Asialink Milestones: Gareth Evans – prescriptions for foreign policy

By Donald Greenlees, Senior Adviser, Asialink

As foreign minister between 1988 and 1996, Gareth Evans steered Australian diplomacy through the end of the Cold War and into the brave new world represented by American ‘unipolarity’.

This state of affairs was ambitiously referred to as the New World Order. However, the new order did not last very long, arguably meeting its end in the ash and rubble of New York’s World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, but certainly suffering ignominious failures in places like Rwanda and the Balkans. The rise of Chinese power unarguably put it to rest.

Still, for Evans, the late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of opportunity. The transition away from the strictures of the US-Soviet rivalry gave Australia and the states in its immediate region a degree of freedom in foreign policy that they had not previously known.

Facing greater fluidity in global and regional geopolitics, the time was ripe for policymakers with drive and imagination. On Evans’ watch Australia embarked on a period of energetic diplomacy initiating the peace process in Cambodia, playing a leading role in the negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and contributing to regional architecture – via the founding of APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

After the defeat of the Keating government in 1996, Evans served for a period as deputy leader of the Opposition. Resigning from parliament in 1999, he went on to become president and CEO of the International Crisis Group between 2000 and 2009.

During these years, he also co-chaired the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which formulated the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, and served on a variety of global bodies, including the UN Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change and Advisory Committee on the Prevention of Genocide and Mass Atrocities. He was appointed honorary distinguished professor and Chancellor of the Australian National University, a post he held between 2010 and 2019.

In this Asialink Milestones podcast with Asialink senior adviser Donald Greenlees, Evans offers his thoughts on a wide range of topics from foreign policy prescriptions for a future Labor government, to managing the complex relationship with China, and the threat of a conflict over Taiwan.

Listen to the Asialink Milestones interview with Gareth Evans below, or on the Soundcloud platform.

The following are edited highlights of the interview with Mr. Evans

On the Agenda of a Labor Government:

The first thing to bear in mind is you’ve got to have a general, structured approach to this – so much of foreign policy tends to be reactive and responding to the provocation or the crisis of the moment. You’ve got to have a basic frame of reference of what you want to achieve, and what I hope is that the Australian government will want to recapture its mojo as a strongly liberal internationalist party. One that is very strongly committed to the concept of good international citizenship, which means playing a constructive role in addressing global and regional public goods issues across the whole spectrum, it will be a party which is pragmatic as well as idealist in the way which it approaches the business of politics, that it won’t engage in counterproductive grandstanding, but rather sort of rational addressing with the realities of the situation.

In terms of the policy specifics and the general approach, [there are] four key elements. One is less America, less reliance on America; second is more self-reliance counterpoint to that; third is more Asia, and fourth is more global engagement… We don't walk away from the US alliance, but we recognise the reality that America's presence, America’s power, America's commitment, the sense of our reliance, our total reliance, on America, is much less well-founded than it used to be. As Hugh White says, we’ve got to get used to living in an Asia where America is not going to be what it was, so that's got to be an important part of our thinking – not just a reflex response to everything the Americans want us to do.

On the Ability of Anthony Albanese to Lead Foreign Policy:

He has around him people like Penny Wong and so on, who are highly, highly tuned in, switched on terms of what the imperatives are in foreign policy management. And just as Paul Keating, for most of his career didn't have a skerrick of interest in foreign policy became quite a brilliant foreign policy Prime Minister, so too I think that the realities of the job will bring out the best of Albo. His instincts are sane, balanced, moderate, pragmatic and also sufficiently idealistic, I think, to fit squarely within the great Australian tradition of Labor leadership on foreign policy, which goes back a long way with those elements of strong liberal internationalist commitment.  Strong commitment now in recent decades to the region.

I think you see he’ll be certainly more successful than Scomo has been in terms of stumbling and fumbling around, and sending sort of mixed messages, and being very reluctant to, you know, clearly embrace the biggest issues of our day – the big existential risks of climate change, most obviously, the big existential risk of nuclear weapons, in which there are very, very different positions between the Labor and conservative sides of politics. And I think he would handle with a lot more surefootedness the issue with pandemics, the responsibility for pandemics, which have been very badly mishandled, frankly, by the Morrison government. When you're in a position as an opposition leader you don't get all that much chance to be visible on foreign policy issues.

