Sunken diplomacy

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I retired from my former profession, as an Australian diplomat and foreign policy analyst, in 1998 after 30 years’ service. My final postings were as Ambassador to Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia (1991–94) and to Cambodia (1994–97).

In those years I was proud to represent  Australia. Now I am a contrarian writer. The present government’s international security settings are damaging both to Australia’s security and to the personal security of ordinary Australians. They have undermined Australia’s international reputation, and misled public understanding on these matters. The government’s deliberate cruelty towards asylum seekers who arrive by boat—at the border protection stage, in detention, and finally in the limbo of Temporary Protection Visas—shames Australia’s conscience.

Australia’s national direction and tone have changed radically since 1996. The former bipartisan foreign policy consensus that suited Australian interests, subtly balancing Australia between the US alliance and the Asian region, no longer exists. We have security and trade agendas, but we no longer have a real engagement agenda towards our region.

Since 2001, Australia has become umbilically attached to the present Washington administration. It is a sad accident that the Howard and Bush administrations coincide. With any other US president, Howard’s unbalanced foreign policy tendencies would have been contained. With any other Australian prime minister, Australia would have kept a cordial but prudent distance from Bush’s Washington.

The causes of the attack on the Twin Towers had nothing to do with Australia; they lay in decades of troubled American engagement with intractable Middle Eastern problems. The attack did not jeopardise Australian national security, or the personal security of individual Australians. John Howard achieved this himself, by plunging Australia voluntarily into a global security cauldron where we had no need to be. After our government’s military partnership in the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Australia is now tied firmly to George Bush’s unilateral interventionism. Our security professionals now worry, alongside their American counterparts, about ‘homeland security’. Six years ago this would have been inconceivable. Now it is real.

Contrast Australia’s situation with Canada’s or New Zealand’s. Both maintain good international citizen credentials that Australia has lost. New Zealand, without sacrificing essential bilateral interests, keeps a safe distance from Washington. A perceived decency and modesty in New Zealand’s international profile protects New Zealanders. Yes, some New Zealanders died with Australians in the 2002 Bali bombing. But the major targets there were Australians, the first collateral casualties of Howard’s national security policies.

The Prime Minister, who sees himself as a realist, is driven by visceral fears. Outside the English-speaking Western democracies, he sees a threatening world. For this government, Australia’s safest course is to adhere firmly to American power—the big rich nation that is ‘most like us’. So since 2001, Australia has moved steadily closer to the fearful, uncomprehending and casually cruel national security state that the United States has become. For both countries, it is a sad trend.

For most of my 30 years in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) I worked in areas where I did not feel confronted by moral choices. DFAT’s working culture was always ‘can-do’, anti-intellectual, sardonic, uncomfortable with higher ideals.

The seemingly permanent Cold War meant there were always abuses and atrocities on both sides to be pragmatically balanced. Whatever we were doing wrong, it could plausibly be argued that the other side was probably doing

something worse. Greene’s The Quiet American had little impact on me when I first read it. I am far more impressed now by what it says about the gross imbalance of power in the world, and the frightening self-righteousness and moral blindness of American power.

I felt then that Australia was an autonomous global actor, that we had free choices, and that I was part of my country’s professional resources to help make those choices better ones.

In Poland 1991–94, where taking visiting VIPs to Auschwitz was a regular duty, my Panglossian complacency was shaken as I watched the Milosevic regime’s unchecked hideous cruelties towards Croats and Muslims. I was reminded by a Deputy Secretary—who has done well in his career since then—that ‘these issues lie outside Australia’s area of primary concern’. I did not think he was right,
but I obediently set my conscience aside.

July 1997 was crunch time: the improbable co-prime minister regime in Cambodia set up by the UN peacemakers in 1993 finally fell apart. Civil war between royalists and post-communists loomed again, and the West and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were again preparing to choose the royalist side.

Australia had been quite complicit in a cynical Cold War endgame that inflicted a cruel 13-year insurgent war (1979–1991) on the Cambodian people. After Soviet-backed Vietnam liberated Cambodia from the monstrous Khmer Rouge regime in 1978, the West and its ally of convenience China isolated and tried to destroy the new Cambodian state, using a Khmer Rouge royalist insurgency as their main military vehicle. The 50 cent anti-personnel landmine was the Khmer Rouge’s weapon of choice. Today, tens of thousands of amputees and bereaved families in Cambodia still pay, with their pain and grief and damaged lives, for this cynical realpolitik war.

It became supremely important to me after July 1997 to tell the world what I thought was the truth about Cambodia. At 54, I found courage to speak. In my last three months as ambassador, I used all my personal credibility to lobby vigorously for governments to negotiate with Hun Sen, as Cambodia’s best chance for peace and stability. I succeeded, but at a personal cost.

Over the past five years I have written from an independent viewpoint on a succession of foreign-policy-related issues, such as Australian diplomacy in East Timor in 1999, ‘border protection’ and the suspicious sinking of SIEV X, and Australia’s ill-judged participation in the invasion of Iraq.

I found that it is acceptable to express mildly contrarian views, but seriously to challenge conventional assumptions—to write too far outside the accepted frame—is confronting and disturbing to mainstream readers. Writing and academic opportunities, initially promising, tended to dry up as my policy critique sharpened.

