The 'Boat People' Bogeyman

... and the value of values in foreign policy

· social-political

A resurgent ‘boat people’ debate has raised a false yet persistent dichotomy in Australian politics: those two words mark an old frontier of social disruption. In the mid-1970s, tens of thousands of refugees from the Lebanese and Vietnamese civil wars were offered a new home in Australia by the country’s visionary conservative party. Most arrived legally by plane, but several thousand Vietnamese refugees journeyed by boat having survived weeks-long voyages of storms and attacks by Thai and Indonesian pirates.

Australians were shocked by the sight, and touched by the plaintive faces of children who had survived those wretched voyages. However this initial reaction was matched by a rising discomfort that ‘the face’ of Australia was changing forever. It was only in 1973 that a Labor government had finally rescinded the White Australia immigration policy, in force for 70 years, which kept a door open for Anglo-Saxons and others who were sufficiently white. Moreover, Australians were taken aback that a tiny desperate wave of ‘boat people’ had pierced our great sea barrier in a chaotic armada.

At the turn of the millennium another surge of boat people challenged that ocean barrier. Globalisation brought huge opportunities for cheap available labour. When labour transfer laws in productive and prosperous countries were too slow to keep pace, or were politically impossible, workers found their own paths. People fleeing persecution and war (some of which had included Australian fighting forces) joined these routes. When not arriving by plane, short sea voyages organised by savvy opportunists, and often funded by criminal capital, opened fresh avenues.

Thousands of Afghans, Iraqis, Sri Lankans, Iranians and others embarked on the journey in rickety fishing boats. Yet instead of a cross-party policy to strike a balance between meeting our international legal obligations, and the need to stop the flow, the refugees sailed straight into a relentless political squall that has really never settled. Confused policy and abject political leadership mean that while the lethal boat trade was stopped, Australia’s generally positive international reputation was deeply bruised, and human rights abuses were certainly perpetrated by our citizens.

In the past two months this ugly confrontation looked set to rise once more. Polls show a fresh election this May is likely to return a Labor government. A small legislative change two months ago, proposed by minority parties and carried with Labor support despite Liberal government objections, has improved medical care for boat people marooned in Australian offshore detention centres. The sitting Liberal government decided to make hay from their defeat, and issued dark warnings that Labor had just signalled to criminal smuggling rings that Australia is “open for business" (yet no boats appear to be coming).

The controversy mischievously draws a contrast between the interests-driven conservative governing Coalition party that purports to deal with the exigencies of the ‘real’ world, versus a soft, indulgent, values-driven Labor Party that lays itself (and Australia) hopelessly open to exploitation by queue-jumping immigrants and criminal people-smuggling rings. But is it really a zero-sum choice between head or heart? Does border security really rely on discarding one of our vital bodily organs? And do we understand the value of consistent values in foreign and domestic policy and politics?

Australia’s personable and intelligent former conservative foreign minister Julie Bishop (recently resigned from parliament) had the mixed fortune to manage this tough portfolio for five years at a time of emerging extremes in our Age of Disruption. Generally, her management was regarded as highly competent. Throughout her five years as a minister, she remained explicit that Australia’s foreign policy should be transactional, not transformational, and that the Coalition deals with the world as it is, not as Australians might wish it.

Conversely, in a series of speeches over the past two years, the shadow spokesperson for foreign affairs, Penny Wong (gay, married, now a mother, and Asian born), has notably addressed the value of values, thoughtfully distancing the ALP from Bishop’s views. She regards values as a distinctly under-utilised expression of Australia’s national power, a wasted resource. “Constructive Internationalism,” as she says, is a rejuvenation and refinement of Gareth Evans’ earlier “good global citizenship,” calibrated for a new global balance of power between deeply contrasting cultures.

Moreover, in her view, the peculiarities of our age beg for a values-laden approach. Caught between the hegemonic cudgels of China and the U.S., and massively unforeseen global disruption, ‘values’ are indispensably transactional and transformational. Since we are being transformed whether we like it or not, “Brand Australia” – the character of our nation and our values – is our sharpest influencer and the best diplomatic instrument for shaping the agendas of our principal partners to suit our national interest, whilst tackling the urgent protection of our global commons.

We are all creatures of values, and most politicians claim to possess them. The claim is a broad church, sanctifying good and evil. The French thief and playwright Jean Genet proposed a deviant criminal value-set. Selective values, conjured from persuasive but distorted notions of science, human psychology, mythologized pasts, and economics, drove those great dogma-disasters of the 20th century, Communism and Fascism. Fanatically-held values, like those of ISIS, will trump family, society, and negotiable reason.

