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No Power? No Influence? Australia's Middle Power Diplomacy in the Asian Century

2012 Charteris Lecture by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, to the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), New South Wales Branch, Sydney, 6 June 2012

As they get older, some people get more cantankerous, and others more mellow. I think I am generally in the latter category, though I would have to acknowledge that becoming a complete model of Buddhist tranquillity has proved to be a rather hard slog. Some things do, unquestionably, still have the capacity to stir my blood. And very high on that list is any talking down of Australia as a country not capable of making any kind of significant contribution to the wider world of international affairs.

I saw a notable example of this genre in a piece a week or two ago by a local academic blogger who shall remain deservedly nameless. It described Australia as a country of ‘no power, no influence’ and ‘for the post part invisible in international politics’, whose bid for a Security Council seat is a ‘vainglorious project’ likely to fail:  or, if successful, do no more than open up (like our overseas missions generally) job opportunities for the ‘corpses of failed politicians, careerist bureaucrats and’ – unkindest cut of all – ‘irritating former Cabinet ministers’. 

You won’t be surprised to hear that I have a rather different view of Australia’s capability and relevance. You may take the position that – as Mandy Rice-Davies famously did during the Profumo affair, in commenting on someone’s denial of an improper relationship – ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he.’ But it’s the nature and extent of that capability – and the role that it will play in meeting the challenges of, and setting priorities for, our foreign policy in the decades ahead – that I thought it might be useful to talk about this evening.  

We should begin by reminding ourselves of a few objective facts that go to our standing and reputation. We are by most measures the 12th largest economy in the world;   by any measure we are the 6th largest by landmass and with the 3rd largest maritime zone;  we are one of the most multicultural countries in the globe;  we have a strong commitment to our Indigenous people, as the whole world applauded with our apology to the stolen generation; we bring to the table a unique geopolitical perspective, bridging our European history and our Asia-Pacific geography; Australians working in international organizations, both official and non-governmental,  and Australian peacekeepers, have won almost universally outstanding reputations; we have had a strong and longstanding commitment to a rule-based global and regional order; and we have had a long – if not totally unbroken ­ – record  of demonstrated national commitment to the UN system in all its security, social and economic justice and human rights dimensions.

Beyond that, we have been seen for many decades as a creative middle power with global interests and a long – if not, again, unbroken – record on both sides of politics of active and effective diplomacy, on global and regional as well as bilateral issues. Not that both sides of politics have embraced with equal fervour the notion of Australia being a ‘middle’ power. When the conservative government of John Howard was in office from 1996 to 2007, ‘middle power’ language was explicitly rejected, and disappeared entirely from our diplomatic vocabulary: for Foreign Minister Alexander Downer we were a ‘pivotal’ power, and it was demeaning to suggest otherwise. As he put it on one occasion, ‘My predecessor Gareth Evans talked about Australia as a ‘middle power’ and Labor seems to have a middle child complex when it comes to our place in the world. We are not ‘middling’ or ‘average’ or ‘insignificant’…we are a considerable power and a significant country’.   

I fear that my distinguished and long-serving successor may have missed the point here – perhaps (although I would not wish to appear churlish) not for the only time in his ministerial career. In international parlance, ‘middle power’ has no connotation at all of mediocrity or insignificance.  The initial lists of middle powers that started appearing in the 1980s in fact tended to incorporate countries like China, France, the UK and Japan, with the top group containing only the ‘great powers’ of the day, viz. the U.S. and Soviet Union.  These days the term is used not so much to describe countries by reference to their comparative population sizes or GDPs or military budgets: there is no generally agreed list – long or short – of those who by some agreed objective measures are neither great nor small. Rather the term is most commonly used to describe the kind of diplomacy typically practised by a relatively small and distinctive group of states: Australia, Canada and the Scandinavians typically listed among them (although, in all of us, commitment to this style of diplomacy has waxed and waned with changing political leadership).

I define ‘middle power diplomacy’ as the kind of diplomacy which can, and should, be practised by states who may not be big or strong enough, either in their own region or the wider world, to impose their policy preferences on anyone else; but who do recognize that that there are international policy tasks which need to be accomplished,  if the world around them is to be safer, saner, more just and more prosperous (with all the potential this has, in turn, to affect their own interests); and who have sufficient capacity and credibility to be able to advance those tasks.

