As Things Fall Apart, The Middle Kingdom and Middle Powers Attempt To Build A New Centre

By Ng Weng Hoong, September 27, 2016

Part 1. Canada and Australia: The Role of Good International Citizens

…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
 William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”, 1919

It is 20 years since Gareth Evans stepped down as Australia’s most influential foreign minister, and one of the world’s most popular diplomats. Serving between 1988 and 1996, he helped imprint good international citizenry as a feature of the liberal global order, and left it as a lasting legacy for what defines a better world.

Coinciding with the most victorious period for the West in the post-Second World War era, Mr Evans’s term was further boosted by an overlap with Bill Clinton’s liberal globally-minded US presidency from 1993 to 2001. During that golden period, the Cold War ended dramatically with the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall that was followed by the defeat and disintegration of the Soviet Union. Having brutally suppressed its student protestors in Tiananmen in 1989, China surprised by rejecting Maoism to further open up to the world. In the Middle East, Iran and Iraq ended their disastrous eight-year war with each other in 1988 while Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait three years later was repelled by a very popular US-led global coalition. In 1993, Israel and Palestine signed the Oslo Peace Accords adding to the delirious optimism that the world was witnessing the end of history.

Ironically, it was from this new commanding height that the liberal globalist agenda began its decline as globalisation became discredited. It started with the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/98 in which Wall Street was cited for causing the collapse of several major Asian economies that had become connected to the new dark world of 24/7 currency trading and speculation. The 9/11 attacks on the US in 2001, and the loss of US credibility with its handling of the war on terror brought further doubts about the liberal global order. But Mr Evans, now the chancellor of the Australia National University, has remained faithful to the cause of good international citizenry despite the much changed and challenging global environment.

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Liberals are back in charge

In two speeches delivered on a recent visit to Vancouver, he spoke of hope for the liberal cause through international citizenry by engaging China’s growing global influence with the nuanced foreign policy positions of the liberal governments now back in charge in Canada and Australia. Not surprisingly, he took pot shots at the crude black-and-white worldview of the conservative government that ruled Canada until last year.

“In a world starved of good news, one of the most comforting things is that last year Canadians have started to behave like Canadians again,” he said in reference to the election of the globally-engaged Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister after nine years of conservative rule under Stephen Harper.

In introducing Mr Evans, University of British Columbia Professor Paul Evans (no relation) described the 72-year-old Australian statesman as his “spiritual uncle” who has been on the frontline of “liberal international foreign policy throughout his career.”

But the Canadian foreign policy expert also described the liberal internationalist in Mr Evans as a member of an “endangered, dying species.”

It is easy to see why as Mr Evans acknowledges the naïve “boy scout” feel of the good citizenry message while all around things are falling apart. The centre no longer holds as anarchy has been let loose by the spread of Islamic State (ISIS) terrorism, the Middle East refugee crisis, the rise of Donald Trump, China’s South China Sea territorial claims, and Europe’s implosion, to name a few. The centre was partly destroyed by the US itself when it invaded Iraq in 2003 on the false premise of taking out Saddam Hussein’s non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Iraq’s sudden collapse seeded the rise of ISIS and set in motion events that have destabilised the Middle East and North Africa. To borrow the words of the late Libyan dictator Mohamed Gaddafi, the spreading conflicts have opened up the “gates of hell” and driven millions of refugees, and some terrorists, from war-torn countries into the heart of Europe.

Middle powers like Canada and Australia have seen their international influence overshadowed by the rise of China, India and other developing countries over the past two decades.

Yet it is in these troubled times that the flag bearers of good international citizenry must work to reclaim the high ground. In his speeches at the UBC and later at the Simon Fraser University, Mr Evans spelt out four areas that Canada and Australia can operate effective foreign policies by focusing on doing good.

As classic middle powers, he let it be known that both countries have few options left. Both are large countries with sizeable economies but small populations that have to cooperate and collaborate with others to meet their own respective national interests. They must:

1. Maintain development policies that help poorer countries even in this difficult time of austerity. While seemingly costly, policies that alleviate poverty have a role in reducing refugee flows, crime, conflicts, drug trafficking and spread of disease to the ultimate benefit of everyone. Donor countries that practise good international citizenry have a higher chance of drawing reciprocity and cooperation from aid recipients to deal with these problems, said Mr Evans.

2. Champion human rights and the rule of law. Rather than hinder bilateral relations and hurt trade, the careful deployment of clear human rights principles and arguing for the rule of law can enhance respect on both sides. Mr Evans said countries practising good citizenry must speak up clearly against human rights abuses, be it quietly or loudly depending on the circumstances. In the 1980s and 1990s, he said the Canadian and Australian governments helped develop financial sanctions to break down the apartheid regime in South Africa. In extreme cases, they must organise or support international efforts to stop acts of genocide and atrocity.

In his experience dealing with various regimes, he said countries like China have come to expect to be criticised for their human rights record. While Beijing has seldom bent to external criticism, Canada and Australia must maintain a consistent policy of speaking out on human rights standards, and communicate what they expect of the Chinese government.

“Some of these (human rights violating) countries knew they were being watched. Our attention created discomfort and irritation for everyone including our own business community. But, we found that it didn’t really have an adverse effect on Australia’s economic interest,” he said.

3. Protect refugees and asylum seekers. Amid the record number of people fleeing war zones and natural disasters today, Mr Evans said Canada and Australia should provide resources to countries that are the frontline where refugees first land. The focus is on helping the weak, sick and injured. Next, support must be given to agencies on the ground to identify, process and resettle the refugees who qualify for resettlement in third countries.

“Do it quickly and efficiently, especially for those who qualify for asylum,” he said as he praised Canada and Australia for having increased their quotas for accepting refugees.

The two countries must also work with other governments and agencies to stop gangs that are creating, organising and profiting from the flight of refugees. If necessary, they must deploy their navies against organised smuggling rings.

4. Support nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts. The world has built up an enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons which Mr Evans described as “the most inhumane weapons” ever invented.

Due to the growing risk that they could be used in some of today’s conflicts, he said Canada and Australia have a global citizen’s role to play in pushing for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation of these deadly weapons. Even though complete elimination of nuclear stockpiles is “decades away”, he urged the two middle powers and their allies to persevere with their campaign.

Mr Evans was previously a member of the Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Commission of Eminent Persons on The Role of the IAEA, and the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.

NEXT INSTALMENT, Part 2: Gareth Evans on how Canada and Australia are engaging China.

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