Incorrigible optimist: a political memoir

Incorrigible optimist: a political memoir Foreign ministers fall into various categories: the faceless workers behind the scenes; the hyped-up versions of a smooth, professional diplomat; the prime ministers-in-waiting; and the mere stop-gaps, there until somebody better can be found to do the job (there is also the occasional buffoon, about whom the less said the better). Gareth Evans, foreign minister of Australia between 1988 and 1996, does not fit into any of these categories. He is what James Joll called ‘an intellectual in politics’, a driven and restless spirit committed to changing the world, whether in or out of office. In fact, as the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group (ICG) from 2000 to 2009, he became a kind of stateless foreign minister, confidently roaming the world and representing the global need for conflict prevention and resolution. Evans was appointed to almost every high-level panel set up in and around the United Nations over the last twenty years, and was thus a prime mover in what he terms ‘commission diplomacy’ or what populists would call the ‘transnational elite’. This absorbing (and often funny) memoir should be compulsory reading for practitioners, and would add wisdom to university reading lists on foreign policy and world politics. While it covers Evans's long career, it is of particular interest for its account of his time as foreign minister, which ignited his subsequent commitment to various international causes. The story shows that, for all his personal enthusiasm, Evans has also been a shrewd political operator, never content to pursue the quietist diplomacy of the average middle power. Motivated by the lack of privilege in his background and by his strong views about social injustice, he became convinced that it was possible to ‘make a difference’ in international affairs. In particular, he developed the idea that states should aspire to be ‘good international citizens’—which is easily seen as a contradiction in terms. In sticking his head above the parapet in this way, he was bound to find consistency difficult and to be accused of hypocrisy (like Robin Cook in the United Kingdom). This was especially true given that his realist appreciation of Australia's security needs led him to eschew the routine US bashing of the post-Vietnam generation. Nor did his unapologetic appreciation of the good life of international diplomacy, whether playing golf with prime ministers or eating in ‘high-end Ginza sushi and sake bars’, do him any favours with his critics. Any memoir is to some degree an apologia pro vita sua, and Evans is disarmingly willing to own up to his failures. In particular, and interestingly given his book's title, he acknowledges that in relation to the tragic series of events in East Timor, his (and others') biggest mistake was probably ‘our congenitally over-optimistic belief in the Indonesian military's capacity for redemption’ (p. 147). This strikes an uncharacteristically naive note, given the tendency of authoritarian regimes to be less interested in their spiritual needs than in getting their own way regardless of cost. Clearly, Evans's ability to form effective cross-cultural relationships with other foreign ministers—in this case Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas—had its downside. He is, however, a man of sensibility, whose version of realism is far from those which stress the timeless truths of realpolitik. Rather, it is an attempt to move the world forward so that destructive and violent behaviour—to say nothing of the catastrophes of nuclear war or climate change—gradually come to seem ever more bizarre and pathological. On this score, he has an honourable record of tireless effort across a broad front: from work on the Cambodian peace accord and the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, to the Japanese–Australian Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which attempted to provide ‘achievable, action agendas’ and to keep up the pressure not just on potential proliferators but on the recalcitrant nuclear weapon states themselves. It is with the Responsibility to Protect that Gareth Evans is most closely associated. Even if this doctrine does not represent, as Martin Gilbert thought, ‘the most significant adjustment to sovereignty in 360 years’, it certainly constitutes a remarkable development in the norms of international society. Evans, now the Chancellor of the Australian National University, devoted much of the decade after leaving his post as foreign minister to articulating, developing and insisting on the need for this change. It would not have been an injustice had he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, something which (despite his disclaimers) would clearly have delighted him. Another prize which eluded Evans was that of UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a post to which he was pipped by the current UN Secretary-General António Guterres, pparently because Evans was more colourful than ‘the system’ would have been comfortable with. Perhaps the ICG was the best home for Evans in the end, giving him the platform but also the continued access he needed in order to engage in track 1.5 diplomacy, and to make a difference. As a foreign minister he had been unusually analytical, proactive and open to ideas. For someone of his buccaneering temperament he was also, in practice, quite balanced in assessing the constraints and opportunities of his trade. If his style was a cross between Ernest Bevin's and Hans Blix's, it was an underlying shrewdness he shared with them which made possible his many concrete achievements. The world is full of both moralists and cynics, but it badly needs more people with Gareth Evans's ability, openness and commitment to international public goods. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png International Affairs Oxford University Press

