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Gareth Evans: Syrian nightmare needs diplomacy, not war drums

I was asked to give my own take, as a former rather close participant in this business, on how Australian foreign policy is currently travelling.

My short answer is not too badly, but not as well as we could and should be, given our natural advantages and what we have shown ourselves capable of achieving in the past.

On the positive side of the ledger we have been seen as generally a very constructive contributor on a number of global security issues on the Security Council during our 2013-14 term (not least with our leadership on the path-breaking humanitarian access in Syria resolutions), and a cooperative and generous regional player in the MH370 search effort; important bilateral trade agreements have been successfully concluded; and a serious commitment has been made to the Asian education of next generation Australians through the new Colombo Plan.

But along the way we have been narrowly dodging quite a few bullets, including the terrible own-goal of being caught eavesdropping on the Indonesian President and his wife and refusing subsequently to apologise; the extreme isolation of the positions we have regularly taken on Israel-Palestine; the international shame that ought to be our due for some aspects — most notably the Manus and Nauru detention centres — of our policy toward asylum-seekers; and the fallout that also ought to be our due (and I suspect will be next time we are chasing votes in Africa and the Caribbean for the Security Council or whatever) for the huge slashing of our forward aid commitments. We have so far avoided stumbling into zero-sum game territory in managing relations with our major economic partner and our major security ally, but it has been a close run thing.

“We should certainly be supporting the new UN effort to find some kind of regional political situation for the Syrian nightmare, which — along with the debacle in Iraq before it — lies at the heart of the current terrorist problem.”

My fundamental concern is that our foreign policy for quite some time has had an extremely ad hoc feel about it, lacking overall shape and coherence, and not founded on any systematic articulation of what our national interests are and how they are best advanced.

This ad hocery has been true of both sides of politics, Labor leaders have been talking for some years now of our international relations being built on “three pillars”: one, a strong alliance with the United States; two, closer engagement with the United Nations and multilateral institutions; and three, a comprehensive relationship with the Asia Pacific (or, now, Indo-Pacific).

The Coalition approach is not essentially different, although its leaders have nothing like the same enthusiasm for the UN, and questions of cooperative multilateralism generally, with the attitude to climate change negotiations being the most obvious current example. There has been a long history of preferring bilateralism to almost any form of multilateralism, except on an ad hoc basis when engagement is unavoidable or there is seen to be some particular advantage to be gained, and did not take effective advantage of the major opportunity to make our mark when Australia hosted the Brisbane G20 Summit last November.

Terrorism is a ‘second order problem’

Ad hocery is particularly evident in the deep comfort of both sides of politics in identifying non-state terrorism as the most currently important foreign policy — and indeed defence — issue, rather than acknowledging, as they frankly should, that it’s a second order problem in this context. Of course diplomacy has to be part of the story, and we should certainly be supporting the new UN effort to find some kind of regional political situation for the Syrian nightmare, which — along with the debacle in Iraq before it — lies at the heart of so much of the current terrorist problem.

“Trying to drain the Middle East swamps through military action is, we should know by now, more likely than not to be counterproductive.”

But generally speaking, effective counter-terrorism is much more about strong international cooperation on intelligence and policing, and winning relevant community support at home for tough domestic measures. And while using the military for the humanitarian protection of civilians at risk of atrocity crimes from ISIS and its emulators is certainly defensible, trying to drain the Middle East swamps through military action is, we should know by now, more likely than not to be counterproductive.

For both sides far too much current foreign policymaking is wet-finger-in-the-air stuff, driven by domestic political priorities, paying more attention to opinion polls and focus groups — and the sometimes idiosyncratic predilections and prejudices of party leaders (for some of whom foreign policy is terra incognita before they get the job, but that doesn’t stop them) — than intelligent analysis and systematic priority setting. While complete bipartisanship in this area is probably unachievable given the long histories and distinctive cultures of both major parties, we have often found common cause in the past, and we should try to find as much as we possibly can in the future, not least since it is well-established that foreign policy issues are not usually vote-changers for most voters.

Although I will be accused of beating here an old drum of mine, I think the best way of finding common ground is to go back to basics: focusing on what are our real national interests, our capacity to advance and protect them, and the priorities for action that follow from that, recognizing that the logical starting point is interests, not relationships, and that how particular relationships are managed — with the US, or anyone else — should be a function of hard-headed assessment by us of our own national interests.

While of course relationships matter, I have always been profoundly sceptical of the notion of “special” relationship. As Bruce Grant and I said in the book we published in the early 1990s on Australia’s Foreign Relations, special relationships suggest free rides, and free rides, like free lunches, don’t exist. To the extent they are perceived to exist they usually have a cost, tending to involve an unhealthy dependence of one partner on another. “Whither thou goest, there I goest” might be good theology, but it’s not good foreign policy.

A good international citizen

So what are our national interests? There should be no argument about the traditional duo of geopolitical, strategic, physical security-related interests on the one hand, and economic and trade, prosperity-related interests on the other. But I have long argued that instead of thinking of national interests in just these two bundles, we need to think in terms of every country having a third national interest, viz. that in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.