Middle power diplomacy has a characteristic method and a characteristic motivation. The characteristic method is coalition building with ‘like-minded’ countries, usually also involving ‘niche diplomacy’, which means simply concentrating resources in specific areas best able to generate returns worth having, rather than trying to cover the field.  The concept of ‘like-mindedness’ has been changing in interesting ways. In the past the countries in whose company Australia certainly felt most comfortable were those sharing the abiding values of Western liberal democracy, the living standards of advanced industrial societies, and preferably speaking English as well: and for leaders like John Howard and Tony Abbot, with their recurring references to the ‘Anglosphere’, it is not entirely clear that the present has eclipsed the past.

But these days, the term ‘like-minded’ much more often describes those who, whatever their prevailing value systems, share specific interests and are prepared to work together to do something about them.  In an age where the whole world is preoccupied with the group of transnational or ‘global public goods’ problem issues that Kofi Annan described as ‘problems without passports’ – from climate change to health pandemics to catastrophic human rights violations to terrorism and weapons proliferation and the like – many more interests are seen as shared than was the case before, and many more countries are seen, by most if not all of us, as potential allies in cooperating to protect and advance them.

The characteristic motivation for middle power diplomacy is what I have long described as ‘good international citizenship’ (another term which disappeared from the Australian diplomatic lexicon during the Howard era, but which has had something of a rebirth under Foreign Ministers Rudd and Carr). This is a belief in the utility, and necessity, of acting cooperatively with others in solving international problems, particularly those problems which by their nature cannot be solved by any country acting alone, however big and powerful.  The crucial point to appreciate about good international citizenship is that this is not something separate and distinct from the pursuit of national interests; it is not some kind of foreign policy equivalent of boy-scout good deeds. On the contrary ‘being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen’  should itself be seen as a third category of national interest, right up there alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests.

The argument is that, by being seriously committed to cooperative international problem solving, national interest is advanced two ways. First, through simple reciprocity: my help for you today in solving your drugs and terrorism problem might reasonably lead you to be willing to help solve my environmental problem tomorrow. And secondly, through reputational benefit: the perception of being a country willing to take principled stands for other than immediately self-interested reasons does no harm at all to one’s own commercial and wider political agendas.  One of the attractions of the concept is that it bridges the traditional gap between realism and idealism, by making it clear that pursuing values and interests are not necessarily completely different ways of going about things:  rather, the pursuit of values can also be the pursuit of interests.


In confronting the main challenges that lie ahead for Australian foreign policy – while some of them might seem at first sight to be more bilateral in character than the kind of multilateral issue which the concept of middle power diplomacy is primarily designed to address – I think we would be well served by keeping that concept, and the basic style of diplomacy it entails, very much in the forefront of our minds.

I am reinforced in that view by the excellent address given to the ACT Branch of the AIIA last month by Allan Gyngell, a consummate diplomat who I first got to know when he was Prime Minister Keating’s foreign policy adviser, who became the first Director of the Lowy Institute and is now Director-General of the Office of National Assessments. I will have to speak to him a little severely about his apparent inclination in that address to treat interests and values as in different diplomatic universes, but on everything else in his presentation – on the Benjamin Disraeli  principle that ‘My idea of an agreeable person is someone who agrees with me’ –  I find him very agreeable indeed.  

Drawing on examples like the Cambodian peace plan exercise of 1989-93, the Australian contribution to the resolution of the East Timor turmoil in 1999, and the very important role we played in 2008-9 in establishing the G20 as the main coordinating forum for discussion of the global economy, Gyngell argues that Australian diplomacy has been at its most successful when, among other things, it is ‘driven by the active engagement of ministers, uses our alliance relationships constructively, utilises effectively our long record of participation in multilateral organisations [and] builds external coalitions, especially with the region’.

In the context of the new regional and global dynamics of what, as Paul Keating might put it, every galah in every pet-shop in the country is now calling the ‘Asian Century’, I would describe the biggest challenges, and priorities, for Australian policy in the decades ahead as four-fold: to avoid a zero-sum game developing in our relations with China and the US; to get right and keep right our relationship with India; to get right and keep right our relationship with Indonesia; and to win and keep a place at the table at the  major policymaking forums of the age, both regional and global.

One: Avoiding a Zero-Sum Game Developing in our Relations with China and the US. It hardly needs spelling out how much Australia would suffer if the relationship between far-and-away our most important economic partner and far-and-away our most important security partner were to end in tears.

The bilateral relationship between the US and China is in reasonable shape at the moment, surviving some sharp exchanges in 2010 on a number of provocative actions by China on territorial waters issues in the South China Sea, and the recent tension over US support for the blind dissident Chen Guangchen – and it will for the foreseeable future be held in check by the realisation that both countries are ‘joined at the wallet’. But there still remains the huge underlying issue of how the US will respond over time to the dramatic acceleration in China’s economic growth, and all the stretching of wings, not least in rapidly increasing military capability that is going with that.

