Gareth Evans: Syrian nightmare needs diplomacy, not war drums

As Washington formally asks Australia to increase strikes in Syria, former foreign minister Gareth Evans warned military force is counter-productive. Australia should be setting its sights higher on the global stage, but political obsessions with non-state terrorism and ‘special’ relationships make it hard to be taken seriously by those we most need to court.

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.

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