Australia's Foreign Policy Interests in the Middle East

National Press Club, Canberra

Speech, check against delivery, E&OE

22 February 2011

Once again, the waves of change are sweeping across the world.

In recent times, we have seen many tectonic shifts. The collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War. A decade later, another war began, this time against terrorism – a war against an almost invisible enemy.

And now, the social revolutions sweeping across the Arab world, the wider Middle East and perhaps beyond. It reminds us once again that we have not seen the end of history. For many countries, we may in fact be seeing an entirely new history being written.

But what we know from all these tidal waves of change is that their course can be entirely unpredictable. And these are the unchartered waters the Arab people are now seeking to negotiate.

A sober reminder to all of us engaged in the business of foreign policy today that the truism of the 21st century is indeed true - that the world now has only one constant, and that is change itself.

Turbocharged by the new technologies. Empowering citizens to take on their governments in just as revolutionary a way as Gutenberg's printing press did five hundred years ago.

Battering down the often arbitrary delineations between nation states, as these great changes, for the good of all, can now sweep the entire globe in nanoseconds.

In a different context, we saw this with the global financial crisis as both the financial contagion of unsecuritised loans in regional America triggered a collapse in global economic confidence and brought on the worst recession since the Great Depression.

We see the same as cyber security threats now ricochet around the world, potentially putting at risk the security of critical infrastructure. We now see it at a political level as change sweeps across North Africa – from Tunis to Cairo to Tripoli and beyond in a matter of a few weeks. Let us pause to think.

This time last month President Mubarak was apparently invincible in Egypt and no-one outside Cairo had ever heard of Tahrir Square. The consequences of each of these mega-changes are potentially profound. So what does all this mean for the business of foreign policy in general and for Australian foreign policy in particular? Before turning to specific developments in the Middle East, the structural significance of these factors for our foreign policy is this:

First, Australia's national interests are no longer simply shaped by our regional strategic geography; second, while our region remains critical, we are now also profoundly shaped by political, economic and social developments around the globe; and third, our analysis and our diplomacy must, as a result, be directed both to our neighbourhood and to the world.

Some describe Australia as a regional power with regional interests. Australia is a middle power with regional and global interests. I rarely agreed with my predecessor Alexander Downer on anything. But when Downer argued against the concept of a small Australia he was right. Again, as the 12th largest economy in the world and 4th largest in Asia, Australia is by definition a middle power with regional and global interests. And we will engage our allies, friends and partners accordingly.

Our analysis of emerging change, of emerging threats and emerging opportunities must be able to anticipate, comprehend and respond to the dynamics of both in a rapidly changing region and a rapidly changing world. So must our diplomacy: to prosecute and protect our values and interests, our economic and political diplomacy must be deployed bilaterally, regionally and globally.

Because we now have no choice, because our national interests are so rapidly affected by global developments. We cannot simply delegate our interests in other regions of the world to others. The stakes are too high – whether it is the stability of global financial markets, our mining interests in Africa, the future of the Middle East, or the millions of Australians travelling today in a vast and often troubled world. And all this will place new demands on both our foreign policy and our foreign service.

So what does all this mean for Australia in terms of recent developments in the Middle East? We are now seeing protest movements and, in some cases, revolutionary movements in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

From the Straits of Gibraltar to the Straits of Hormuz. A profound reminder of the universality of the cry for democratic freedoms. A profound reminder that it is impossible to permanently suppress the voice of the people. But equally a profound realisation that the political flux that has arisen from these social movements could take the Middle East in multiple and different directions.

In Tunisia, the revolution began with the moving story of a self-immolation of a poor man who had been stripped of his human dignity. This was the spark which ignited flames of protest across the entire region.

The name of Mohamed Bouazizi will become etched in the history of the Arab world. All this began only on the 17th of December.

Two months later, Tunisia's leader for life had fled to Saudi Arabia after 24 years in office.

His government was replaced with technocrats who now seek to shape a pluralist secular Tunisia capable of modernising its economy and providing new opportunities for its young people. But all is not plain sailing for the interim government in Tunis.

Islamist forces are also at work, ready to claim their stake in Tunisia's future. And the economic and employment challenges are grave. Grumblings have already begun to be heard as people ask why the high hopes of the revolution have yet to be translated into new jobs and a better life.

While the world looks now primarily to Egypt and to Libya, what happens in Tunis in the months ahead will also have a profound resonance across the region. If the Tunisians succeed, it may have the same effect on the region's future as did Mohamed Bouazizi when he finally said enough was enough.

Egypt is often called the "Mother of the Arab World." It's not much more than a week since former President Mubarak left Cairo for his residence in Sharm el-Sheikh. None of us will forget the euphoria that night in Tahrir Square. One week later, the practical challenges are enormous.

