GARETH EVANS. Australia in the world: it’s time to punch our weight.

Dec 4, 2018

In this lecture, Gareth Evans calls for “Less America … More self-reliance … More Asia … More global engagement”.  See below, extracts from Gareth Evans’ Tom Uren Memorial Lecture delivered in Balmain 2 December 2018.  

Responding to the Challenges. So how should Australia, and in particular an incoming Labor government, be reacting to these and other stress-generating international developments in our own region and beyond? I have been carefully reading Penny’s speeches, and those of Bill Shorten and Richard Marles and others with external responsibilities: they are all on the case, and there is very little, if anything, in what they are saying with which I would want to argue. But given that as a political has-been, with my diplomatic future behind me, I have a little more freedom than they do to cut to the chase in a pre-election environment, let me spell out in my own words what I think should be the primary elements in our policy response in government. In short, there are four of them: Less America, More Self-Reliance, More Asia and More Global Engagement. 

Less America. I am not suggesting for a moment that Australia walk away from the US alliance, from which we unquestionably benefit in terms of access to intelligence and high-end armaments, and – however flimsy the ANZUS guarantee may prove to be in reality – the notional deterrent protection of America’s massive military firepower. Continued counter-balancing US engagement in our region is certainly highly desirable, but less reflexive support by Australia for everything the US chooses to do is long overdue. As I have often said, ‘Whither thou goest, there I goest’ might be good theology, but it is not great foreign policy for a country that values its independence and wants international respect.

My own experience strongly suggests that periodically saying “no” to the US when our national interests are manifestly different, makes for a much healthier and productive relationship than one of craven dependence. While Simon Crean’s position in 2003 that we would not support the US invasion of Iraq in the absence of a UN mandate gave Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd, among others, the vapours, he was absolutely right and I hope we would take that stance again if a similar situation arose: I am glad to see Bill Shorten effectively saying as much in his major foreign policy speech last month.

The bottom line is that neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that, for all the insurance we might think we have bought with our past support, the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat. While that was almost certainly also the reality under previous administrations, it has been thrown into much starker relief by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach, and it should not be assumed that anything would be very different in a post-Trump era. I think the reality is, as my ANU colleague Hugh White has repeatedly put it, that ‘we need to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America’.

None of this positioning is as breathtakingly adventurous, or politically dangerous, as it might once have been. Recognition that the US is a much less reliable ally than it once may have been is alive and well in Europe, is creeping into the writing even of the conservative commentariat here (certainly that of Pope Paul Kelly, if not Cardinal Greg Sheridan), was clearly a subtext of the Government’s own Foreign Policy White Paper last year. While Penny and her colleagues will no doubt use more polite language than I am presently capable of, I don’t think the ALP should feel too bashful about joining the crowd.

More Self-Reliance. Preparing ourselves to rely less on America certainly means being more of a diplomatic free agent: adding to our reputation and credibility with an activist foreign policy that is creative, proactive, value-adding and unconstrained by the constant urge to look over our shoulder to Washington. But more than that, it does entail, in military terms, building defence capability that involves not only more bucks than we are usually comfortable spending but getting a bigger bang for each of them. It certainly means maximising our capacity to protect our shores and maritime environment (including the South West Pacific) from hostile intrusion, but also means having a capacity to engage in military operations wider afield if there is a good national interest (including responsible global citizenship) reason for doing so.

While defence expenditure has been increasing – with both sides of politics committed to maintaining it at a credible 2%, or slightly more, of GDP – given the size of our continent, our capacity to defend ourselves against any really existential threat is limited. I am optimistic enough to believe that in today’s world the costs and risks of waging war so wildly outweigh any conceivable benefits for any significant player that the likelihood of a major conflict in the foreseeable future is actually very low. But defence planning always has to be based on worst case assumptions, taking into account potential adversaries’ capabilities, not just known intent, and in that context we are going to have to get used to doing more.

More Asia. This to me has two dimensions: on the one hand, strengthening our relationships at all levels with key regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, as a collective counterweight to a potentially overreaching China; and on the other hand trying to develop a more multidimensional relationship, not just a one dimensional economic one, with China itself.

As much as I would welcome Australia developing an even closer relationship with ASEAN as a whole – with all its potential for harnessing the region’s collective middle power energy and capacity – and to see that relationship perhaps extending in the future to some form of associate membership rather than just partnership, I suspect that for the foreseeable future internal divisions, and the organization’s culture of extreme caution, make that unlikely, and that our efforts in South East Asia should be focused on its two heaviest players, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as our traditional partners Singapore and Malaysia. Which means, among other things, that just about the last thing we should be doing is gratuitously putting any of those relationships at risk by the kind of unbelievable folly involved in Morrison’s Jerusalem Embassy thought-bubble.

So far as China itself is concerned, it is critical – and I am glad to see last year’s Foreign Policy White Paper spelling this out quite clearly, and this focus becoming evident in policy statements from our own side – to approach the relationship in a spirit of multi-dimensional engagement. We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for our prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on anything to do with security issues in the hope and expectation, almost certainly now misguided, that the US will do the heavy lifting for us on that front. None of this means becoming Beijing’s patsy, any more than we should be Washington’s: we should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values, and should be prepared to push back strongly when China overreaches, as it has in the South China Sea.

