Five years ago Australia played a key role in drafting and negotiating the UN Arms Trade Treaty in order, as the government announced at the time, “to reduce the impact of armed violence on communities around the world”.
Five weeks ago Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced his “vision” for Australia to become one of the top ten weapons exporting countries in the world. Rather than visionary, it struck me as grotesque.
This regression from good global citizen to swaggering deputy sheriff reflects the contradictions at the heart of our foreign policy.
Australia played a role some years ago in weakening the language of the cluster munitions ban treaty to allow exclusions for interoperability and transit of cluster munitions, and we refused to participate in the UN nuclear ban treaty negotiations last year, despite a strong track record of championing nuclear disarmament.
Australia has reduced its development assistance to the poorest countries in the world to its lowest contribution in history at just 0.22% of Gross National Income, making us, the fourth largest economy in the Organisation Economic Cooperation and Development, one of the stingiest. This was aid that would have helped to build peace and governance and enhance human and global security.
Ours is a country which has blindly followed the US into wars in Vietnam and Iraq that have been calamitous and yet (unlike the UK) we have failed to examine our contribution to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and in creating a vastly less secure world. And (again, unlike the UK) our country has refused to implement war powers’ reform to ensure that only the Australian Parliament, not the PM alone, has the power to send Australian troops overseas to fight in wars.
Today, visitors to the nation’s capital are confronted at the airport with enormous advertisements for defence contractors and arms manufacturers. Whereas other countries might showcase their natural environment and their tourist attractions at the airport, here we show off tanks, ships and missiles.
What kind of image does this project to the rest of the world? What does the PM’s “vision” to be one of the world’s top arms exporters say about Australia’s role and intentions in the world going forward? That instead of seeing our role as a good global citizen, promoting peace, prosperity and respect for human rights, we seek to increase the manufacture and sales of weapons that cause death, injury and destruction? It is particularly abhorrent that the government has identified the Middle East, much of which is presently mired in conflict, as a “priority market”.
This seems a long way from the Australia that helped draft the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Australia that has been a strong advocate for the UN, multilateralism and the international rule of law, and the Australia that has been actively engaged in constructive diplomacy as a middle power. It stands in contrast with the vision set out by Prime Minister John Curtin in his last major parliamentary speech made on 28 February 1945, a few months before he died, when he championed the new international peacekeeping organisation that would after the war become the UN.
If we are to concert with other peoples of good will in order to have a better world, there must be some pooling of sovereignty, some association of this country with other countries, and some agreement, which, when made, should be kept … There is a price that the world must pay for peace; there is a price that it must pay for collective security. I shall not attempt to specify the price, but it does mean less nationalism, less selfishness, less race ambition. Does it not mean also, some consideration for others and a willingness to share with them a world which is, after all, good enough to give each of us a place in it, if only all of us will observe reason and goodwill towards one another?
Australia’s standing in the international community is in jeopardy. It is time to rediscover our distinct interests and identity, and to be consistent in projecting these to the world. Part of that journey will be letting go of the policy of strategic dependence that we have usually followed – initially with regard to Great Britain and then, from the middle of the Second World War, the US. As a result of such strategic dependence, our policies in terms of nuclear deterrence, defence procurement and interoperability, among others, are closely intertwined with those of the US. This constrains Australia’s ability to forge our own path in the Indo-Pacific region and the wider world.
A properly independent foreign policy would support an outward-looking Australia that is consistent with our own view of ourselves as a clever, tolerant and generous country; a country that uses its considerable resources and skills to promote sustainable development, clean energy, access to health and education for all, equality and human rights; a middle power that participates positively in the challenges that go beyond national borders, exercising its good offices to prevent conflict and achieve a more peaceful, nuclear-weapons-free world. Being one of the world’s biggest arms exporters has no place in that vision.