And the touchstone of good international citizenship is being willing to engage in cooperative international action to advance global public goods, or — putting it another way — to help resolve what Kofi Annan used to describe as “problems without passports”: those which are by their nature beyond the capacity of any one state, however great and powerful, to individually solve. We are talking here about such issues as achieving a clean and safe global environment; a world free of health pandemics, out of control cross-border population flows, international trafficking of drugs and people, and extreme poverty; a world without cross border terrorism; and a world on its way to abolishing all weapons of mass destruction.

There’s more to all this than disinterested altruism. In the world of today, whatever may have been the case in the past, these issues should be seen as core foreign policy business, nor optional add-ons at the periphery, to be pursued if you are into boy-scout good deeds, but not otherwise. The argument is that being seriously committed to cooperative international problem solving, even in areas where some sacrifice might be involved with no immediately compensating national security or economic benefit to ourselves, does indeed generate not just a warm inner glow but a hard-headed return.

First, through simple reciprocity: my help for you today in solving your terrorism problem or environmental problem might reasonably lead you to be willing to help solve my refugees problem tomorrow. And secondly, through reputational benefit: the perception of being a country willing to take principled stands for other than immediately self-interested reasons does no harm at all to one’s own commercial and wider political agendas, as the Scandinavians in particular have long understood.

One of the attractions of the good international citizenship concept is that it bridges the traditional gap between realism and idealism, by making it clear that pursuing values and interests are not necessarily completely different ways of going about things: rather, the pursuit of values can also be the pursuit of interests.

“As a rusted-on US ally with an unbroken record of fighting Washington’s wars, we are not always seen, especially by the global South, to be as independently minded as most of us like to think of ourselves.”

Of course, however defined, interests are not the same as influence. Opportunities for influence in pursuing national interests are, in the international diplomatic marketplace, what is left over when a country’s capacities are discounted by the constraints which inhibit it. And foreign policy priorities then define themselves as those policy areas where a major interest coincides with at least some opportunity to influence its achievement.

There are obvious constraints limiting the exercise of Australia’s diplomatic authority. We are not a great, or major power, with economic or military might to match. We are somewhat geographically isolated, though much less than in the past.  And as a rusted-on US ally with an unbroken record for more than a century of fighting Washington’s wars alongside it, we are not always seen, especially by the global South, to be as independently minded as most of us like to think of ourselves.

But against all this we have great strengths: assets and capabilities giving real weight to our standing and reputation. We are by most measures the twelfth largest economy in the world; by any measure we are the sixth largest by landmass and with the third largest maritime zone; we are one of the most multicultural countries in the globe; we have a strong, albeit again historically recent, commitment to our Indigenous people, as the whole world applauded with our apology to the stolen generation; we bring to the table a unique geopolitical perspective, bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; Australians working in international organizations, both official and non-governmental, and Australian peacekeepers, have won almost universally outstanding reputations; and we have a long — if periodically interrupted — record of being a creative middle power, engaged in active and effective diplomacy on global and regional as well as bilateral issues.

Prioritise relations with those nearest

I do think it is an important foreign policy priority to get right and keep right our relations with our Pacific Island neighbours, which we have tended to only very erratically maintain. Because of the size of the countries involved, these are never going to be our most important relationships in economic and security terms, but this is our own most immediate neighbourhood, and it is crucial — in terms of our credibility both there, and our reputation when it comes to projecting ourself in the wider developing world — that we maintain close and committed friendships with all those involved, and handle with sensitivity and finesse the problems which periodically arise. Ensuring that our prime minister attends Pacific Island Forum meetings would be a good start.

Beyond that it is obvious, without me needing now to spell it out, that we need to devote major diplomatic resources to getting right and keeping right our relationships with Indonesia and our other ASEAN neighbours; to finally getting some real substance in our relationship with India; to maintaining in good order our important partnerships with Japan and South Korea; and to avoiding at all costs a zero-sum game developing in our relations with China and the US, which will certainly a require nuanced handling of the South China Sea along with many tother issues.

The only other point I would wish to emphasise about relationship management is that a lot of this — along with the pursuit of priority thematic policy objectives — can be very productively advanced in multilateral settings, and it is critical for us to give a continuing high priority to winning and keeping a place at the table at all the major regional policymaking forums (including the East Asia Summit, which has the potential to become the most important and productive of them), and playing a significant role in major global policymaking forums, including the G20 and, whenever we can, the UN Security Council.

It is interesting to note in this last context that the 2015 Lowy Institute Poll, the latest of their annual surveys of Australians’ attitudes to the world and our place in it, found among many other interesting things very clear majority support (62%) for the proposition that Australia’s role in both the Security Council and the G20 was “worth the effort and cost”.  This suggests — for those who live by wet-finger-in-the-air politics — that there is a real constituency in the wider community for Australia projecting itself effectively on to the wider world stage and engaging in a wide range of global public goods issues, and that there is a genuine sense of achievement when we do.

A country with Australia’s general record and reputation as an energetic, creative middle power which has on many occasions in the past played a world-leading role in international diplomacy — in institution building, and on peace and security and other issues — ought to be setting our sights higher, and acting rather more generously, than we have tended to in recent times.

This is an edited extract of an opening address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans to the inaugural “Australia 360” conference “How is Australia Travelling in Today’s World?” at Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU in Canberra on August 19, 2015.

Author Bio

Gareth Evans

Professor the Hon Gareth Evans is chancellor of the Australian National University. Gareth was foreign minister of Australia for eight years, with prior roles as minister for transport and communications, resources and energy, and attorney-general.