The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP


National Press Club, 26 June 2003

Security in an Unstable World

(check against delivery)

Ladies and gentlemen

Foreign Policy issues are too often discussed as though they occur in a vacuum.

Commentators and academics theorize about policy options and strategic possibilities.

International affairs are made to sound polite, esoteric and far removed from ordinary citizens.

But the great issues of international politics do, in the end, impact directly on ordinary people across the globe.

This can be seen clearly in the newly won freedom of the people of East Timor, and of Iraq.

… in the improved circumstances of families which have been lifted out of poverty by the benefits of economic globalisation.

… and in the desire of all Australians to be secure in a world changed fundamentally in the wake of September 11th and the Bali bombing.

This "real world" is where the Howard Government's foreign policy operates.

What underpins our approach to foreign and trade policy is a determination to advance the national interest in a pragmatic and hard headed way.

We look for outcomes not just empty form and posturing.

We can not afford to be complacent and we can not afford to spend time and effort on processes and institutions that are marginal to our interests.

The Government has directed Australia's diplomatic and trade effort toward those relationships, institutions and issues that matter most to Australians and which will deliver results.

Our approach has assumed an even greater importance in Australia's uncertain international environment.

The challenges we face as a nation are complex and evolving rapidly.

Our interests are global and not defined solely by geography.

The Government's two White Papers, In the National Interest and Advancing the National Interest set this out clearly.

Australia's security is at risk from the threat of international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Instability and even state failure in our neighbourhood is a growing concern.

Economic globalisation offers significant opportunities, but only if we continue to ensure strength in our institutions and pursue policies of further reform.

Australia's foreign and trade policies have to be focused sharply on achieving practical solutions to these urgent issues.

For it is only through a strong and purposeful approach to the challenges of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, regional instability and globalisation that we advance our national interests.

Let me address each of the issues in turn to illustrate my point.


Australians are on the frontline in the war against global terrorism. We have no choice. We are a target because of what we believe in and what our society represents.

Terrorists oppose the values we hold dear; our commitment to an open and tolerant society; and our commitment to democracy and freedom.

Their goal is to form Taliban style states throughout the Islamic world and to end democracy and political and religious freedom.

The accused Bali bomber, Samudra, has said that democracy 'will never come true…only by the Muslim system can society have a happy and prosperous society'.

Samudra's vision of a Muslim system is one without the 'polluting' effects of media, secularism, and contact with women - despite him being found with a laptop laden with pornographic images.

These terrorists have no more respect for the religion they purport to uphold than they do for the victims they target so ruthlessly and indiscriminately.

Their message and purpose is overwhelmingly negative and without hope. It is profoundly reactionary.

Australia has played a leading role in the campaign against terrorism.

I have always said the fight against terrorism would not be quick and it would not be easy. And that it can not be segmented into regional components for it is a global struggle in which connections between regions run deep.

But we have made substantial progress in this fight.

Australia's contribution of personnel and materiel helped drive al-Qaida and the pro-terrorist Taliban regime from Afghanistan.

Globally, nearly one half of al-Qaida's leadership has been captured or killed and over 3000 people connected to al-Qaida are in custody worldwide.

Our support and implementation of international controls over the movement of terrorists and their finances is helping to frustrate their operations.

We have placed great emphasis on fighting terrorism in our region. This can be seen in close cooperation with our regional partners at the political level.

And importantly this has translated into closer ties between Australia's police, intelligence and security services and their regional counterparts which have helped to head off further attacks and combat the spread of extremist Islamic terrorist networks.

The unprecedented joint investigation by Australian and Indonesian authorities has disrupted a significant terrorist network through the arrest, detention and current trial of the Bali suspects.

Our network of bilateral counter-terrorism MOUs is strengthening cooperation and information exchange on terrorist groups.

The region is becoming a more difficult environment for terrorist groups. But al-Qaida, JI and other terrorist organisation retain a formidable capability.

We, our Allies and our regional partners must - and do - remain alert to the persisting threat.

Weapons of mass destruction……

Our greatest fear is of the consequences from terrorist groups or irresponsible states gaining access to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

Documents and laboratories seized in Afghanistan show that al-Qaida has considered developing chemical and biological weapons. And Osama bin Laden has declared openly that he would use such weapons if he had them.

Al-Qaida tried to gain access to crop dusters and hazardous chemicals in the United States in 2001. And recently police linked the discovery of deadly ricin toxin to suspected terrorists in the United Kingdom.

While there is no evidence to suggest that terrorist groups have acquired nuclear weapons, reports suggest that groups linked to al-Qaida may have been looking to construct a radiation dispersal device - or so called dirty bomb.

We were reminded of this very real threat by the arrest in Bangkok of a Thai national attempting to sell radioactive materials from Russia only a week or so ago.

Terrorists are not bound by the constraints - deterrence, denial and containment - to which even maverick states can be subject.

The only constraints on terrorists are the resources at their disposal to kill and terrify innocent civilian populations.

It would be deeply unwise, therefore, to deny the potential link between the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and terrorism.

