Decency in Oz foreign policy: the bell tolls for thee
7 Mar 2022|

International relations is work of desperate hope, beset by brutal lessons.

For the society of states, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s monstrous appointment with history in Ukraine is trauma and test and teaching moment.

Turning Russia into a pariah, Putin demonstrates that might doesn’t always make right.

It’s an achingly apposite moment for one of Australia’s finest foreign ministers to ponder morality in foreign policy.

Gareth Evans last week released Good international citizenship: the case for decency, an essay in Monash University’s series ‘In the National Interest’.

Australia’s foreign minister from 1988 to 1996 (standing with Alexander Downer, R.G. Casey and H.V. Evatt as longest in the job), Evans casts a hard light on how we’re performing on the global stage: ‘[O]ur overall record has been patchy at best, lamentable at worst, and is presently embarrassingly poor.’

Evans sets up the case for good international citizenship with a typically broad question: ‘Why should we in Australia, or any country, care about poverty, human rights atrocities, health epidemics, environmental catastrophes, weapons proliferation or any other problems afflicting faraway countries, when they don’t, as is often the case, have any direct or immediate impact on our own safety or prosperity?’

He mounts the case for ‘the boy scout’ stuff against the ‘self-described political realists’ who argue that ‘the core, hard-headed business of foreign policy’ is to advance and protect the national interest.

The scout answer is that morality isn’t an add-on; it’s at the heart. Idealism can be realistic.

The traditional duo of security and economic interests must stand beside a third, equal category: ‘national values’. The intellectual judo throw on the realists is that morality is a core interest that can support and advance those geopolitical and prosperity purposes.

When values and morality are treated as optional, Evans argues, Australia is ‘drawn into the kind of adhocery which has characterised the conduct, on both the Coalition and Labor sides, of so much of Australia’s international relations as well as domestic policy in recent years’.

Policy is blown about by opinion polls and focus groups and ‘the sometimes idiosyncratic predilections and prejudices of party leaders’.

The problem, Evans reckons, lies not with the attitudes of Australians but the cynicism and prejudices of our governments. He offers three kinds of ‘hard-headed return’ for a state that acts as a good international citizen.

Problems without borders: a collective international mindset is needed for the big issues no state can fix—global warming, pandemics, cross-border population flows, trafficking of drugs and people, terrorism, extreme poverty, and abolishing weapons of mass destruction.

Reciprocity: let’s make a deal. I’ll help you today; you help me tomorrow. Reciprocity, Evans writes, ‘is not always explicit or transparent, and subtlety will often be an advantage in achieving it. But no practising diplomat will be unaware of the reality, and utility, of this dynamic, and no government policymakers should be oblivious to it.’

Reputation: more intangible, but perhaps most significant. ‘A country’s general image, how it projects itself—its culture, its values, its policies—and how in turn it is seen by others, is of fundamental importance in determining how well it succeeds in advancing and protecting its traditional national interests.’

Evans marks Australia hard against key international-citizen benchmarks: foreign aid generosity; response to human rights violations; reaction to conflict, mass atrocities and refugee flows; and contribution to addressing the existential threats of climate change, pandemics and nuclear war.

On aid, Evans writes that Australia is ‘the worst performed of any rich country’ in ‘the decline in our generosity over the last five decades’. Aid caused his toughest budget brawls as foreign minister—‘an almighty struggle’ and ‘the bloodiest I ever had to fight in cabinet’. Australia has been insouciant about cutting aid, he thinks, because it’s ‘not generally seen by the political class and senior public service as a core national interest’.

The human rights record is judged as ‘mixed’. Much of the advance within Australia, Evans writes, ‘has been driven more by culture change from below than leadership from above’.

In the conflict category, Evans says Australia has been both a responsible and an irresponsible player. ‘Down payments in blood’ were a naive effort to buy defence insurance from the US: ‘We went to war in Vietnam and Iraq, and stayed in Afghanistan much longer than we should have, not because these fights were justified in law or morality, but because the United States wanted us to, or we thought they wanted us to, or because we wanted them to want us to.’

On existential threats, the pandemic has been ‘a huge wake-up call’, while on climate change, ‘the ranks of the doubtful on its nature and impact—even within Australia’s conservative government—are rapidly diminishing’.

Putin’s brandishing of nuclear weapons might have disturbed what Evans calls ‘an alarming degree of complacency, among both publics and policymakers’, about nuclear war: ‘The fact that we have not had a nuclear weapon used in conflict for over 75 years is not a result of statesmanship, system integrity and infallibility, or the inherent stability of nuclear deterrence. It has been sheer dumb luck.’

As an ‘incorrigible optimist’, Evans ends, as he starts, with two big reasons why Australia should be a good international citizen—‘not just because it is the right thing for us to do morally, but because it is also in our national self-interest’.

Australia’s leaders need to be both idealistic and pragmatic.

The simultaneous ambition follows the admonition of a Scottish Labour MP, Jimmy Maxton, who coined a line often heard from the lips of Gareth Evans: ‘If you can’t ride two horses at once, you’ve no right to be in the bloody circus.’

We don’t get much poetry into The Strategist, but as Putin tries to swipe ‘a piece of the continent’ to make Europe the less, turn to John Donne’s advice in ‘Meditation XVII’:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.