Punching above our weight?

Punching above our weight?

09 Sep 2009

dennis-altman Professor Dennis Altman
Email: d.altman@latrobe.edu.au

Originally published in The Age on 9 September, 2009

Some months ago I attended a symposium in Sydney on AIDS in our region: ''What does Australia have to offer? How best might Australian expertise and experience be used?'' When I suggested the question might be reversed, and we should ask what we had to learn from other countries, there were a few nods of agreement and no deviation from the central script.

This implicit arrogance runs through some of the best commentaries on Australia's role in the world. A recent paper from the Lowy Institute calls for Australia to ''take a far more active role in engaging China to improve the effectiveness and transparency of its aid''.

''Engage'' is perhaps a softer word than ''offer'', but the assumption of our superior knowledge remains.

Over the years I have watched Australians develop close and supportive relations with a range of communities and groups across what, since the Hawke government, we like to call the Asia-Pacific region.

Some of this work has been scrupulous in listening to local voices, particularly those that are most marginalised, and in seeking to create political space for them to develop their own demands and programs.

Others have too often sought to impose assumptions about governance and effectiveness that are rightly resented as imperialist.

There is a difficult line between insisting that there are certain universal values that should underlie all engagement with other countries and the failure to recognise that not everyone will accept the dominant Western understandings of these values.

How can one object to aims such as ''effectiveness and transparency'', or better governance and more democracy? In practice these terms take on very different meanings in countries where poverty not obesity is the major problem, or where a new polluting factory offers survival level jobs as well as threatening the environment.

Before the global financial crisis most donor governments agreed on the basic assumptions that deregulation and free markets were unquestionably good things, and many of their policies were designed to expand their reach.

In retrospect it is clear that the left critique of such policies, particularly as imposed in the name of structural adjustment and denationalisation, was more accurate than recognised at the time.

Yet as the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang has argued, most persuasively in his book Bad Samaritans, much of the advice handed out by rich countries contradicts the reality of their own development, and will do little to decrease the huge global poverty gap.

If Australia is to aspire, as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd keeps saying, to being a ''middle-level power'', its greatest challenge is to recognise that the dominant Western view of development and democracy is not necessarily universal. This applies both to questions of major foreign policy, such as our commitment to what appears an open-ended disaster in Afghanistan, and to the sometimes appalling behaviour of Australian tourists in Bali and Phuket.

Like its predecessor, the current Government seeks to prove its importance in the world by maintaining a balance between identification with ''the West'' and claiming particular understanding of its major Asian and Pacific neighbours.

As a liberal democratic country of 20 million people situated in the southern hemisphere, Australia has to be particularly shrewd in its international relations, as other than New Zealand we have no obvious partners in a world increasingly regrouping along regional lines.

To turn our apparent disadvantage into an opportunity would require the Government to be far more willing to rethink some of the long-term impact of our major foreign policies upon our neighbours. This does not mean, as the Opposition appears to believe, saying nothing about human rights in China.

It does mean questioning our role in NATO operations in Afghanistan- only a very post-modern geographer would forget that NATO is a ''North Atlantic'' alliance. And it would mean recognising that our relations with close neighbours such as Indonesia and Malaysia are hardly helped by fulsome expressions of support for Israel that exceed those of almost any other Western government.

This is not an argument for any sort of isolationism. Rather it is an argument for a smarter form of engagement, one that recognises the dangers of presenting ourselves as the embodiment of Western virtues in a world that is not as convinced of these virtues as we might wish.

Countries, as well as individuals, can listen as much as speak.

Australians are constantly told that we ''punch above our weight'', and successive governments have taken pride in boasting of our importance. Yet as Owen Harries warned some years ago in the Boyer lectures: ''Punching above one's weight may be a sense of pride, but it is also hazardous and a form of activity best avoided.''

Sometimes it may be smarter to follow New Zealand, which has fewer illusions about its importance in the world.

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