine the structural aspects of world politics. GIC is essentially an addition to a national interest approach – a form of international charity that is not threatening to the status quo. Nevertheless, a more radical approach is to think in terms of structural change allowing the weak in world politics to have a stronger voice. Even incremental change in this direction is difficult because the strong hold on to what they have. A more generous approach might help to reduce North-South polarisation in world politics as well as potentially having concrete benefits for the people who need it most. Such a shift could, however, also mean a weakening of traditional Western freedoms, and a stronger emphasis on collectivist values.

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

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