The political timetable which has been set for the next six months is breathtaking: confirmation of an interim government; negotiation of constitutional changes necessary to underpin free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections; the ratification of these constitutional changes by the people through popular referendum; the possible holding of parliamentary elections involving for the first time the establishment and registration of previously banned political movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood; and by September, the conduct of a presidential election with an array of candidates.

And that is just the political agenda.

Then there are the social and economic challenges for a country of 85 million of which about a fifth live below the poverty line. Food prices are rising, reflecting global demand-side pressures over food security. Food subsidies can potentially cripple Egypt's budget, given that these subsidies are distributed to over half the population.

The collapse of the tourism industry, which accounts for between seven and ten per cent of Egyptian jobs, is radically aggravating unemployment. Those of us in the international community know the logic full well: that if Egypt's social and economic conditions continue to deteriorate in the months ahead, it will not be conducive to a moderate political outcome at upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

The stakes are therefore very high – not only for Egypt's political future but also for the posture that a future Egyptian government will adopt towards the wider Middle East.

Reflecting the lightning speed of recent developments, for the last 24 hours we have been transfixed by the violent events in Libya. There has of course been considerable loss of life in Egypt. But the unrestrained violent assault on the people of Benghazi, both yesterday and the day before, has reflected an order of brutality that we have not seen since these popular revolutions began last December.

The loss of life in Benghazi alone, a city of three quarters of a million people and a city which means much to Australians in the history of the North African campaign, is now estimated at 250 and rising.

The city is now reportedly in the hands of the regime's political opponents, and this has been reportedly supported in part by the defection of military divisions in Benghazi that have joined forces with the local protest movement.

Overnight, the focus has moved to Tripoli, where authorities are now being challenged, and there are conflicting reports on the whereabouts of Colonel Gaddafi. Gaddafi's son, Saif, delivered an extraordinary speech on Libyan television yesterday, which threatened the country with civil war unless protests stopped.

We have now entered a danger zone in Tripoli – if the regime uses full force to survive, we may be looking at mass casualties. Australia together with the rest of the international community has been unanimous in its absolute condemnation of the Gaddafi regime's use of violence against peaceful protesters.

It is time for the UNSC to condemn the actions of the Libyan government against its citizens. The UN's Human Rights Council should also condemn these gross human rights violations.

The international community needs to take action where civilians need protection. It is also time for the international community to remind the Libyan regime and its leaders that crimes against humanity are offences under the Rome Statute and the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. As such, they could be held accountable for mass casualties which occur as a result of the actions of the regime.

Libyan Ambassadors have been called in many countries, providing a direct opportunity to register in the strongest possible terms the need for the regime to meet its basic civilian and political rights, especially freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. As with consular responsibilities that the government has been discharging in other parts of Africa and the Middle East, the Government has decided to raise its travel warning again to "do not travel."

I spoke last night to our Consul-General in Tripoli who said that, given the uncertainties on the ground both in Benghazi and Tripoli, this was an appropriate response, since we did not wish at this stage to add to our consular load in these cities. Our Consul-General advises that Benghazi airport is not functioning because permits are not being issued to international carriers to fly. Tripoli airport, while operating last night, is not fully operational today as Libya's airspace is closed.

Fourth, complications arise, however, if airport officials demand exit visas to leave the country, which in the past has been a near universal requirement in Libya. The Government remains prepared to deploy its consular plans should it become necessary to take further measures in Libya in support of the 105 Australians who are at present registered with the Australian Consulate-General.

Furthermore, a number of Australian companies, including Worley Parsons, are active on the ground in Libya, and our Consulate-General remains in close contact with these companies.

It is important to be clear sighted about the implications for the wider region and the world, should political stability in Egypt, Libya and beyond continue to deteriorate.

First, if as a result of the process of democratic transformation in Egypt, we see the rise of Islamist parties, which in turn dispense with hard-won democratic freedoms, the danger of a more benign operating environment being created for militant Islamist and terrorist organisations becomes greater.

That is why it is particularly important that the international community monitors closely the political posture being adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Secondly, and more broadly, the radicalisation of governments in key regional countries such as Egypt will have geostrategic impact. How Iran's influence would play if Islamist groups seized power in even a few Arab countries is a vexing question. So we have a significant stake in supporting outcomes which give a central place to moderate, mainstream, pluralist forces.

Third, it is important that Egypt's new government continues to support those measures which have underpinned regional peace. More than ever we need to strive for a successful outcome of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian authority – a prospect which offers peace and security to both.

Fourth, if political instability across the Middle East collapses, it will create new push factors for unauthorised people movements from the Middle East to other destinations across the word.

