Tuesday 22 Jan 2019 | 12:45 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Jan 2019 | 12:45 | SYDNEY

She'll be right: The Australian temperament and international affairs



14 March 2014 09:22

I had reason recently to reflect on the role of national temperament in international affairs.

The Lowy Institute hosted a regional conference of the Council of Councils, an initiative of the Council on Foreign Relations bringing together leading foreign policy institutes. Discussion among these experts illustrated significant differences in how countries view current issues in international affairs.

As a group, the Australians showed a tendency to avoid precipitate action, focus on diplomacy and not get too hysterical about current issues. In short, they were eerily in tune with the national stereotype of 'she'll be right': it will all turn out fine.

For example, on Iran, the Australian participants advocated a self-consciously reasonable approach. While geography helps explain a relatively sanguine attitude, it seemed to go beyond this. Australians expressed more confidence in Iran's negotiating behaviour as a self-interested actor; more hope in the potential for progress; and more faith in the power of diplomacy. Instead of dreaming of regime change, there was a willingness to engage with Iran's interests to build a shared solution.

Similarly, on the G20, the Australian participants conceded the limits of this still fledging institution. They were clear that the G20 has not yet found its post-GFC role and were realistic about its prospects of delivering on ambitious promises. At the same time, there was a focus on what can be achieved. The approach: be pragmatic, don't despair, don't throw out the baby with the bathwater; difficulties in implementation don't mean that a valuable forum should be tossed away. The G20 has an important role in providing global public goods, and of course it gives Australia a seat at the table.

The same relatively relaxed attitude came through on a range of questions.

Is there a choice between multilateralism and minilateralism? The pragmatic Australian response: use both. Do we have to choose between the US and China? The response: we don't have to worry about it yet. Cyberthreats? Response: not as bad as nuclear; and maybe even an area in which middle powers can excel.

This broadly pragmatic approach means that the few international issues on which Australians get emotional stand out. Whether it is asylum seekers (where security fears are engaged), consular issues (where the compelling individual story predominates) or Australia's decidedly non-pragmatic approach to whaling, these serve as the exceptions that prove the rule. So no one could argue that temperament is destiny; it's more of an inclination. And it doesn't simplistically determine policy: at most, it influences the attitude with which policy-making is approached.

Even if you accept the stereotype, this is not to say Australians don't want to make the world a better place; they do. On the whole, though, Australians seem to accept that any improvements in international affairs will take time and persistence and will, all things considered, probably not go exactly according to plan. It's an attitude described memorably by JDB Miller as 'dogged low-gear idealism.' And certainly a level-headed approach can be helpful for a state that is always likely to have to respond to, rather than dictate, international conditions.

Of course there are negatives to a 'she'll be right' approach in international affairs, such as when Australia upsets another country and then compounds the offence by asking what the fuss is all about. Or where there is something we all should genuinely be worried about (such as climate change) but we may passively hope that 'something will come along' to solve it for us.

At its core, though, Australians have grasped an important point: it is in the nature of international affairs to disappoint. Institutions we build will show promise and then fail. In negotiations, you won't get all you want. But hopefully the predictions of doom will also disappoint; we'll probably find a way to muddle through. At the heart of the national optimism lies a fatalism that liberates. She'll be right.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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