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Gareth Evans: incorrigible optimist

Posted By on October 30, 2017 @ 6:00 am

A good political memoir offers the joy of the fight and the smell of the gang warfare.

Insight is ever welcome. Ditto inspiration. Plus laughs to help the medicine go down.

Gareth Evans’ Incorrigible optimist: a political memoir [1] ticks those boxes, yet it’s no conventional memoir. Evans offers a how-to-do-it manual for diplomatic/strategic tragics: organising the fights and accepting the hard reality that all wins are partial. The jabs and jokes are sprinkled asides rather than stepping stones in a chronological career narrative.

The book is that of a man ever at work to create system and symmetry in a chaotic world. He quotes the journalist David Jenkins: ‘Evans was never a man to find contentment in a wilderness of single instances. He longs for order, predictability, certitude. His mind craves structure.’

Evans is pedantic about principles and paperwork and prose. His staffers could always recite the Evans system for arranging the papers and the coloured tabs. Surveying the sea of documents squirrelled in my bit of the parliamentary press gallery, Evans once pronounced: ‘There are two sorts of people in the world, Graeme, those who file and those who don’t.’ He filed it all.

See that mind’s serious purpose in the book’s structure: 10 thematic chapters on complex issues introduced with simple titles (Justice, Race, Enterprise, Diplomacy, Cooperation, Conflict, Atrocities, Weapons, Education, Politics).

If you need to know how to construct and then ride an international panel of the eminent and expert, here’s the recipe. Evans explains how he used the whip from the get-go on the commission that assaulted the doctrine of state sovereignty by proclaiming the concept of R2P, the ‘responsibility to protect’.

At the first meeting of the panel, co-chairman Evans announced that he’d come up with ‘responsibility to protect’ as the title for the report: ‘This was met by what I can only describe as a collective, incredulous intake of breath … To suggest the report’s title before we had even begun to discuss its content, let alone taken any soundings in the dozen consultations that were scheduled to take place around the world, was considered a little presumptuous, even for an Australian.’

The discussion of R2P is a fine example of Evans’ obsession with defining concepts and codifying what can be done on the international stage. His years as foreign minister (1988–96) left enduring marks on the Oz diplomatic vocabulary: Australia as a ‘middle power’ seeking ‘like-minded coalitions’, doing ‘niche diplomacy’, acting always as ‘a good international citizen’, working constantly in Asia to be (in Dick Woolcott’s phrase) ‘the oddest man in’, putting ‘ballast’ into the Indonesia relationship. As a middle power in a crowded market, he argues, Australia must show timing and smarts when picking its issues, mixing persistence with diplomatic capacity, creativity and credibility.

The defensive account of his East Timor policy and upbeat story of the Cambodia peace process are case studies in slow drilling through hard boards, with lots of splinters.

Evans stands with Bert Evatt and Percy Spender as one of the rare foreign ministers who changed the structure of our foreign policy. He made ASEAN central to Oz policy and helped create post–Cold War institutions for the new Asia: the ASEAN Regional Forum and Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation. Australia wanted APEC’s ‘C’ to stand for ‘Community’, but ASEAN wouldn’t have it. And so, Evans observes, APEC’s name three decades later is still a linguistic oddity: ‘four adjectives in search of a noun’.

Because of its thematic approach, this memoir argues as much about today’s headlines as it does about past battles. Donald Trump is dismissed as ‘a narcissistic, ethically challenged, ignorant vulgarian’. The incorrigible optimist judges that this president ‘manifestly out of his depth intellectually and without any compensating moral moorings’ will be ‘contained by a combination of outright judicial and bureaucratic resistance and also growing congressional resistance, as uncomfortable as that will be for the Republican majority’.

The Evans recipe for Australia in the time of Trump is less America, more Asia. As America and China slug it out ‘for not only regional but global dominance’, Australia should take stands not sides. Take stands against China when it overreaches, he writes, ‘but taking sides in the region, to a greater extent than has been the norm for decades, is something about which Australia should remain very careful’.

Australia should go with flow as it did in joining China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but should push back hard when Beijing’s behaviour is unacceptable, such as with China’s island building in the South China Sea. Evans says Australia’s navy should sail within 12 nautical miles of those reef installations, offering this sanguine assessment: ‘True, any such naval or similar airborne operation runs real risks of tactical incidents occurring, but China is not remotely interested in embarking upon or promoting violent military confrontation with anyone, and the prospect of any such confrontation escalating out of control is extremely unlikely.’

Despite 21 years of ‘rigorous insensitivity training’ in Australian politics, Evans says he never lost his ‘total commitment to the principles of a rule-based international order’ and his ‘comprehensive distaste for the sheer moral indecency of conducting international life either without principled standards, or with double standards’. This is a recipe for frustration, even moments of incandescent anger. The staffers and diplomats had a wry phrase: ‘Earth to Gareth!’ The Evans comment is that ‘my temperament is not of the cloth from which Zen masters are cut’.

After Oz politics, Evans went off to build an NGO version of a foreign ministry with the International Crisis Group. He writes that his management philosophy was to put up with ‘some brilliant but cantankerous directors and analysts—so long as the returns exceed the maintenance costs’.

It’s a good description, too, of the brilliant Gareth Evans.



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[1] Incorrigible optimist: a political memoir: https://www.mup.com.au/books/9780522866445-incorrigible-optimist

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