But it does mean recognizing the legitimacy of many of China’s own security and economic national interest claims, including the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative: with us being a little less anxious about its regional security implications, and being prepared – with appropriate commercial caution – to be an active participant in the enterprise. And it certainly means recognizing the legitimacy of China’s demand to be now not just a rule-taker but a participant in global rule-making. In that context, one of the most productive ways of building content into Australia’s relationship may be to work more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to nuclear arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on many of which issues China has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised. Some will say Xi Jinping’s rapid occupation of the climate space abdicated by the US, and rush, similarly, to champion the virtues of free trade, was just cynical opportunism, but I don’t think we should necessarily assume that: we should be out there exploring the options.

More Global Engagement. I strongly believe that this should come back into focus as a sustaining theme of Australian foreign policy, picking up the idea that what I have been calling ‘good international citizenship’, that Penny calls ‘constructive internationalism’, really is itself a core national interest, sitting alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests. The willingness of ALP governments in the past to take seriously the pursuit of global and regional public goods, even when there was no direct or immediate economic or security return, has been a fundamental point of differentiation between us and most of our conservative opponents for decades now, and it’s time in my judgement for this to take centre stage again.

Australia has been at its best, and our standing in the world highest, when we play to the national strengths I described at the outset, and have projected ourselves effectively on to the world stage as a country deeply committed to our common humanity and determined to do everything we can to make the world safer, saner, more prosperous and just.

In the contemporary world, every state’s security, prosperity and quality of life is best advanced by cooperation rather than confrontation, and Australia should be a relentless campaigner for just that. There are many public goods issues on which we could make a positive difference, using our own strengths as a capable, credible middle power and the strategies of international coalition building that are the essence of effective middle power diplomacy.

To take just one example, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, where we have played a major role in global agenda setting in the past with the Canberra Commission initiated by Paul Keating in 1996 and the Australia-Japan Commission initiated by Kevin Rudd in 2009, and can play a major role again, including – I don’t think it’s too naïve to hope – by working with China, which has long been among the least enthusiastic of the nuclear-armed states.

I don’t disagree with Penny and Richard Marles when they say that the recently negotiated UN Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty – the Nuclear Ban Treaty – is aspirational rather than remotely operational in its present form, and is never likely to win the support of any of the present nuclear-armed states. But I do think we should be more prepared to knowledge the normative – moral, if you like – significance involved in two-thirds of the world’s countries participating in its negotiation, and not in any way accept that support for the Ban Treaty somehow undermines the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): it does not.

My own view is that the most useful way forward – and this is a cause in which Australia could unquestionably play a global leadership role under a Labor government – is to develop a broad-based international coalition aimed at bridging the widening gulf between those who clamour hopelessly impractically for global zero now, and those who want to do nothing at all about nuclear disarmament. This is not the occasion to spell it out in detail now, but I think the beginning of wisdom here is a serious step-by-step process of the kind proposed in the Rudd Australia-Japan Commission I co-chaired, focusing initially on the ‘4 Ds’ – Doctrine (‘No First Use’), De-alerting (to build in launch-time delays and reduce the possibility of catastrophic error), Deployment (reducing the number of weapons actively deployed) and Decreasing overall numbers to a small fraction of the 14,500 presently in existence. We know that complete elimination of nuclear weapons is going to remain out of reach for a very long time, but we just have to do something to reduce the salience and legitimacy of the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, and the most immediate risk to life on this planet as we know it. The other great existential risk is, of course, climate change: but nuclear weapons can kill us a lot faster than CO2. Nuclear disarmament is core business for any Labor government worth the name.

My own strong belief is that Australians just don’t accept that we are another also-ran, and that any government which adopts a posture which concentrates just on our more obvious bilateral relationships, and just on our immediate neighbourhood (though I support completely the re-engagement and re-focus on the South Pacific which has been capturing so much attention recently), and which remains myopic about what is capable of being achieved if we engage in a whole variety of multilateral forums with the skill and stamina which has served us so well in the past, will be a government that will simply not be playing the confident external projection role which most Australians want it to

Our track record over many decades overwhelmingly shows that Australia and individual Australians are decent and committed international citizens, independently minded – and with a real egalitarian streak, something which plays well with a great many other countries with our strong record, everywhere from peacekeeping missions to diplomatic forums, of neither sucking up to the powerful nor kicking down at the powerless.

Playing to that instinct of decency, focusing on cooperative problem solving, working through forums like the G20 and East Asia Summit and APEC where as a result of past Labor government efforts we have a top-table place, using all the energy and creativity that has traditionally been associated with Australian middle power diplomacy at its best – and above all with ALP governments – will be far and away the best way of ensuring in the years and decades ahead, in a region and world in which the tectonic plates are shifting and every possible kind of uncertainty abounds, that this great country of ours not only survives but thrives.

I have total confidence that with Bill Shorten leading a new ALP government and Penny leading our external relations team, Australia really will be in fantastically good hands, fully realizing our capability in a way that we have almost completely failed to do over the last five years, and doing so in a way that will bring real and lasting benefit not only to our own people, but those of our region and the wider world. This will be great Labor government, of which Tom Uren would be proud, and we will all be proud.

2018 Tom Uren Memorial Lecture by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, hosted by the Hon Anthony Albanese MP, Balmain Town Hall, Sydney, 2 December 2018. 

Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC FASSA FAIIA has been Chancellor of the Australian National University since January 2010. He was a Cabinet Minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments from 1983-96, in the posts of Attorney General, Minister for Resources and Energy, Minister for Transport and Communications and – from 1988-96 – Foreign Minister. During his 21 years in Australian politics he was Leader of the Government in the Senate (1993-96) and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives (1996-98). From 2000 to 2009 he was President and CEO of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, the independent global conflict prevention and resolution organisation.

A link to the full Memorial Lecture can be found at

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