The combination of these two developments would constitute the ultimate horror.

But, obviously, it is not just the risk that maverick states will pass such weapons to terrorists which concerns us.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly to and from states that flout international norms are in themselves a grave threat to our security.

Iraq was a striking example of our resolve to deal with this threat.

No-one could sensibly argue now that ridding Iraq of Saddam Hussein's barbarous regime and ridding the world of the threat posed by his weapons programs was the wrong thing to do.

Yet Australia went into the conflict with the main Opposition Parties opposed to our involvement.

The Labor Party's opposition was not based on outcomes or results - it was based on process.

That is, the Labor Party hid behind the French threat to veto any United Nations Security Council resolution - although it would abide by whatever policy decision the Security Council delivered with French acquiescence.

Likewise, the Labor Party's response to the threat of nuclear weapons has been to call for the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons to be reconvened.

The aims of the Commission were laudable, but its recommendations fell back on established processes and relied too much on multilateral institutions.

In the current circumstances, that is simply not a viable course of action - politically or practically.

The Government decided that Iraq had to disarm - it had to comply with the fourteen Security Council Resolutions that, over more than a decade, had repeatedly called on Iraq to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors.

This included the "last chance" Resolution, 1441, which won unanimous support in November last year.

When the UN baulked, yet again, at enforcing its will, we had to decide what Australia's best policy option would be.

There was no ideal choice … but this is not an ideal world.

It was a choice of throwing up our hands and saying that because of the Security Council impasse, the issue was all too hard.

Or, it was a choice of doing something about a difficult situation.

We decided upon joining the International Coalition to disarm Iraq.

We decided that disarming Iraq, through the use of force, would deliver the outcome that Australia and the international community required.

While we worked hard within the appropriate processes…in the end we could not afford to hide behind them.

Iraq was a clear example of how outcomes are more important than blind faith in principals of non-intervention, sovereignty and multilateralism.

In dealing decisively with Iraq over the issue of weapons of mass destruction, Australia has helped remove a significant threat to international, and especially Middle-Eastern, peace and security.

The coalition's actions in Iraq, with the support of many in the Middle East, has also potentially created new strategic opportunities in the region that should be seized.

Furthermore, the multinational coalition has helped bolster international non-proliferation efforts - at a time when it needs support.

Australia has been at the forefront of international efforts to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction for several decades.

Australia derives significant security benefits from non-proliferation regimes, where these are adhered to by their members.

The reality is, however, that international treaties governing the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons rely on the consent of participating states for inspection and verification regimes.

Those states that cheat on their obligations or, worse still, choose not to participate, face few barriers - other than financial and technical - to developing such weapons.

For this reason Australia, while continuing to support and engage in non-proliferation forums, is also examining options for practical measures to prevent the proliferation of WMD and related materiel.

Two weeks ago we participated in a meeting of 11 countries in Madrid to consider how we might together interdict and disrupt - directly if necessary - the transfer of materials to and from states suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction.

We believe the Proliferation Security Initiative - as it is known - should move quickly to develop practical ways to impede the trafficking of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.

So I am very pleased to announce that Australia will host the second meeting of the Proliferation Security Initiative on 9 to 10 July in Brisbane. As Chair we will push for practical measures to impede the flow of items which contribute to the proliferation of WMD and missiles.

Australia's hosting of this key meeting reflects the strong contribution we are making to non-proliferation and international security.

The Initiative is not specific to North Korea. But it is relevant to the Government's concerns about that country and its declared nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang's behaviour is unacceptable to all in our region. Japan, South Korea and, most encouragingly, China, have made clear their strong disagreement with the actions of North Korea.

Australia's strong preference is for the peaceful resolution of the North Korean issue. But in the absence of a genuine willingness on the part of North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, the international community must look to ensure that it can not spread these weapons.

Interdicting and disrupting the flow of materials to and from countries such as North Korea is just one of the options being considered by the international community.

Stability in our immediate neighbourhood…..

We are addressing issues in our immediate region as well as the bigger picture. It is not a question of doing one or the other - but of focussing on what is important and knowing where we can make a difference.

Stability in our immediate neighbourhood is a vital concern for the Government.

We responded to the crisis in East Timor - and we were right to do so.

And we are responding to the troublesome situation in Solomon Islands.

We face a comprehensive and seemingly inexorable grinding down of the country's institutional and economic fabric, despite substantial efforts to support peace, reconstruction and good governance.

It has to be acknowledged that our aid has been unable to turn around the situation and address lawlessness and economic decline.

What is needed now is security. And in the longer term, stronger governance.

Pacific Island countries are sovereign states. Ultimately, they must take responsibility for their own futures.

Australia is not a neo-colonial power and we are sensitive to regional concerns about our role. But we will not sit back and watch while a country slips inexorably into decay and disorder.

I say this not just for altruistic reasons. Already the region is troubled by business scams, illegal exploitation of natural resources, crimes such as gun running, and the selling of passports and bank licences to dubious foreign interests.

