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Why Australia should be a Good International Citizen

Published in The Age, 3 March 2022

Australia’s strong bipartisan response to Russia’s legally and morally indefensible invasion of Ukraine is a welcome demonstration of a dimension of our foreign policy that has too often gone missing in recent years – being and being seen to be a good international citizen. Being not just a wholly inward-looking, self-interested country, but a decent, selfless one that others respect, trust and want to emulate.

Good international citizenship means caring about and being willing to respond helpfully to critical needs in countries, often far from our shores, where there is no security or economic benefit – at least of a direct or immediate kind – for us in so acting.

There are four practical benchmarks which matter above all else when one is assessing any country’s record as a good international citizen. Being a generous aid donor. Doing everything we can to protect and advance universally recognised human rights. Being an actively committed participant in attempts to meet the great existential risks posed by health pandemics, global warming and nuclear war.

And – most relevant in the Ukraine case -- doing everything we reasonably can to achieve international peace and security: to prevent the horror and misery of war and mass-atrocity crimes, and to alleviate their consequences, including for refugees fleeing their impact.

The response one often gets from political hard-heads, as I can testify from my own Cabinet experience, is that all this is really just boy-scout stuff – something nice to do from time to time if there’s not much cost involved – but not the real business of national government. My answer is that we have both a moral imperative and a national interest imperative to be, and be seen to be, a good international citizen.

The moral case is easy to make. States, like individuals, have a moral obligation to do the least harm, and the most good, they can do. Answers will vary, depending on one’s philosophical or spiritual bent, as to what is the source of that obligation. But whether one’s approach to ethics is religious or secular, and whatever the cultural tradition in which one has been brought up, there is convergence at the core around respect for our common humanity.

But the returns from good international citizenship are more than just warm inner glows. Decent behaviour can generate hard-headed, practical national advantage of the kind that appeals to realists—and political cynics—as well as idealists.

The first return is reputational. A country’s general image, how it projects itself—its culture, its values, its policies—and how in turn it is seen by others, is of fundamental importance in determining how well it succeeds in advancing and protecting its traditional national economic and security interests. ‘Soft power’ matters in determining whether one is seen as a good country to invest in and trade with, to visit, to study in, to trust in security terms, and to work with in international forums.

The second return from good international citizenship is reciprocity. Foreign policymakers are no more immune to ordinary human instincts than anyone else, and if I take your problems seriously, you are that much more likely to help me solve mine.

The third is progress on issues where the whole world, including us, ultimately benefits, like climate change, but where the national costs for many players might seem for a long time to outweigh the benefits, and where the necessary collective international action is accordingly very hard to achieve. The more states that have a cooperative, collective, mindset, the better the chance of these things getting done.

Australia likes to think of itself as a good international citizen and from time to time has deserved to be so regarded: our response to the crisis in Ukraine – with sanctions, equipment supply and refugee support – is a case in point. But too often our overall record has been patchy at best, lamentable at worst, and is presently for the most part embarrassingly poor.

On overseas aid, we have been the worst-performed of any rich-country donor in terms of the decline in our generosity over the last five decades. On human rights, where what happens at home very much matters abroad – nobody likes a hypocrite – our record has been at best mixed.

So too with our contributions to international peace and security. In peacemaking diplomacy, and responding to mass-atrocity crimes, we have played some important positive roles, notably in Cambodia. As international peacekeepers we have always done well, but accepted too few such obligations in recent years. In meeting our responsibilities to refugees and asylum seekers, our record has been at times in the past a very proud one, but in recent years – notably with Afghanistan -- little short of shameful.

On the big existential issues we might scrape a bare pass in the case of pandemics, but have dismally failed on climate change, where our response has been grudging, minimalist, and done nothing to redeem our now well-established international reputation as a climate laggard. On nuclear weapons, we have played a useful role in the past, and can again, in advancing both risk reduction and the ultimate goal of elimination, but in recent years our contribution has been more of an encumbrance than an encouragement.

What is intriguing is that, on all the available evidence the problem lies not with the negative attitudes of our people, but our governments. Australian polling conducted by the Lowy Institute over the last fifteen years shows clear, and often overwhelming, public support (with overseas aid no exception) for all my benchmark tests of good international citizenship.

When governments have taken strongly principled positions on these issues, they have had no obvious difficulty in taking the community with them. The nervousness so many of them have shown has not had any obvious political justification. Maybe these issues are not sufficiently central and salient to win elections, but there is no evidence of which I am aware that they lose them.

A country with Australia’s general record and reputation as an energetic, creative middle power which has many times in the past played a world-leading role in international diplomacy, should be setting its sights higher.

Gareth Evans was Australia’s Foreign Minister 1988-96. His new book, Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency, was released this week as part of the In the National Interest series published by Monash University Publishing.

This article was originally published in The Age on 3 March 2022.