China is hard-headedly realistic about our alliance relationship with the US – in no doubt at all on which side we would be on if the nightmare scenario of a military confrontation were to arise, conscious of the difference between hedging against a possible scenario and talking up a threat, and not inclined to let defence issues inhibit the other dimensions of its relationship with us. But it’s important to show some reciprocal understanding and constraint of our own, not push things too far, and do our best to persuade the US and our other friends in the region likewise. As Australia gears up now for another Defence White Paper next year, with all the potential for misunderstanding we know can be associated with these documents, it is crucial that we work hard at every possible level to build an effective working relationship with China – economically, politically and on global public goods issues including multilateral arms control – to counter any perception that we are edging back into the containment business.

With the US the most useful contribution we can probably make is to constantly urge our friends not only to not use the ‘C’ word (containment) – about which they don’t need any persuasion –  but the ‘DLP’ words as well (maintaining the dominance, or leadership or primacy of the US and its allies in the region),  about which a little more encouragement on occasion seems necessary.  At most what is involved, and likely to be able in practice to be delivered, is the ‘B’ word: balance.

It’s not always easy for Australia’s voice to be heard in the halls of Washington and Beijing, and I wouldn’t wish to exaggerate our influence (or for that matter anyone else’s) there. But what I have always found amplifies that voice is when we are perceived as a useful player – as an active middle power with coalition building and policy delivery capability of our own – in advancing objectives which these great powers need help to achieve. The paradigm example for me has always been the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1992, which the US – like many others – wanted and which Australia’s engagement was crucial in delivering: as then Secretary of State James Baker said to me at the time, in almost these words, Washington needed to make the running someone who wouldn’t frighten the horses.  

Two: Get Right and Keep Right our Relationship with India.  The rise of India is becoming as visibly important a phenomenon as that of China, but the India-Australia relationship still has a long way to go to achieve the weight and priority that it should have. It is one that has not been terribly good at taking small bumps in its stride, as a genuinely mature relationship does.  And it has taken a long time for policymakers and publics generally to get their heads past the stereotypical three C’s: cricket, curry and the Commonwealth.

The environment for forward movement has been created with the removal late last year of the uranium ban,  which I for one accept that there was no point in us maintaining,  once the wider international community had sold the pass on it. And the way forward is for both India and Australia to focus on their respective national interests, rethink what these mean in the new economic and geopolitical environment of the Asian Century, and recognize that they can be very usefully enhanced by consciously trying to develop some new and enhanced dimensions to our relationship. There are obvious places to start, in the burgeoning  economic relationship  with a comprehensive and liberalizing trade agreement, and in the defence and security area with some really serious efforts at maritime security cooperation, to strengthen the level of naval engagement, both in the Indian Ocean region and in our South East Asian neighbourhood, aimed at addressing transnational seaborne challenges like piracy and people-smuggling, and developing further disaster management capability.  

The remaining area where it might be possible, and would certainly be desirable, to introduce a new level of maturity into India-Australia relations, is in relation to our respective national interests in being and being seen to be good international citizens. Maritime cooperation of the kind I have been discussing is one such area, but there are two others worth considering.  The first is the global response to internal massatrocity crimes, which has made a lot of progress in the last decade with the emergence of the ‘responsibility to protect’ norm, but is struggling for traction again now in Syria, after disagreements last year on the handling of the intervention in Libya. There is a critical need now to generate a new consensus as to when coercive military force might be legitimately authorized and implemented in these situations, and this seems to me to be exactly the kind of improving-global-public goods campaign on which India and Australia could cooperatively work.

The other such area I can’t forbear from mentioning is nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.  India and Australia have long been prominent and articulate supporters of both, but differences of view about basic strategy – particularly since India itself acquired the bomb in 1998 – have made it difficult to find constructive common ground. With the uranium issue now behind us, it may be possible for us to work together to fundamentally advance the agenda, to which I believe we are both committed, of a nuclear weapons free world, exploring again in that context some of the areas in which India might play a leadership role, starting with ratification, without waiting for the US or China, of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Three: Get Right, and Keep Right, our Relationship with Indonesia.  One of the many enduring mysteries of Australian public policy is why Indonesia simply hasn’t (with only a few honourable exceptions) attracted the same level of attention, understanding, and sustained high level commitment from our political leaders that other Asian countries have received, and which it so manifestly deserves. Most people seem to constantly forget that Indonesia is both the fourth largest country, and largest Islamic country, in the world, and is by far the biggest and most potentially influential player in ASEAN, although for most of its history has punched below its weight.

