Making our way in the world through Australian diplomacy

This year, Australia celebrated the centenary of our coming of age as a nation through the sacrifice of thousands of our forebears on the battlefields of Gallipoli.

Four years from now, we should celebrate our debut on the world diplomatic stage, 100 years after Prime Minister Billy Hughes, deputy Prime Minister Joseph Cook and attorney-general Robert Garran represented Australia at the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles during the first half of 1919.

It's time for a stocktake of Australia's diplomatic interests, capabilities and strategies.

We might choose to forget Australia's achievements at Versailles – we argued for colonies such as Papua New Guinea to continue as “mandates” ruled by others and we scuppered a Japanese proposal for a racial equality clause to be included in the peace agreements. We might also overlook Hughes' methods, so irritating that US president Woodrow Wilson referred to Hughes as a "pestiferous varmint" and the British foreign secretary referred to him as “that shrimp”. But we should not forget the anniversary of when Australia stood up for its interests in the councils of the world.

At that time, we should pause to celebrate what Australia has achieved on the world stage. And we have plenty to celebrate. Australian diplomats were key shapers of the League of Nations and the United Nations. Our influence was central in drafting both charters, and foreign ministers H. V. Evatt and Percy Spender were elected as presidents of the UN General Assembly during its formative years. We wrestled the previously isolationist-minded Americans to sign an alliance with us, and the nascent Commonwealth to back a development partnership called the Colombo Plan.

In the century since Versailles, Australia has been highly effective on the world stage. We have balanced internationalist-minded efforts to build strong institutions of global and regional order with the hard-headed pursuit of our national interests. We can rightly be proud of our role in helping create the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and the G20, bring peace to Cambodia, East Timor and Solomon Islands, broker an agreement keeping Antarctica free of power competition, and pursue justice for the victims of the MH17 tragedy. At the same time, we have been doggedly effective in securing membership in key regional bodies, pressuring protectionist great powers to free up world trade, and ensuring tight control of global uranium trade.

What's been the secret to our effectiveness? I'd suggest four advantages. Most obviously, we've been developed, educated and wealthy, a factor that's given us a decided edge in the regions of most important to us – south-east Asia, north-east Asia, the south Pacific and south Asia – and at a time when most countries on earth have been poor and post-colonial. Then there's our Anglo-Saxon heritage, which has given us a natural command of the English language, the common law tradition, and liberal market ideas – all institutions that have defined world order since 1788, thanks to the global dominance of first the British Empire and then the pax Americana.

Added to these has been a clear sense of our interests: as a mid-sized, trade-dependent country with no natural neighbouring allies, Australian statecraft has always been animated by a sense that the best defence against a law-of-the-jungle world has been strong global laws and institutions that give every country, irrespective of size, a say.

Finally, we've been lucky enough to come of age diplomatically during the golden age of multilateralism; as institutions have shaped our world, we've known almost instinctively how to shape those institutions from the inside.

As with any centenary, we shouldn't spend 2019 looking only backwards. We should spend some time looking ahead – and the obvious question should be: how effective are we likely to be in the next 100 years? Here, unfortunately, there is less room for confidence. It's hard to look at the factors that have brought us success in the past and be confident they will be advantages in the future.

First, there's our wealth, education and development advantage – assets that are eroding daily. In a recent PwC report forecasting gross domestic product growth to 2050, Australia slips from its current rank of 19th in purchasing power parity terms to 28th in 2050 – about the same ranking as the Philippines and Colombia now.

Meanwhile, 11 countries in our key regions of interest will outrank us. With their growing wealth will come greater education and military clout among our regional neighbours.

Then there's our Anglo-Saxon advantages. While the English language might continue as the global lingua franca, we shouldn't be complacent that our native speaker advantage still means as much in a world of increasing English literacy. And our preferences for law and markets are under siege, as Asian powers rise and flex their influence and rights to shape global rules.

Are we entirely sure where our interests lie in the world that's coming? In the past, investing in rules and institutions has made sense when they've been designed along lines with which we're entirely familiar and comfortable, but what about when we're not sure of their form and intent? What does membership in Beijing-designed institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank mean for us?

And does a preference for and comfort with multilateralism still deliver in a world where institutions seem more defined by their failures than their promise? Can we be confident in our institutions to deliver solutions on climate change, global free trade, regulating financial instability or resolving territorial conflicts in Asia?

It's time for a stocktake of Australia's diplomatic interests, capabilities and strategies. Otherwise we might never come of age in this new age of world politics.

Michael Wesley is professor of international relations and director of the Coral Bell School of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. This article is based on a talk given at the school's Australia 360 conference, the nation's first in-depth stock-take of international policy.