I don’t think I became especially radical. Rather I am trying to apply traditional Australian values of decency and fairness. It is the arrogance and thoughtless cruelty of present Australian national security policies that drove me to speak out.

It has been liberating, intellectually and philosophically, to shake off habitual DFAT constraints on my thinking and expression, to try to apply the job skills of a former diplomat to contributing to informed debate about Australia’s role in the world.

I have moved away from ‘foreign policy realism’. A value-free and expediency-based foreign policy cannot be right. However complex the issue, Australia’s starting point must be respect for all human life. Good ends cannot justify evil means, and might does not make right.

Australians do not have a ‘manifest destiny’. If we are not decent at home and abroad, we will not survive. We must help defend the rules-based international order based on the UN that we helped to create after World War II. To become an American vassal or mercenary, indifferent to the sufferings of others in this interdependent world, dishonours our nation’s history and values and will not secure our children’s future.

As a multicultural democracy, we must practice the values we proclaim—in our conduct abroad, and in how we treat people coming under our country’s duty of care, including boat people. Here is the only link I see between refugee policy and the terrorism issue. Refugees are not terrorists—but how we treat refugees will affect how the world will treat us.

There is a vicious stupidity about the present policy mix that diminishes us all and makes us less safe. On terrorism, we lead with our chins—every time. It can only be a matter of time before we take serious casualties in Iraq where we still have 1000-odd Australian Defence Force people serving.

For most of my working life, I was more interested in ‘policy’ than ‘administration’. Now I realise that government is finally about ordinary people, and whether their lives are valued. Policies are only means: people, whatever their nationality, are the ends.

Things are improving. The harm that bad foreign policy can cause is now better understood. There is an informed and credible contrarian foreign policy voice. For example, former DFAT officers like Dick Woolcott, Richard Butler and Bruce Haigh have become trenchant critics. Much of what I was struggling to convey about the morally bankrupt and reckless style of governance that now prevails in Australia is better appreciated after the exposure of the Tampa cruelties and the ‘children overboard’ photographs fraud.

Thoughtful commentators and former DFAT colleagues know, as I do, that there will be much foreign policy repair work after the present government. Australia will have to ‘re-balance’, re-engaging with damaged or ignored relationships with the UN, with countries in our region, and with China, continental Europe, and Russia. We won’t abandon the ANZUS treaty, but we will need to regain healthy distance between our country and the United States. Because Australia’s world cannot only be about raw power: we must return to being part of an international order of nations.

We will rediscover Australians’ genuine empathy with our neighbours. We will stop fearing them. And we will rebuild our country’s tarnished moral credibility. Confronting painful truths about events such as the sinking of SIEV X will be a large part of that challenge.  

Tony Kevin is a Canberra writer and former diplomat.



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Existing comments

Just how Tony Kevin can reconcile his claim in advising his Government that the 'supreme truth' for our Cambodia policy lay in supporting a Hun Sen military coup, returning to a one party state, demolishing a multi-party albeit nascent democracy and causing all major political rivals to flee abroad under threat of arrest for treason was both a success and not simply acquiescent 'foreign policy realism' escapes me.

Tony what you did as Ambassador in Cambodia then was exactly what you were reminded of, in Poland 5 years earlier, by your then Deputy Secretary, Dick Smith — later to become Howard/Downer/Hill's pro-War Defence Secretary. That is, you acquiesced and accepted a lethal military coup by Hun Sen, you put your consicence to one side agreeing that these issues supporting and developing Cambodian political stability and democracy simply lay 'outside Australia’s area of primary concern’. Your response to hun Sen's threats was to simply side with 'the Bully' and thus avoid doing the hard human rights and diplomatic yards.

In July 1997, after Hun Sen's military overthrow of the elected Cambodian Government, if you did not think nor agree that Hun Sen's might was right, then only by yet again setting your conscience aside, could you have publicly endorsed his violent coup-overthrow of the previous re-elected coalition Government, as you so enthusiastically did within days.

Truly as you say now in 2007, "a value-free and expediency-based foreign policy cannot be right. However complex the issue, Australia’s starting point must be respect for all human life." But that was also just as true in July 1997 in post-coup Cambodia, yet you, as our representative, sadly publicly expounded the opposite view.

We, Australians, agree fully that "good ends cannot justify evil means, and might does not make right." Sadly, as our Ambassador in Cambodia in July 1997, you immediately set aside your conscience on the "good ends" of multi-party democracy by immediately and publicly supporting Hun Sen's "evil means and might" returning Cambodia to a one party neo-communist State.

Evil only flourishes when good people do nothing..or the wrong thing or support the doing the wrong thing, as you did in 1997 in Cambodia.

A decade on, I am pleased that you have at last realised the error of your diplomatic ways in 1997 and now you have joined the majority of fellow Australians by moving away from your hierarchical, administrative ambassadorial acquiescence to and acceptance of the Howard/Downer‘foreign policy realism’ that is built upon a foundation that US might is right, which alone is Australia’s area of primary international concern.

Alastair Gaisford (served in PP '94-95, incl u. TK | 04 October 2007


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