Finally, political turmoil in Libya has already had a profound impact on international energy markets. The spot price of Brent crude has now risen to levels not seen since September 2008 and has increased 13 percent since the start of this year.

This would immediately translate into the retail price of fuel in this country and elsewhere around the world.

The oil price shocks of the 1970s resulted in escalating global oil prices fuelling global inflation and undermining economic growth. Recent economic estimates indicate that a sustained 10% increase in oil prices slows global GDP growth by a 0.25%.

The question arises, therefore, as to what Australia in partnership with the international community can do to support a peaceful and stable democratic transformation in Egypt and beyond.

Australia is currently in active negotiation with major economies around the world to form a flexible framework for responding positively to Egypt's transitional needs. In recent days I have spoken directly to the UN Secretary General, the US Secretary of State and her Deputy Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, the EU High Representative on Foreign Affairs, Cathy Ashton, together with the Foreign Ministers of the UK, Germany, Turkey, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil on how this is best done.

I have also been in communication with the heads of the IMF and the World Bank.

It should be noted that Egypt's Foreign Minister three days ago issued a public call for international assistance to help Egypt's transition to democracy by easing social and economic conditions in the lead-up to elections later this year.

It's time for major democracies around the world which have both the economic capacity and the necessary political will to become International Partners of Democratic Egypt, Friends of Democratic Egypt, at this most crucial time in modern Egyptian history.

Deputy Secretary Grigson of DFAT will tomorrow represent Australia at a senior officials meeting in Brussels convened to elaborate how best to coordinate the international community's response to the Egypt crisis.

I spoke also to the Egyptian Foreign Minister yesterday on this matter and will now visit Egypt later this week in order to work with my Egyptian counterpart and others in the interim Egyptian government on how international assistance can best be rendered. I also plan to visit Tunisia.

I will also of course use the opportunity in Cairo to thank our consular and diplomatic staff for the extraordinary work they have done in recent weeks to evacuate hundreds of Australians in the most difficult of circumstances.

Let us be clear: Australia's national security interests, our national economic interests, our international humanitarian interests, together with our most basic consular interests, will be significantly affected by upcoming developments in Egypt.

Whether it is terrorism, people movements, or the impact of oil prices on the cost of living and our overall economic growth, we cannot simply stand by and hope that others will attend to the great challenges that lie before us – and in doing so automatically protect our interests as well.

Instead, we must ourselves be seized of these challenges, and work in close partnership with other democracies and economies around the world, to do what is physically possible to ease the pain of transition to a secular pluralist democracy in the single largest country in the Arab world.

As I noted at the outset, Australia is a middle power with global interests. Our abiding national interests are clear: involve the maintenance of Australian national security; the enhancement of Australia's national prosperity; the development of a regional and global rules-based order aimed at underpinning long-term peace, stability and prosperity for the region and the world.

Apart from our fourth core interest which is the protection of Australian citizens abroad.

Our interests also reflect the values of good international citizenship – that is, quite apart from the prosecution of our national interests, we also exert our efforts to build a peaceful, stable and a just international order.

Furthermore, we seek to do so through the agency of creative middle power diplomacy.

The truth is that both political power and the range of threats we now face around the world are much more diffuse. Richard Haass argued recently in Foreign Affairs, we are entering an "age of nonpolarity": a world dominated not by one or two or even several states, but rather by dozens of actors exercising various kinds of power.

As Secretary Clinton herself has said the United States does not and should not "go it alone"; rather, the US seeks itself to exercise leadership in new ways – to convene, to connect, to create partnerships aimed at solving shared global problems.

In this context, I believe creative middle powers are uniquely placed to bring together major, regional and smaller powers alike to inform and shape solutions. Their strength comes from the good offices they bring to bear on regional and global problems and the persuasiveness of their arguments and the coalitions they are capable of building, not the assertion of direct power.

Middle powers are nimble in working the 'in-between' of international diplomacy – most particularly if they have no vested interests that are not held in common with the international community.

The source of their motivation and reasons for their activism are clear: they are direct stakeholders in the global repercussions of regional problems. In the past, middle powers have, of course, played a valuable role as mediators in regional conflicts, or as facilitators of confidence-building efforts.

The time has now come to set much higher goals and work towards more durable solutions. How do we do this? A creative middle power pursues the imperative to build and maintain a regional and global rules-based order.

Because when there are clear rules that the international community follows, there is a stable, predictable environment in which we can all reap the security and prosperity that globalisation offers.

Because in a functioning rules-based order, benefits flow not just to the powerful but also to the vulnerable and weak.

A creative middle power understands that an open global economic order is more likely to increase growth, employment and global living standards.

A creative middle power recognises that we have to work in partnerships and coalitions to achieve change – including with non-traditional partners to establish better understanding of the issue at hand and to come up with better informed solutions.

