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Are Australians averse to engaging with the world?

By William Hill - posted Monday, 30 May 2016

The newly elected President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte, before his decisive electoral victory in May this year, made an incredibly offensive joke about the gang rape of an Australian missionary. If past history is a guide then Australia may opt to minimize the relationship with this important regional player on the basis of the soon to be President's off-colour humour and his record on human rights issues as Mayor of the city of Davao

But, as distasteful as he may be to our sensibilities, the actions of the Philippines President within his own borders are entirely of concern for the people of the Philippines and should have no significant bearing on the foreign policy decisions of an Australian government. Foreign policy and state relations should be undertaken to serve national interests and to preserve the good order of relations between states through continuous engagement.

However, successive generations of Australians have demonstrated a certain immaturity when it comes to Australia's foreign relations that works to undermine both Australia's national interests and the development of human rights inside affected countries. Australian's are oversusceptible to emotion led responses to difficult problems of state relations that have a detrimental effect on the ability of our governments to engage with important countries.


Along with controversial national leaders, Australians have a tendency to get over involved in the internal security problems of other countries. This could be China with regard to Tibet, Sri Lanka and the Tamils, Indonesia and West Papua and Aceh, the 2011 Libyan uprising or Vladimir Putin's stifling of dissent. Many Australians and important figures in media, politics and academia are loath to see any Australian government doing business with or seen to be cooperating with governments they consider to be violators of human rights and international law.

Events in Libya in 2011 had an instantaneous effect on many policy and opinion makers. All of a sudden much of the national conversation revolved around the necessity for an intervention against a figure that most Western nations had worked hard to bring out of the cold. Without first considering the consequences of removing an authoritarian government that had ruled the country for 43 years, Australia championed Gaddafi's overthrow.

The readmission of the Gaddafi regime, after the Iraq War, to the international community brought numerous dividends such as the surrendering of Libya's WMD program, restitution for the Lockerbie killings, a substantial lessening of the regimes support for terrorist groups and greater control over illegal migration across the Mediterranean. These achievements were totally undercut by international enthusiasm (including in Australia) for the toppling of the Gaddafi regime and its replacement with sectarianism and civil war.

Human rights are next to impossible to consolidate or improve in conditions of continuous conflict. Those countries that are most free and democratic are wholly safe from internal violence and instability. Human rights are built upon political stability, political stability rests upon the ability of a state to have unchallenged authority over a given land and population, a state cannot maintain its power when internal and external actors seek to challenge state control and sovereignty.

The often expressed admonition that countries should forego military action against violent internal threats and seek a political solution must be becoming a tiresome event for those governments on the receiving end.

It is possible that many people in Australia start from a place where they regard states as essentially no more legitimate that non-state actors and popular movements. This encourages the belief that a state is no less obligated to negotiate with non-state belligerents as it would with another internationally recognised state.


But in the reality of statecraft governments are highly averse to treating an internal entity as being equal in legitimacy to themselves. This point is lost on many within Australia who routinely call on governments of the world to forego the use of force against opponents such as terror groups and independence movements and to engage in dialogue and negotiation.

The US backed government of Columbia adopted a shoot to kill policy towards the drug cartels in the early 1990s. Cartel violence claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Columbians and thoroughly destabilised the entire country. The brief period of warfare against the nation's drug criminals made Columbia far more stable and democratic in the long term. How democratic could the country remain if criminals can kill en masse with impunity and use their enormous wealth to corrupt the state?

Sri Lanka has long suffered the consequences of a terrible civil war which has impeded the progress of what could and should be a strong developing country. Rather than recognising that for all its horrors the victory of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces over the Tamil Tigers offers the best possible chance for that countries future, many have called upon the Australian government to breakoff cooperation with Sri Lanka.

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About the Author

William Hill is a graduate from the Australian National University with a Bachelor of International Security Studies. He has a strong interest in political science and issues of foriegn policy.

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