Four Ways To Improve Australia\'s Foreign Policy In The Age Of Donald Trump

In the contemporary world, every state's security, prosperity and quality of life is best advanced by co-operation rather than confrontation, and Australia should be a relentless campaigner for just that. There are many global 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 and the Australia-Japan Commission initiated by Kevin Rudd, but badly dropped the ball toward the end of President Obama's term. Had we then – along with South Korea and Japan, who could have been persuaded – supported Obama's move toward a "No First Use" commitment, the world might have taken a significant step toward reducing 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. There is an urgent need now to bridge the widening gulf between those who want to do nothing and those who clamour hopelessly impractically for global zero now, and Australia is genuinely capable of playing a global leadership role in that process.

Opinion polls sometimes suggest, like the Lowy Institute's in 2016, Australians are more or less evenly divided when confronted with a general question as to whether we should seek to play a more influential role in the world or just mind our own business. But when questions are put more specifically – e.g. whether our participation in the UN Security Council and G20 was worth the effort and cost – other Lowy findings in 2013 and 2015 show very strong, two-thirds or more, support.

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 immediate neighbourhood and more obvious bilateral relationships, and 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.

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 co-operative problem solving, using all the energy and creativity that has traditionally been associated with Australian middle power diplomacy at its best, 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.

Gareth Evans was Australia's Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996 and president and chief executive officer of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009. He was appointed Chancellor of the Australia National University in 2010.

This is an edited extract from the Inaugural Australian Studies Institute Lecture delivered at the Australian National University, Canberra, July 10, 2018.

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