Incorrigible optimist: a political memoir

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0020-5850
eISSN
1468-2346
D.O.I.
10.1093/ia/iix264
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Foreign ministers fall into various categories: the faceless workers behind the scenes; the hyped-up versions of a smooth, professional diplomat; the prime ministers-in-waiting; and the mere stop-gaps, there until somebody better can be found to do the job (there is also the occasional buffoon, about whom the less said the better). Gareth Evans, foreign minister of Australia between 1988 and 1996, does not fit into any of these categories. He is what James Joll called ‘an intellectual in politics’, a driven and restless spirit committed to changing the world, whether in or out of office. In fact, as the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group (ICG) from 2000 to 2009, he became a kind of stateless foreign minister, confidently roaming the world and representing the global need for conflict prevention and resolution. Evans was appointed to almost every high-level panel set up in and around the United Nations over the last twenty years, and was thus a prime mover in what he terms ‘commission diplomacy’ or what populists would call the ‘transnational elite’. This absorbing (and often funny) memoir should be compulsory reading for practitioners, and would add wisdom to university reading lists on foreign policy and world politics. While it covers Evans's long career, it is of particular interest for its account of his time as foreign minister, which ignited his subsequent commitment to various international causes. The story shows that, for all his personal enthusiasm, Evans has also been a shrewd political operator, never content to pursue the quietist diplomacy of the average middle power. Motivated by the lack of privilege in his background and by his strong views about social injustice, he became convinced that it was possible to ‘make a difference’ in international affairs. In particular, he developed the idea that states should aspire to be ‘good international citizens’—which is easily seen as a contradiction in terms. In sticking his head above the parapet in this way, he was bound to find consistency difficult and to be accused of hypocrisy (like Robin Cook in the United Kingdom). This was especially true given that his realist appreciation of Australia's security needs led him to eschew the routine US bashing of the post-Vietnam generation. Nor did his unapologetic appreciation of the good life of international diplomacy, whether playing golf with prime ministers or eating in ‘high-end Ginza sushi and sake bars’, do him any favours with his critics. Any memoir is to some degree an apologia pro vita sua, and Evans is disarmingly willing to own up to his failures. In particular, and interestingly given his book's title, he acknowledges that in relation to the tragic series of events in East Timor, his (and others') biggest mistake was probably ‘our congenitally over-optimistic belief in the Indonesian military's capacity for redemption’ (p. 147). This strikes an uncharacteristically naive note, given the tendency of authoritarian regimes to be less interested in their spiritual needs than in getting their own way regardless of cost. Clearly, Evans's ability to form effective cross-cultural relationships with other foreign ministers—in this case Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas—had its downside. He is, however, a man of sensibility, whose version of realism is far from those which stress the timeless truths of realpolitik. Rather, it is an attempt to move the world forward so that destructive and violent behaviour—to say nothing of the catastrophes of nuclear war or climate change—gradually come to seem ever more bizarre and pathological. On this score, he has an honourable record of tireless effort across a broad front: from work on the Cambodian peace accord and the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, to the Japanese–Australian Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, which attempted to provide ‘achievable, action agendas’ and to keep up the pressure not just on potential proliferators but on the recalcitrant nuclear weapon states themselves. It is with the Responsibility to Protect that Gareth Evans is most closely associated. Even if this doctrine does not represent, as Martin Gilbert thought, ‘the most significant adjustment to sovereignty in 360 years’, it certainly constitutes a remarkable development in the norms of international society. Evans, now the Chancellor of the Australian National University, devoted much of the decade after leaving his post as foreign minister to articulating, developing and insisting on the need for this change. It would not have been an injustice had he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, something which (despite his disclaimers) would clearly have delighted him. Another prize which eluded Evans was that of UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a post to which he was pipped by the current UN Secretary-General António Guterres, pparently because Evans was more colourful than ‘the system’ would have been comfortable with. Perhaps the ICG was the best home for Evans in the end, giving him the platform but also the continued access he needed in order to engage in track 1.5 diplomacy, and to make a difference. As a foreign minister he had been unusually analytical, proactive and open to ideas. For someone of his buccaneering temperament he was also, in practice, quite balanced in assessing the constraints and opportunities of his trade. If his style was a cross between Ernest Bevin's and Hans Blix's, it was an underlying shrewdness he shared with them which made possible his many concrete achievements. The world is full of both moralists and cynics, but it badly needs more people with Gareth Evans's ability, openness and commitment to international public goods. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

International AffairsOxford University Press

Published: Jan 1, 2018

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