Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Effective Middle Power Leadership

This is a pleasing sign, after a few false starts by the Rudd Government, in its efforts to replicate the Evans-Keating Governments efforts at selling Australian idea’s to the rest of the world:

The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, announced last year that he wanted Australia to lead the debate on reducing nuclear arsenals and ensuring that the new nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is due to be renegotiated in 2010, had real teeth.
He appointed Mr Evans, a former foreign minister, to be co-chairman of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, an Australian initiative that is being co-chaired by Japan.
After a shaky start, it seems likely that the Australian initiative will yield results under the new US Administration.
“We have a very serious level of buy-in,” Mr Evans said after meetings in Washington on Friday and Saturday.
“I was sceptical that this was something Australia could offer in terms of influencing the issue. I am now completely persuaded that this commission is seen as potentially helpful in changing the terms of the international debate.

“I don’t want to claim too much, but I think we have helped crystallise their thinking. We have high-level attention. This is a quite important visible role for Australia.”

Mr Evans met Mr Biden, the National Security Adviser, Jim Jones, the Deputy Secretary of State, James Steinberg, and the chairman of the Senate foreign relations commission, John Kerry, to outline the commission’s five-point strategy for reducing the nuclear threat.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart: How Australia as a middle power country can use it’s ideas, influence and efforts at persuasion to promote new norms in international affairs (Norms being ideas of either behavior ie “dont use nukes” or values “you dont need nukes to be safe/powerful”). Those who promote such idea’s are labeled under the literature “Norm Entrepreneurs”, and its a subject at the heart of my study of Australia’s foreign policy efforts in the South-Pacific over the last two decades.

There are many strategies and options for Norm Entrepreneurs to take. Dramatic stands, sanctions, or as in this case gathering the support of the powerful as a basis for which to push your own ideas. This of course doesn’t mean Australia can now end the world’s supply of nuclear weapons, that must be left for the powers that be; but it does mean we can now begin to try and shape the debate, the way it’s framed and hopefully provide a service of benefit both to our own security and our great ally the USA.

The pessimism inherent in the Howard Government’s foreign policy tended to ward them from the view of trying to use Australia’s influence to sell our idea’s. But it’s hard not to notice the gap this left between the Keating Government and now the Rudd Government. Such diplomatic efforts cost us only time, but offer us the potential to gain a much greater standing than our material force would allow, and gain a long term identity as a country that can be trusted to push principled changes for a better world, rather than selfish short term strategy. That can be significant when it comes to area’s like trade or regional diplomacy where our self-interest in particular outcomes is much more highly visible.

Rudd & Smith have already made a few pushes in this direction without much success, so it’s nice to see the old hand and norm entrepreneur par excellence Gareth Evan’s back and doing what he did best two decades ago.

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