A big part of the reason why a multi-dimensional relationship hasn’t really taken off, at least on the Australian side, is that old stereotypical habits of thinking about Indonesia haven’t really changed very much – and that it still thought of as military-dominated, authoritarian, undemocratic, hostage to Islamic terrorist fortune, and with an exotic institutional-governance culture. The short point to make is that stereotype is completely outdated: there has occurred a fundamental democratic transformation, which is in the process of fundamentally changing the old governance culture, and which it is critical now that we and the rest of the world recognise, applaud, and do our best to help consolidate.

There are multiple ways in which we can add bilateral ballast to the relationship, and most of them – as with India and China – are squarely in the sights of Ken Henry’s White Paper team. But I can’t help but remember the way in which the extraordinarily productive cooperative relationship I developed as Foreign Minister with my counterpart Ali Alatas in a number of multilateral forums, not least during the Cambodia peace process, played back into and very significantly consolidated our then extremely fragile bilateral relationship.

We have now in the present Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natelagawa, someone who spent his most formative years throwing The Age over Canberra front fences to help support himself as a student at ANU, and we ought to be leveraging that personal connection into a much more comprehensive effort to develop with Indonesia like-minded middle-power niche diplomacy initiatives across a range of global public goods issues. All the building blocks have been laid for that kind of cooperation, including as fellow members of the G20 and as groups like ‘Friends of the Responsibility to Protect’ in New York:  it just takes the will and persistence to see things through.

Four: Winning and Keeping a Place at the Table at the Major Policymaking Forums of the Age, both Regional and Global. Australia has worked very hard, and rightly so, over the last couple of decades to put in place regional economic and security mechanisms – from APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum to the new East Asia Summit – that actually work. To advance all of our national interests – both broadly and narrowly framed – we unquestionably need effective dialogue and policy cooperation structures, with meeting-deadlines focusing policymakers’ minds and the meetings themselves enabling the building of those direct personal relationships at leadership level which are always a crucial element in productive diplomacy.

We certainly don’t need in any of this just another expensive series of photo-opportunities with set-piece speeches endorsing pre-cooked lowest-common denominator communiqués. But at the same time we should not expect too much too soon in the way of hard decision-making from these mechanisms. For all the impatience this occasionally generates in Australians like me, there is much to be said for our South East Asian colleagues’ view that the great value of multilateral engagement is as a process through which trust and confidence are built over time.  
Globally, we have right now two high institutional priorities.  One is to develop the role of the G20, where Australia has a seat at the table along with all the other major players, as an across-the-board global policymaking organization, addressing a range of global public goods issues and not just the core economic ones. Like almost everything else multilaterally, that will take time, but we played a blinder with Kevin Rudd in 2008-09 in lifting the G20’s game in response to the global financial crisis, and are not incapable of doing so again.
The other, and more immediate, priority is our bid to win back, after an extraordinary 27 years absence, a seat at the global table in the UN Security Council. Whatever the frog-pond occupied by some well known bloggers and press commentators and Opposition leaders might be croaking, it is critical to appreciate that periodically taking a rotational seat at the apex of the global system for maintaining peace and security is not some kind of optional icing on the cake, likely in fact to be more trouble than it’s worth, but absolutely in Australia’s national interests, however conceived. Our troops operate in East Timor and Afghanistan under Security Council mandate. The Security Council is the only body legally able to mandate the use of force. And it imposes sanctions we are obliged to implement, in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere. A country like Australia not only benefits from the global system but has a responsibility, in our own interests as well as everybody else’s, to ensure that it works effectively.

We started late, other deals have been done, and it’s not going to be easy to win that seat.  (And if the Palestinian statehood issue should come to a vote before October, and the Prime Minister’s current view prevails, it will be impossible.) But both national interest and national pride demands that we try.


I refuse to believe that Australia is just another also-ran country, focusing wholly on our own interests defined in the narrowest possible way, not really caring much about the wider world we live in, and deserving to be treated accordingly. I believe that on the contrary we are – and that our track record over many decades overwhelmingly shows it – decent and committed international citizens, independent minded and with a real egalitarian streak, neither sucking up to the powerful nor kicking down at the powerless. 

Playing to that instinct of decency, focusing on cooperative 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 wonderful country of ours not only survives but thrives.