Following his presentation at the EU-Australia Senior and Emerging Leaders’ Forum last week, ANU Chancellor and former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans spoke with Melissa Conley Tyler, Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Evans said that by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and progressively shunning its allies, the US has finally abdicated its global leadership role. The days when the US led the world in developing international institutions and laws for the advancement of global goods were now over.
The following is a transcript of the interview.
MCT: I’m Melissa Conley Tyler, I’m the National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, and the Team Leader for the EU-Australia Leadership Forum. We’re in Sydney at the moment with a very exciting inaugural senior and emerging leaders’ forum, and we’ve been very happy to have one of the AIIA’s Fellows, and former Minister for Foreign Affairs the Honourable Gareth Evans here with us. Thank you very much for speaking to me Gareth.
GE: My pleasure, Melissa.
MCT: Well, you certainly had the room talking when you said that this is the week that will be remembered by future historians as the week that the US abdicated global leadership. Why did you say that?
GE: The simultaneous announcement of Donald Trump that he was walking away from the Paris Climate Agreement, combined with immediately following that the EU and the Chinese leadership saying ‘we’re here to fill that particular gap on climate change’ is, I think, a real watershed moment. It’s been building for some time because even under the Obmaa administration we’ve had an inability to actually deliver on the kind of commitments the executive government wanted to make, because of dysfunction within the congressional system: no treaties have been concluded or ratified by the US Senate in a very long time. And really we have reached a point at which that comfortable leadership on the pursuit and institutionalisation of global public goods, which the US did play a leading role in right back at the beginning in 1945—the UN creation, the Bretton Woods institutions—those days do now seem to be over, and others are going to have to fill those very big shoes that the US has now abdicated.
MCT: Absolutely, and there are no lack of threats. You talked here today about what you see as the biggest existential threat at the moment: tell us more.
GC: Well there’s two big existential threats facing life on this planet as we know it. One is obviously climate change, but the other is a significant exchange of nuclear weapons, and unfortunately that’ll kill us a hell of a lot faster than CO2. And I think the risk is very real. I don’t think the risk is very high of deliberately aggressive use of nuclear weapons by anybody, even North Korea. But I do think the risk is very high of the accidental, miscalculated, system error, human error, cyber sabotage-driven, misuse of nuclear weapons. We know now how often and how seriously we were at risk during the Cold War years, with the supposedly super-sophisticated command and control systems of Russia and the–; of the Soviet Union and the United States. How much more volatile is the situation now, with so many more new nuclear-armed states in the game, with very dubious-quality command and control systems, and now, adding to the mix, leadership of both the United States and Russia who between them possess 95 per cent of the world’s fifteen-and-a-half thousand nuclear weapons, showing a capacity for misjudgement and overreach, which is very worrying indeed? So, I think this is ‘the big one’. Of all the big, ugly, awful things that could happen geopolitically, in the period not so far ahead, this is the one that in a sense troubles me most.
MCT: And not getting as much attention in some way.
GC: And not getting that much attention from either policymakers or publics, and an awful lot of complacency that nuclear weapons are yesterday’s issue, but combined with that a much greater willingness in recent years to talk about the salience of nuclear weapons, the usability of nuclear weapons, the utility of nuclear weapons, as a form of deterrence, to other people having them, on and on and on and on, without any serious appreciation of the risks involved, and this is not a mad lefty sort of position, some of the strongest voices for a move now towards nuclear weapons elimination are coming out of the United States, you know, the group…
MCT: Serious defence thinkers…
GC: The four horsemen: Kissinger, Schultz, Sam Nunn, Bill Perry, who were heavy-duty nuclear realists and enthusiasts during the Cold War but now understand the scale of the risks.
Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FAIIA is chancellor of the Australian National University, co-chair of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, was president of the International Crisis Group from 2000-2009, and served as Australia’s foreign minister from 1988–1996.
Melissa Conley Tyler is the National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and Team Leader for the EU-Australia Leadership Forum.
This was first published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs on 15 June 2017, and is available on its website as a video.