On Adequate Funding of Diplomacy:

I think it's absolutely crucial, and it’s not only the personnel of the Department and our overseas reputation, which is extremely under done by comparative international standards. There’s also our foreign aid budget, which has now drifted to lamentably small dimensions. Look, you're always going to have pushback within ERC (Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet) by the domestically focused people on this stuff as being unnecessary expenditure. They always seem deeply happy to spend whatever defence wants on almost anything, but absolutely incapable of appreciating the utility of having that sort of rock-solid presence on the ground and an aid budget to go with it in terms of building relationships, building influence. It's not just in the immediate South-Pacific region or immediate Southeast Asia region that this sort of representation and this capacity to make a contribution to development matters.

The global environment with so much policymaking is now done—United Nations, World Trade Organisation, World Health Organisation, Human Rights Council—you've got to be building coalitions of support around issues if you're going to get progress made on a whole heap of issues in which Australia has a very real practical interest. And that means having relationships and then understanding of the dynamics of countries not just in your immediate region, but much more broadly afoot.  So, I mean, I think Julie Bishop got that –argued hard for budget increases, but failed pretty spectacularly. The hardest battles that I had as foreign minister within cabinet were with the ERC on just these issues. And I have to say that I was incredibly cantankerous and incredibly difficult to get on with because I just would not concede the ground in terms of the budget cutters and the Peter Walshes of this world, which were relentlessly obsessive about ‘charity beginning at home, not abroad’ and about ‘stripy-pants diplomats wasting everybody's time in cocktail parties’ – I mean, the truth of the matter is good diplomatic representation is as crucial now as it ever was in the pre-electronic age, the pre-international travel age.

On the Secrecy Surrounding Foreign Policymaking:

I think your default position has to be openness in government administration generally, and foreign policy is no different from really anything else. Obviously, there are some matters of acute sensitivity—if you're trying to resolve a current conflict or work out a strategy is going to be effective in releasing an Australian hostage somewhere—you know, those kinds of situations, war and peace issues, can be incredibly sensitive and we have to recognise the constraints.

But no, my instinct has always been, and when it comes to sort of policymaking, and having genuine contestable policy argument out there, that spotlight of publicity is really, really crucial and the open participation, the frank participation of DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) personnel in some of these policy debates would be a consummation much to be to be wished, because it just doesn't happen. I think, part of it is just this caution, this covering your backside thing, tell the ministers’ office what it wants to hear rather than what it needs to hear.

It's all part of that kind of culture, which has set in and I trace it back actually to John Howard’s Night of the Long Knives, when he came into office in 1996. I mean, the sacking of half a dozen departmental heads for no obvious reason associated with their competence, but much more because they were seen as having been too supportive of the previous Labor government, was just a grotesque blow to the self-confidence of the public service and its capability at playing the kind of very active policymaking, unwelcome sometimes, policy advice role that it must.

On the Influence of Security Agencies:

I'd be infinitely more cautious about relying on the advice of these characters. I mean, because there's an element of groupthink… ONA (Office of National Assessments), which traditionally was a very independent voice, has now brought all those different elements together under the single banner of the ONI (Office of National Intelligence) and God knows what the quality of that advice now is. The quality of the advice, you know, coming out of the homeland security crowd, as well as the traditional defence national security people – you've got to be very, very careful. All that stuff has to be very contested and contestable if you're going to get good policy and I'm just not sure that has been—I'm not a party to the inner sanctum obviously of those discussions—but you see what comes out of them and it’s on the whole pretty concerning.

The DFAT Foreign Policy White Paper in 2017 was I thought—we haven't heard much about it since—I thought it was a good piece of work in the sense that it recognised very much the realities of the present environment we’re in, recognised the point that I made earlier on about “we’ve got to be very careful about excessive dependence on the United States”, we have to build our own relationships with countries in the region, we have to be more self-reliant and there was also that, there was an element, of that commitment to more global engagement which I’ve been emphasising.  So, all the elements, I think, of a sensible approach to foreign policy, and a balanced approach, were there, but we're not seeing it in the kind of advice that the present government has taken obviously seriously. It's obviously very much security focused, very much so that Peter Jennings-type driven focus, of that core group of really very conservative people occupying all those key security agencies and defence and intelligence, and we’ve just got to be very, very careful about the way we do that.

On the Future of the ANZUS alliance:

Well, there’s no doubt the alliance does bring benefit and will continue to be bring us benefit for the foreseeable future and I don't for a moment suggest we walk away from the intelligence relationship we have, the logistic support relationship we have, and the potential deterrent effect—however problematic it might increasingly be—of having that big ally there as at least a warning sign for anyone that might be minded to put us to existential military risk is important to have. But the notion of total dependence on the US, to follow the US down every rabbit hole it wants us to engage in, in the interest of alliance solidarity—with Iraq, you know, the invasion being the classic example of a rabbit hole we should never have gone down—I think those days are past.

