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Heather Smith PSM FAIIA Delivers Speech at the AIIA National Office

Published 14 Apr 2023
AIIA National President Heather Smith. Source: AIIA National

On 13 April 2023, Heather Smith PSM FAIIA delivered a speech at a reception in her honour held at the AIIA National Office on 13 April 2023. This is the full text of the speech.

AIIA Board Members, Excellencies, Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Members of the AIIA Family, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I begin this evening by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet today, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respect to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples present here today.

It’s my great honour to address you for the first time as the National President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

I am very proud to be following in the footsteps of Allan Gyngell, who cannot be here tonight, and for all the reasons that Zara has noted, it is quite a humbling experience to do so.

I would like to acknowledge Allan for his national leadership of the AIIA over several years.  I am very aware of the big shoes I’m stepping into. You only need to listen to Allan and Darren Lim’s Australia in the World podcast series to know what an enormous contribution Allan has, and continues to make, to Australia’s foreign policy discourse.  Allan is one of Australia’s greatest strategic thinkers. He brings clarity, wisdom, insight and a contextual perspective sometimes lacking from our national conversations on foreign policy.

Like Allan, my professional career has focussed on how Australia makes its way in the world. In my case this began as an academic studying North Asia at the ANU, then as an intelligence officer, diplomat, policy maker, a G20 sherpa, and then as a secretary of two Commonwealth departments advising government on innovation and technological disruption.  I now find myself as a board director of private companies which are also grappling with geopolitical risk, global economic decoupling, and technological transformation.

Moving across these boundaries has enabled me to appreciate not only the importance of integrating economic, foreign and strategic interests in the development of policy but, more importantly, how implementing policy developed in isolation of these interdependencies can work against the national interest.

I wish I could say that I am taking over the National Presidency in an era where Australians might afford to be purely contemplative about events beyond our shores.

We all know, however, that this is not the case. As I noted during my Plimsoll Lecture at the Tasmania Branch of the AIIA in November last year, we are at a unique time in world history: “a period of unprecedented turbulence” stemming from “a confluence of events that we have not witnessed in the past three-quarters of a century.”[i]

We are in uncharted waters, and worse, as United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted this year at Davos, we are “plagued by a perfect storm on a number of fronts.”[ii]

As some have said, we are living in a “polycrisis”, where the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, geostrategic competition, entrenched inflation, supply chain management and a myriad of international problems are all connected. We used to think of “complex interdependence” as a pathway to peace. If all nations had to rely on each other for solutions, there was more incentive to cooperate peacefully.

That doesn’t now seem to be the case. Within such a connected environment, problems also become more complex. In an environment characterised by a lack of strategic trust, solutions to international problems will be harder to arrive at, and they will need to reflect a wider range of perspectives.

Unfortunately, there is today little faith in common solutions negotiated through a globalised international system.

For its part, as I noted in the Plimsoll Lecture, Australia is being pushed and pulled by the interrelated forces of: deglobalisation and the ongoing distributive backlash; geostrategic competition and the struggle against authoritarianism; the digital revolution and techno-nationalism; and energy transformation and decarbonisation of the global economy.

This new world is deeply at odds with Australia’s history, where we have benefitted from a sustained period of globalisation and peace between major powers.

In this new world we will need to be clear-eyed about our national interests. In its simplest form the national interest should be about ensuring security, prosperity and social cohesion of the nation and its people, today and into the future.

But different sections of Australian society place different weights and priorities in terms of security, prosperity and social cohesion. And there is no shared understanding of the costs we are prepared to pay to achieve each.

In the Plimsoll Lecture, I also outlined my view that it is time for Australia to adopt a national interest strategy, or at the very least a national statement that brings together an integrated and balanced understanding of the national interest incorporating our security, economic and societal interests.

Such a strategy would help bring clearer policy frameworks to decision-making by better connecting the principles that guide our domestic economic interests – competitive markets, robust institutions and a focus on social wellbeing – with the principles that underpin our national security – our interests, values, identity and history.

While an ambitious objective, such a strategy will only succeed if there is a recognition that public input is crucial. Especially in a vibrant democracy like ours, it should be a truism that you cannot have a national strategy, or even a plan for national security, without engaging the nation.

Indeed, the era when strategic policy was pursued behind closed doors has passed. The threats we face, and the difficult choices our elected leaders will have to make on our behalf, call for more, not less public discussion because of the profound inter-generational implications.

When Allan assumed the National Presidency of the AIIA in 2017 he spoke to three types of public opinion dealing with foreign affairs:  interest groups who seek to advance a cause they believe in; the interested generalists who keep themselves informed; and the general public who, short of war, terrorist threats and consular cases, have little interest in foreign policy.[iii]

If think tank polling of the Australian public is anything to go by, an informed national discussion is needed on what is in Australia’s national interest because of the inevitable trade-offs we now face.