Middle powers know that on their own, their input will not be decisive. They cannot shape the world around us.

So creative middle powers have an interest in pooling their economic and political standing and bring their intellectual efforts and critical mass to bear in responding to global challenges.

To this end, Australia always stands ready to propose new partnerships to tackle new problems, or to tackle old problems in new ways.

Australia is a middle power with strong values, significant capacity and global interests.

We are one of the world's oldest, continuous democracies.

We value open, transparent economic systems. We are the sixth largest country by land mass. We have the 3rd largest maritime zone in the world.

Our economy is the 13th largest in the world, our overseas development assistance is the world's 13th largest, and our defence spending is the world's 14th largest.

To put this in context, if Australia was a European state our defence spending would be the fifth largest in Europe after the UK, France, Germany and Italy. Our defence budget is about half the German Bundeswehr.

This has underpinned our capacity to engage in UN peacekeeping and other sanctioned operations around the world – participating over time in more than 50 UN peace keeping operations involving more than 65 000 Australian troops.

We are a founding member of the United Nations, the G20 and the East Asia Summit.

We are active members of, or partners with, most of the major councils of the world.

We are active in the world and will become more so because our national interests dictate it.

Australia is also a nation of Western traditions located in the midst of the great civilisations of the East – China, Japan, India and the Malay and other cultures of South East Asia, with whom we are increasingly integrated and to whom global economic and strategic influence is shifting.

Sensitivity to our unique geostrategic circumstances has helped us develop a culture that understands, respects and works comfortably with the political and cultural diversity around us. Such an approach abroad is, of course, consistent with our capacity to tolerate differences and diversity at home.

Once again, our goal is for a peaceful, stable and prosperous global rules-based order. An order that will underpin global human security and prosperity and directly contribute to safeguarding our own.

In the past, we have seen our middle power diplomacy at work: dealing with the challenges of the Cambodian peace settlement; the negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; in economic diplomacy in the formation of the Cairns Group of fair-trading nations within the framework of the WTO whereby Australia is now one of the seven principal negotiating countries for the conclusion of the Doha Round.

Under the current Government, we have also been active in this continuing tradition of middle power diplomacy.

We have done so in our contribution to the establishment of the G20, the premium global economic forum at whose table Australia now has a seat. We have been active in shaping the future regional architecture of the Asia Pacific region through what we have called an Asia Pacific community. By successfully encouraging the United States to join the East Asia Summit, we have now laid the building blocks for the long-term evolution of an APc.

We have also elected to partner with Japan in a new cross-regional grouping on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

This grouping takes its mandate from the NPT Review Conference of 2010 and the need to use forums such as this to begin negotiating the implementation of the 64 recommendations of the Review Conference.

This in turn followed Australia's decision in 2008 to establish the International Commission on Nuclear non-proliferation and Disarmament – again, between Australia and Japan - in order to outline a road map for the world's future arms control agenda – a road map which significantly shaped the conceptual framework for negotiations going into last year's NPT Review Conference.

This also represents a further reason why Australia is a candidate for the UN Security Council in 2013-14. Critical decisions will come before the Council at that time – including UNSC resolutions that are likely to provide the international legal underpinnings for ISAF operations in Afghanistan, once the hand-over of security responsibilities to Afghan national security forces is completed in 2014.

This not only directly affects Australia's' interests. It also shapes the future of Afghanistan itself given the large investment in lives and resources we have made in Afghanistan over the last decade.

It remains to be seen whether we can deploy these traditions of creative middle power diplomacy to the new and emerging challenges of the Middle East. I've already outlined the assets we bring to this particular table.

One further asset is that both in Egypt and more widely across the Middle East, Australia is generally regarded as a friend of all and an enemy of none. This is also aided by the significant Arab and Jewish communities we have in Australia.

Nonetheless our principal task is to work collaboratively with other states on the practical and immediate challenges that lie before us, both in Egypt and the wider region. As noted above, the Middle East represents one of the many rapidly evolving theatres of interest that directly affect Australia's national interests – and our national values. Australia, like other countries, operates in increasingly complex global policy terrain. Whereas our values and our interests are constant, the international terrain in which we operate is now highly volatile.

For this reason, it is critical that Australia has a clear foreign policy framework for the future.

Anchored in a clear definition of our interests.

Anchored in a clear definition of our values.

Anchored in a clear analysis of the dynamic region and the world in which we must confidently operate if we are to be secure and to prosper in the future. Anchored too in the principles of creative middle power diplomacy through which we in Australia can make a real contribution to the world – consistent with the principles of good international citizenship.

Above all, Australian foreign policy is not about 'being there'. Australian foreign policy is about making a difference.

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