Book Review: Gareth Evans, Good International Citizenship: the Case for Decency (Monash University Publishing, 2022)

Written by Alison Pert

 

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Long ago in a galaxy that now seems far, far away, Gareth Evans was Foreign Minister in the Hawke-Keating Labor governments.  In that capacity, he promulgated “good international citizenship” as a central part of Australian foreign policy – the idea of being a constructive, multilateralist, generous(ish) member of the international community.  The doctrine was promptly rejected by the succeeding Howard government which put the (much narrower) national interest above all else.  As a result, good international citizenship faded from public discourse apart from an occasional mention by the Rudd and Gillard governments. 

Gareth Evans’s latest publication seeks to remedy that neglect and to remind us once again of the merits, and measurable advantages, of good international citizenship.  In an essay published in book form as Good International Citizenship: The Case for Decency (part of Monash University’s “In the National Interest” series), Evans has once again pressed the case for why Australia – and any state – should be a good international citizen.  He describes the concept as having four elements:  being a generous overseas aid donor, promoting human rights, working to prevent armed conflict and atrocities, and actively supporting multilateral efforts to address global threats such as climate change and nuclear war.  As to why a state should thus look beyond its immediate national interest, Evans argues that there are two broad reasons.  First, it is simply the right thing to do:  we have a moral duty towards our fellow human beings “to do the least harm, and the most good” that we can.  Secondly, it is actually in our national interest to do so.  “Decent international behaviour” helps to solve global problems to all states’ benefit and enhances a state’s international reputation – and, consequently, its “soft power” ability to influence outcomes.

All this will sound familiar to anyone who has followed Evans’ publications over the years. This book does not introduce any radical new ideas but does expand on some of his earlier themes, and is his first work dedicated solely to good international citizenship.  It provides a valuable synthesis of what good international citizenship is, why it matters, and why all nations should strive to practise it.  And whether we work in government or not, we should all think about how Australia behaves on the international plane and how it is perceived by the international community. 

It might be thought that good international citizenship is a quaint, almost quixotic, ideal given how times have changed since the heady multilateral days of Hawke and Keating.  The world has shifted markedly to the right and inwards towards nationalism, even ultra-nationalism, and in Ukraine we are witnessing a full-blown aggressive war of the kind we once thought unimaginable.  One might ask, what room is there today for good international citizenship?  Evans would firmly respond, however, that good international citizenship assumes all the more importance in crises such as these, and is needed now more than ever.  His book is a timely reminder of, as he puts it, “our common humanity”.

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Alison Pert
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Alison teaches international law at the University of Sydney.  She has worked in private commercial practice and in the Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department, representing Australia at Unidroit and Uncitral.  Her doctoral thesis was on Australia’s record as a good international citizen since Federation, published as a monograph by The Federation Press in 2014. She is also the author, with Emily Crawford, of International Humanitarian Law (Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed 2020), and co-editor of a forthcoming textbook on international law to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2023.

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