We just have to recognise that America’s got its own interests, that it's—for all the passion with which the Biden administration is now re-embracing alliance relationships rather than regarding them as irritating encumbrances, which was the case under Trump—for all of that, you know we're not getting much support from American farmers and wine makers in terms of not filling the, you know, the gaps left by the Chinese treatment of us. I mean, America is always going to follow its own interests – whether it's there for us militarily if some catastrophe does erupt in a region, is going to depend entirely on America's assessment of its own interests and we just have to be wide awake to that.

America's far more powerful now and will remain so for the indefinite foreseeable future than was ever the case with Britain, America’s far more obviously a player in our own region, America’s far more obviously a counterweight to an overly aggressive, overly asserting China than the United Kingdom was ever capable of being to Japan or anyone else in our own region. Those are the realities: we’ve got to be conscious of the limitations of that American power, we’ve got to be conscious of the decline of the unipolar moment, we've going to be conscious of the impossibility of the United States just insisting on total primacy, predominance, pre-eminence—the “P words” as I call them—in the region. We've got to recognise, as the United States has to recognise that its future doesn't lie in dominance, it lies in a cooperative, collaborative relationship. And all of that means that we've got to be less reliant, totally reliant, on America. We've got to build our own defence capability and our capacity to protect our own waters – those of the southwest Pacific and our own airspace.

On the level of defence spending:

It involves spending more bucks and getting a better bang for each buck than we’re accustomed to doing in the past. And I think again Hugh White has written a lot of very sensible things about that. I mean he’s also written some very not-sensible things about going down a nuclear path, but that’s another story.

The reality is, if we are faced with a really existential risk with our coastline, with our size, with our small population, limited resources, we’d be very hard put to deal with that total existential risk entirely on our own and under those circumstances, even though I think the prospect of an existential risk is extremely slight in the indefinitely foreseeable future, you know, we would be silly to throw away the advantage. China’s perfectly capable of recognising the reality of alliance relationships, recognising the reality of prior commitments that countries will have, and many of its neighbours will have, to that United States relationship and living with that and not provoking it. So, I mean it's a very careful balance that's involved here.  I don't say, “no America” in my little mantra, I say, “less America”. Less America, more self-reliance, more Asia—both in terms of getting our relationship with China right and getting our relationship with the other key counterweight Asian players right—and more global engagement because that's traditionally what Labor governments do and Australia should do as a responsible international citizen.

On Managing Relations with China:

Partly it’s a matter of not digging any further holes when you're in one and being very, very cautious about adding to the pile of things that, you know, Beijing has found it difficult to live with. I mean, highly, highly across the board sort of constraints on investment and research collaboration and things of this kind…  A highly focused rejection of the Belt and Road Initiative, which I think is basically a lot more harmless than has been painted by those who’ve have been upset by it. So, you don't dig any more holes, you modify your language. I mean, what Talleyrand used to call “excessive zeal” has characterised far too much of our public political discourse over the last few years… Starting with Malcolm Turnbull's famous confrontation of the Chinese with the language of Mao about standing up, through to the mishandling of a whole bunch of issues, including the COVID inquiry and just the Wolverine-type voice which has been more excessive that we've heard from a number of Coalition and, indeed some Labor, parliamentarians than anything that the Wolf Warriors on the Chinese diplomatic side have come up with.

So, you’ve got to be careful about your language, careful about the policy measures that you put in place, because you’ve got to be constantly recognising that China represents over 30% of our exports, we’ve got a huge degree of economic dependence – we're joined at the wallet as much as the United States is with them and it's just crazy to think that we can diversify all of that source of the income by going somewhere else. So, you’ve got to modify your approach.  But on the other hand, you obviously can't be China's patsy any more than we should be the United States’ patsy. We do have to articulate very, very clearly what our concerns are.  When China overreaches as it has in the South China Sea, as it’s potentially doing obviously with Taiwan (a hugely volatile difficult issue to manage), when it’s obviously overreaching internally with its treatment of the Uighurs, with its treatment of Hong Kong citizens in complete defiance of its treaty obligations, there are multiple things that the Chinese have really got themselves to blame for the kind of increased hostility that they're generating elsewhere. And you do have to push back, and you do have to push back with things like the Quad, and… things like the outreach that Morrison has been doing—yes to Indonesia and Vietnam—all those things are a very important part of the repertoire. But as a matter of just getting the balance right.