Polling by the Lowy Institute point to the societal contradictions.  While Australians trust in China has fallen sharply, and most Australians see our alliance with US as making Australia safer, more than three-quarters of those surveyed in 2022 also believe that our alliance with the US makes it more likely we will be drawn into war in Asia that would not be in our interests.

And in a world that has been deglobalising since the global financial crisis, seven in ten Australians saw globalisation as being good for us, and eight in ten saw free trade as being good for living standards.

But if Australians were asked to prepare the national budget, Lowy Institute polling suggests most would prioritise spending on health, education and social welfare over foreign and defence policy issues. And at a time when there has already been a commitment to increase outlays, only slightly over half say defence spending should be increased.[iv]

My own interpretation of these, seemingly in conflict, perspectives is that while the Australian public intuitively understand that we will almost always align with the US in a crisis, they also wish us to have, and exercise, strategic manoeuvrability, and that at times we will need to choose our own path. Like most in our region, they want a strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific where countries can make their sovereign choices and are not forced to choose sides.

In terms of our economic interests, we should also pause to reflect upon the consequences as the US seeks to technologically contain China, and China seeks to build a self-sufficient and war resilient economy, and the implications of that for our region and beyond. It signals to others the price each is willing to pay to safeguard their interests.

It also shows we urgently need guardrails to prevent further escalation towards military conflict, and to mitigate the inevitable spillover effects of unilateral economic policies and policies to foster collective resilience.

We should take heed of the IMF’s recent sobering analysis of the costs of geoeconomic fragmentation for trade, investment and financial flows. We can expect growth to be lower, slower and more unequal.[v]  For Australia, threading this needle of unilateral and collective resilience will be particularly difficult given our dependence on well-functioning, transparent global markets that have underwritten our prosperity.

Adam Tooze recently said in the context of this polycrisis that “no one is outside the current conjecture. There are different vantage points, with different perspectives, but no single point and no single theory that encompasses our reality”.[vi]

In these turbulent times disagreement on economic, foreign and strategic policy issues is to be expected. But it seems that recently many of our experts have been talking past one another.

The national security narrative has become dominant, muscular and all-encompassing along the lines of “don’t you understand the magnitude of the threat”. The civilian narrative is “we need sovereign capability to ensure our resilience”.

Yet as a nation we are yet to have the national conversation as to the trade-offs that will be needed as we build resilience at home and abroad, and a sustained focus on deterrence. This will test the social license as to what is sustainable.

We need a wider conversation.

Indeed, this has been the guiding principle of this institute since it was founded. To note one of our early presidents, Richard Boyer, in the 1947 inaugural issue of The Australian Outlook, which later became the Australian Journal of International Affairs, and which you can find just metres away in our library:

“The day is long past when the issues covered by the Institute are matters of intellectual and group concern only. The Institute is designed to leave its mark to some good purpose on the actual turn of events. It does so not by espousing any policy – indeed, it is strictly prevented by its constitution from endorsing or propagating any point of view. It does aim, however, to strike firmly at the heart of the problem by setting up means whereby research into international issues may be carried out and information of a factual nature may be disseminated, and also to act as a forum wherein those competent not only to give information but to express views may do so without any limitation and without unwanted publicity”.[vii]

In this day and age, where the Chatham House Rule may have been diminished by broadcast of speaker events, it may be difficult to avoid the publicity, but the rest still rings true.

The purpose of the Australian Institute of International Affairs is to help Australians know more, understand more, and engage more in international affairs. The role that the AIIA plays in the public discussion on the state of the world and Australia in it has never been more important.

It is therefore appropriate that we as an organisation continue to be firmly grounded in the communities of our States and Territories. As President I hope to see the AIIA’s role and contribution enhanced both nationally and beyond our capital cities into our regional communities to ensure all Australians can be better informed of the challenges, opportunities and trade-offs that we need to navigate over the years ahead.

[i] Heather Smith, The decade ahead: disruptive, disorderly and dangerous, The Plimsoll Lecture, University of Tasmania, 29 November 2022.

[ii] Antonio Guterres,, 18 January, 2023

[iii] Allan Gyngell, Australian foreign policy: does the public matter? Should the community care?, The Charteris Oration, Australian Institute of International Affairs, Sydney, 29 November 2017.

[iv] Lowy Institute Poll 2022,


[vi] Adam Tooze, June 27, 2022.

[vii] RJF Boyer, Forward, Australian Outlook, 1:1, 3-5