The last thing we can afford is an already susceptible region being overwhelmed by more insidious and direct threats to Australia.

We are engaged in discussions with the Solomon Islands Government about strengthened security assistance and support for key arms of government.

Improved law and order is a first precondition for national recovery, but so too are practical steps to stabilise government finances and revive the economy.

Our task will be to look forward, to build a stable future within the framework of the Constitution and laws of Solomon Islands.

Whatever we do will be at the express invitation of the Solomon Islands Government and in cooperation with our partners in the Pacific. If it involves intervention it will be cooperative intervention.

Yesterday, the National Security Committee of Cabinet considered the details of a comprehensive package of assistance to be provided in concert with New Zealand and our other regional neighbours.

The assistance being contemplated includes substantial policing, law and justice support, and economic assistance, backed up by operational support for the defence force.

Next Monday, Australia, New Zealand and Solomon Islands will be co-hosting in Sydney a meeting of Foreign Affairs Ministers of the Pacific Islands Forum, to discuss the issue.

Foreign Ministers will discuss the findings of the recent visit by Australian and New Zealand officials, and the details of strengthened assistance.

We will also examine how Forum members can contribute - guided by the Biketawa Declaration of August 2000, which encapsulates the commitment of Pacific Island countries to good governance and the rule of law.


The need for good governance - strong institutions and sound policies - is all the more essential if nations like Solomon Islands are to access the opportunities of globalisation.

The difference between those nations that gain and those that lose from the rapid progress of globalisation will be measured by their relative standards of governance.

Last month my Department released a new report, called Globalisation: Keeping the Gains. It may first appear a dry document, but it makes compelling reading.

The report finds that globalisation, or increased international economic integration, is accelerating world economic growth and helping to reduce global poverty.

It finds that Australia has gained significantly from globalisation. In the 1990s, for example, freer trade and investment and other economic reforms helped Australia's productivity and incomes grow by up to 35 per cent faster than in the 1970s.

Most East Asian economies also have gained from globalisation. In the 1990s, with the exception of Japan, East Asia grew by between 6-8 per cent per annum, and the number of people living in poverty fell from 417 to 267 million.

I could go on with a host of other facts and figures highlighted in the report to state the case for globalisation.

But there are two key points that I wish to make in highlighting these figures - and it relates directly to our domestic and foreign and trade policies.

The first is that there are no winners among those countries that close themselves off from the international economy.

Australia is doing the opposite - domestically, and in our efforts to open markets for our products abroad.

We are pursuing an ambitious outcome in the Doha Round of global trade negotiations.

Our activism in WTO dispute settlement has delivered significant benefit for our exporters - just ask our lamb and beef producers who have won disputes over access to US and Korean markets.

Our commitment to the WTO is unswerving, but we will not allow it to deny us other trading opportunities.

Hence the Government's strong pursuit of bilateral trade deals with the United States, Thailand and others.

Our approach is overwhelmingly pragmatic: we will pursue agreements where these can offer improved opportunities for Australian industry.

The second point on globalisation is that it will only work for those countries where the conditions for growth and stability are right.

There must be transparent and accountable governance for sustainable development.

Efficient economic and legal systems, and ensuring that citizens have access to good infrastructure and services in health and education, is essential.

Without good governance, efforts to liberalise trade and investment, and to address common threats to security and stability, can only achieve partial and temporary results.

For these reasons 21% or $370 million of our development assistance expenditure is directed toward governance programs.


Ladies and gentlemen

Australia needs the focused, outcome-oriented foreign and trade policies that the Government is pursuing.

The reality is that our interests are global. The global threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, as well as our globalising economy have seen to this.

The demands on the resources we have at our disposal - diplomatic, intelligence, security, military, economic and financial - will not be limited by geography, but defined by our interests.

In this environment we need to ensure that our limited resources are directed toward those issues that impinge most on our national interests.

We also need to ensure that our actions are focused on achieving practical outcomes that advance our national interests.

The Government, through its actions on Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, has signalled that we are prepared to take the hard decisions to enhance our security.

Some multilateral institutions will remain important to our interests.

But increasingly multilateralism is a synonym for an ineffective and unfocused policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator.

Multilateral institutions need to become more results oriented if they are to serve the interests of the international community, including Australia.

We are prepared to join coalitions of the willing that can bring focus and purpose to addressing the urgent security and other challenges we face.

Sovereignty in our view is not absolute. Acting for the benefit of humanity is more important.

We will act to help ensure the stability and prosperity of our neighbourhood - in particular by working with those states that lack the capacity to address the kinds of threats to their sovereignty that may one day threaten ours.

We will continue our pragmatic approach to trade policy to give Australian industry the best possible advantage in the competitive international economy.

The greatest challenge of all, of course, is to address these challenges we face in a manner which is coherent, pragmatic and, above all, effective.

Our choice is whether we want help lead rather than follow the international community in responding to a new and rapidly changing international environment.

I think we should lead, because our national interests demand no less.

Thank you.