Right now Australians are probably more concerned – and perhaps more nervous – about international affairs than they have been for a long time.
The Trump revolution comes hot on the heels of Brexit, the ongoing Syrian crisis, a record global migration flow, and the challenges of an increasingly assertive China and Russia. With more authoritarian leadership from Turkey and Egypt to Thailand and the Philippines, and the looming spectre of a swing to the hard right in Europe, many are seeing very hard times ahead for liberal and democratic values.
Paradoxically these “interesting times” might be a good moment for some careful reflection on Australia’s own place in the world. So I am pleased the government is currently asking for public submissions to help them frame a White Paper that will shape our foreign policy in the years ahead.
The public consultation has not gained much media attention, and it is being conducted over the summer period when barbecues, tennis and getting back to school might take priority for many of us.
But it is important for people to express their ideas, because one of the factors sapping vitality from our democracy is the sense that decisions are made by the political elite in isolation, while everyone else is ignored except for our one vote every three years.
Our role and standing in the world is too important to be left to government alone. The government conducts diplomacy, deploys military resources and cooperates in various ways with other governments. But Australians engage with the world in so many other ways.
Our businesses trade and invest. Our farmers provide food and fibre that sustains millions. We travel the world, and we welcome the world as visitors. Our universities and schools offer quality education to hundreds of thousands of international students. Our medical researchers, agricultural scientists, our engineers and many others share Australian inventiveness and expertise. Our athletes and artists cast a bright light across the globe.
Millions of us have personal ties of family and friendship with other countries. Many choose career paths involving international engagement, and we have a proud record of volunteering overseas.
Many choose to support international charities with money and time. More and more people are living out their positive values through ethical and sustainable consumer choices, including tourism and being more conscious of what their super funds are doing.
So our community has a high level of awareness and engagement with global issues, and our foreign policy, conducted in our name, ought to reflect our commitment and our values.
Some take a hard view of foreign policy that defines national interest very narrowly and excludes all other considerations. I think this rigid distinction between so-called realist and idealist views is entirely false and unhelpful.
Of course every government should and does pursue national interest. But foreign policy is not a zero-sum game where every Australian gain is someone else’s loss and vice versa. And national interest also has to be understood in a proper time frame – thinking not just of today but the world future generations will live in.
And to me it is blindingly obvious that Australia will be much better off among neighbours who enjoy more peace and security, better health and greater prosperity. That is why I have consistently argued for a stronger Australian commitment to humanitarian and development aid.
We live in a world preoccupied with borders, yet borders cannot insulate us from every risk. We have security and law enforcement resources that attempt to protect against hostile powers, terrorism and transnational crime. But a fortress mentality won’t protect against global health risks, or the consequences of civil disorder, environmental breakdown or intense and frequent natural disasters in our region.
So turning inwards, pulling up the drawbridge and withdrawing from the world might seem comforting to some, but such thinking is ultimately self-defeating.
We should never outright dismiss people’s fears and anxieties but we must never become hostage to them either. Fear performs a vital function in alerting us to danger so we can take action to avert it. But when fear takes on a momentum of its own it turns from preservative to corrosive.
The point is to recognise risks and challenges but to then adopt positive steps to address them rather than to surrender to failure and despair.
So I would like to see a foreign policy stance that reflects and projects the Australian values our government asks newcomers to sign up to – like gender equality, personal freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
But also, one that reflects a national spirit of practical optimism, and shows the world by example what can be done to purposefully and constructively tackle our huge shared challenges. A stronger, more consistent aid program that squarely addresses poverty, inequality and poor health has to be at the heart of this commitment.
Beyond government Australians already demonstrate a powerful commitment to combining ethics and practicality in their engagement with the world. Can our government follow suit? Only if Australians exercise their voices as citizens to show our leaders the way. It’s up to us.
Tim Costello is co-chair of the Campaign for Australian Aid. Visit UpToUs.org.au to find out more.