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Incorrigible Optimist

Incorrigible Optimist

Book Review
AFA2 Trump in Asia

This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 2: Trump in Asia. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.

Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir
Gareth Evans
Melbourne University Press

Gareth Evans, foreign minister in the Hawke and Keating governments, talks a lot about the centrality of “good international citizenship” to his thinking on foreign policy. He defines this as a willingness to cooperate internationally to advance the public good. For Evans, prioritising “purposes beyond ourselves” – today, one might think of improving the international response to refugees, or nuclear weapons proliferation, or rising sea levels in the South Pacific – can be reconciled with hard-nosed arguments about the national interest. He not only regards the instinct for good international citizenship as a characteristic of the governments in which he served; he also understands it to be part of the Australian national psyche.

Evans’ recent political memoir, Incorrigible Optimist, in which he lays out the key “ingredients” for effective foreign-policymaking in the Australian context, prompts a revisiting of the concept. His book covers his career in domestic politics, the international sphere and the higher education sector (he is now chancellor of the Australian National University). But throughout, the animating idea is good international citizenship. Today, when global politics are in flux, this raises several questions. What does it mean to be a good international citizen in 2018? More pointedly, can we realistically expect Australia to be one at such a challenging moment in history?

Evans, as he notes, was foreign minister at a “heady” time in history, from 1988 to 1996, when almost anything seemed possible. During this period, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, Nelson Mandela was freed after twenty-seven years as a political prisoner (the book’s cover features a photograph of the two of them) and apartheid was abolished in South Africa. It was the start of a “genuinely cooperative new era in international relations” and there was a “universal sense of optimism.” (Not that Evans mentions this, but Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” won song of the year at the 1989 Grammys.) This was enabled by a changing alignment of international interests, which provided the openings and opportunities for Evans’ principled and ambitious style of active Australian diplomacy. His achievements included Australia’s role in the Cambodian peace process – ending decades of violence – and in the international Chemical Weapons Convention. (The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the ASEAN Regional Forum, centred on regional cooperation, were also conceived during the Hawke and Keating governments.)

We live, of course, in a very different world today, where uncertainty is the defining global sentiment. The “tectonic plates are shifting” and “power is moving from west to east,” as Peter Varghese, former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, put it. Donald Trump is tweeting from the White House, and the talk is about the need to protect Australian interests as China’s ambitions grow and US power in the region declines.

Evans was a man “perfectly suited” to his times, Allan Gyngell, former director-general of the Office of National Assessments, observes in his book Fear of Abandonment. Evans’ passion for the foreign-affairs portfolio lights up a sometimes dry memoir: “Bliss was it that dawn to be alive, but to be Foreign Minister was very heaven!” is his memorable opening to the chapter on diplomacy. Yet Evans’ ideas about good international citizenship are as relevant as they ever were – particularly for Australia. They emphasise constructive relationship building; they focus on the bigger picture and eschew policy driven by short-term, selfish gains; they demand principles, and a willingness to stand up for those principles.

Foreign policy characterised by such positions is in the national interest, according to Evans, because it invites two hard-headed returns: it enhances a state’s international reputation and it engenders reciprocity. This vision, with its defining commitment to multilateralism, is most often associated with Australian Labor governments and inspired by H.V. “Doc” Evatt’s post–World War II legacy. But no country, no political party, has a monopoly on such behaviour, and most possess various attributes of the good international citizen. For example, the Labor government in which Evans was foreign minister continued to recognise Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. Similarly, the Howard government despised multilateralism and blindly followed the United States into the disastrous Iraq War in 2003 (which undermined the very “international institutions and rules” of which the Coalition’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper makes so much). Yet Alexander Downer convinced John Howard to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

It is difficult to reconcile Evans’ belief that being a good international citizen is instinctive with a public that accepts the inhumane treatment of refugees on Manus Island and Nauru as the price for secure borders – policies pursued by both sides of politics. Could an Australian foreign minister prioritise “purposes beyond ourselves” and succeed (even survive) in 2018 as, the world over, countries turn inward, suspicion of the other grows and long-term liberal democracies appear unnervingly fragile? Yet Australia must.

What attributes, what vision, would an Australian foreign minister prioritising good international citizenship need today? For Evans, an effective foreign minister must, at a personal level, understand how to manage the politics of foreign policy – especially the relationship with the prime minister, but also with the cabinet, the party room, Parliament, interest groups and the media, as well as their own department and personal advisers. At a policy level, a commitment to good international citizenship includes following international law, believing in universal human rights and the role of the United Nations, investing in overseas aid programs and committing (indeed leading) internationalist solutions to world problems, whatever their nature.

The Turnbull/Bishop government is lacking in some of Evans’ key ingredients. Julie Bishop is liked by her department; however, she is not regarded as a “conceptual thinker” of Evans’ ilk. She has other constraints, including Australia’s three-year terms, which are frustrating departmental efforts at long-term foreign-policy planning. In addition, Bishop heads a department whose resources have flatlined, and she oversees a decreased aid budget, where the folding of AusAID into DFAT has left staff concerned about the role aid now plays in Australian foreign policy. Australian money, for example, is poured into propping up an internationally condemned offshore immigration detention regime, and Australia, rather than supporting democratic principles in poor countries in the South Pacific, is benefiting from and entrenching weaknesses in the rule of law in those countries. Australia’s relationships in South-East Asia – more crucial than ever, given concerns about China’s ambitions, a point the White Paper recognises – are unbalanced: they are too security-focused and not altogether positive (particularly in relation to Indonesia). Meanwhile, Bishop sits in a cabinet where resources – and with them the power to make decisions that affect how Australia perceives itself and how it is perceived – are being sucked, disturbingly and without the public debate such a move warrants, into the new super Home Affairs portfolio, run by the duo known for their oversight of Australia’s cruel refugee policies: Peter Dutton and Mike Pezzullo.

On the other hand, the Turnbull/Bishop government implicitly accepts some of the virtues of good international citizenship. Its White Paper preaches the need for openness – an “open society” at home, an “open, inclusive” region, an “open, outward-looking regional economy” – recognising that this is not a time for insular thinking. The government has also pursued multilateral engagement, winning a temporary seat on the UN Human Rights Council. (How it reconciles this with its support of Myanmar’s military, however, accused of perpetrating ongoing crimes against humanity against the minority Rohingya people, is difficult to follow.)

The benefits of good international citizenship in 2018 are clear; Australia’s status as such a citizen is not. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is no longer a song for our times, but some of Evans’ ideas just may be.

Cynthia Banham

AFA2 Trump in Asia

This is a book review from Australian Foreign Affairs 2: Trump in Asia. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.