On Trade Tensions with China:

Everyone talks legitimately about things that China needs to do to fix its excessive protectionism, support for state-owned enterprises, treatment of intellectual property, and a whole bunch of issues of that kind, they’re absolutely legitimate concerns to be pressing like crazy. But, our own performance when it comes to anti-dumping is really pretty interesting. When you look at the record, we’ve been far more aggressive, far more so than any other country in the world, I think, in terms of the anti-dumping issues that we’ve pursued, which often have not had a lot of self-evident economic or commercial merit. And yet, that doesn't feature at all in this sort of discourse.

On China’s International Behaviour:

Obviously, there’s been a big change in the tectonic plates and China’s got a completely different view about where it wants to be positioned... It does want to assert its global role and certainly be far more of a rule-maker than a rule-taker in all those multilateral organisations where its been a fairly marginal player in the past and that’s a legitimate aspiration for China to have. Clearly within the region it wants to assert its independence in a way that’s not entirely unsupportable in terms of building up a military capability to protect its own supply lines, to recognise the reality of its own geographic position, which is surrounded by a whole bunch of US allies – it’s not surprising that it’s neurotic and a little over reactive in terms of some of that positioning.  But China never really had, and you can argue about the history of Tibet and the history of Xinjiang and so on, has never clearly been an expansionist power in the past. Its preoccupations are still overwhelmingly internal, domestic. It obviously wants to exercise pretty comprehensive hegemony in the South China Sea. It obviously wants to recreate so far as possible those kowtow relationships with South East Asia which China enjoyed in the distant past, and all of that justifies pushback from others, including ourselves.

But the notion that China is hell bent on some kind of global domination, that it’s even hell bent on global ideological domination is, I think, completely overstated. China’s not the Soviet Union in terms of the aspirations it had. Combine all that with the degree of economic interdependence—and I know all about the arguments of the First World War and UK and German interdependence, which didn’t stop catastrophic war breaking out—but I honestly do believe there is now an understanding of the sheer unmitigated horror and misery and the limited returns that are to be gained from waging aggressive war against anyone. So, I don’t think we really have that to worry about from China in terms of the larger global future.

On the Risk of Conflict Over Taiwan:

I think the only way forward on Taiwan for Western policy makers is delicate ambiguity, which has characterised policy for decades now. To raise even a question mark in China’s mind as to what would be the response if they were to invade, I think going further than that is to potentially plunge us into all sorts of error. It’s an issue that’s incredibly difficult to manage. I think, the military reality is at the moment is that whereas once upon a time, the notion that China could prevail even just in a cross-border invasion of Taiwan was inconceivable because of the American military might, the seventh fleet sort of sitting there. That’s no longer the case, in terms of the air-sea denial and all the rest of the capabilities that exist in that inner-Chinese space, in the immediate Western Pacific, no longer could anyone be confident that—short of an all-out war—an all-out war between China and the United States is undoubtedly one that would be at the end of the day would be won by the United States, because United States military capability is so much greater than China’s. But my God, at what cost? At what cost? I mean, just inconceivable just the amount of damage that would be caused measured against the nature of the issues we’re talking about here. So, this is the balance that’s in play.

On the Risk of a Nuclear Exchange in such a General Conflict:

You could not rule out nuclear weapons in such a conflict, because once you get into that mutual escalation and once one shot is fired and away we go. I think it’s critically important that there be a serious commitment to no first use, but that’s another story. No, I mean, Taiwan is the most delicate and difficult of any of the foreign policy problems that I think anyone has to face at the moment. I’ve got no instant coffee answers, other than to say that we need to be very, very careful about committing ourselves unequivocally to some position – the same is true of the United States, the same is true of everybody.

On the Potential for a Diplomatic Solution to Taiwan:

Obviously One Country, Two Systems, with a genuinely total autonomy in terms of management of the economy and so much else, of the kind that was originally promised to Hong Kong, but was just now torn up by China. That was the hope. Of course, accompanying that was the hope that over time China itself would liberalise and become far more of a not just an economically liberalised country, but a politically liberalised one as well. That’s not happening under Xi Jinping, it’s not going to happen, and therein lies the current tensions because during that period when Taiwan was just getting on with it, but not being too strident about assertions of its own potential independence, but nonetheless exercising effective independence, and at the same time focusing very hard on cross-strait relations – that was a model that will sustain us for the future.

Banner image: Gareth Evans AC speaks at Chatham House, London, UK - October 6, 2011. Credit: Chatham House.