Yet increasingly, there is science to support the notion of an elemental universal common value-set that rises above the din of superficially disparate – or even deeply held – belief systems. The recently published “The 7 Rules of Universal Morality” examined 600 research papers to identify root values in otherwise extraordinarily diverse societies. This rudimentary value-set is largely pragmatic, the payoff being group cooperation that promotes individual and group survival, and mutually benefits successive circles of proximity.

Whether a German tradesman or a pygmy forest hunter, you love and protect your family, nourish your group, return favours, defer to authority, appreciate fairness and bravery, and respect what belongs to others, qualities that cleave suspiciously closely to the Realist theorist Hans Morgenthau’s “objective laws that have their roots in human nature.” Empirically then, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which Australia played such a pivotal role, seems increasingly situated in science.

Whilst the word ‘values’ suggests morals and principles, it equally connotes merit and worth, or a kind of intrinsic transactional commodity. And like any country, Australia’s values – such as a fair go – are derived from a national character shaped by our unique history. They are expressed by evolving public culture, enshrined by the rule-of-law and, where possible, extended abroad to their natural limits (those limits being the contrasting values of other sovereign nations) by robust, transactional diplomacy in pursuit of our national interest.

Rather than a soft indulgence, values are the gritty stuff of that other arch-Realist, Thucydides. The “History of the Peloponnesian War” is not only a self-conscious study of war, power, history, and decisiveness, exemplified by the famous Melian dialogue. Then, Athenian leaders weighed the merits of deadly action against the spirited people of Melos, a cold calculation reflecting the often-merciless requirements of statecraft. However the History’s hard-edged Realism is offset against an appraisal of social psychology and value-sets that are the foundations of national character and, Thucydides would posit, Athenian supremacy.

For example, in the course of Pericles’ funeral oration the orator situates national character and morale as the very source of Athenian power (attributes later broadly reflected in Morgenthau’s writings). The imperial city is made resilient not just by tributary states, and the capacity to wage war. Its strength is a combination of Athenian personal and collective values listed by Pericles which mark Athens as the envy of her neighbours: openness, tolerance (my Italics), courage, equality, regard for the rule-of-law, and democracy.

In 1971, the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin suggested that Machiavelli, a darling of Realists, had unwittingly infused a flaw into the bloodline of his main political thesis. The Italian’s heretical view, the thing that had shocked his contemporary readers, was that Christian values were simply inconsonant with the pragmatic, ruthless values of a Prince duty-bound to protect his state. Since humans are social creatures bound to live in social units, or states, Christian values were implicitly subordinate and often downright incompatible with the demands of statecraft.

Yet the point goes further (although here is where we leave Machiavelli and stick with Berlin). If value-sets are fundamentally incompatible, and often contradictory, it must follow that the eternal human search for absolute and completely unified value systems – political, spiritual, moral – is futile. Or put another way, the most unifying human system is one that accepts incompleteness, contradiction, and incompatibility with other systems (an implication that might equally apply to the psycho-illogical system of the individual human self, and our neurotic search for single governing systems of truth).

Now, this could be read as a justification for murder or exploitation and other adventurism, which is why Machiavelli is cheerfully embraced by cynics and intellectually-inclined psychopaths. However given that monism is the worst approach to human organization then, as Berlin writes, “we choose forms of life because we believe in them… or are morally unprepared to live in any other way,” a view underscored by the objective seven universal moral values noted above that provide a basis for mutual understanding. Negotiation and agreement between people, or states, or nations, or cultures then requires what Berlin calls “empiricism, pluralism, toleration, compromise.” Not quite Machiavelli’s intended cup of tea.

The Peloponnesian wars introduced chaos into the Greek world, and the evaporation of compromise. The inexorable slide to war of two great competing powers, Sparta and Athens, also brought the breakdown of universally respected customary law, or rules-based order, as the city-states spun into a vortex of mutual atrocity. From what we know, Sparta was a relatively ‘closed’ society exulting in militarism and afraid of the power of the other. Athens was an ‘open’ society brimming with confidence, philosophy, theatre and economic might – and afraid of the power of the other. The story serves as a useful reflection on our own disrupted epoch.

But we do not enjoy such relative simplicity in our nuclear, Anthropocene, technologically dizzying age. At no time in history has the preservation and ordering of the global commons based on shared and negotiated value-sets, such as mutual stability, prosperity, respect for sovereignty, and improvement in nature and the human condition, mattered so much for our survival. Values given force through effective diplomacy and the promotion of compromise are one of the few points of strategic leverage Australia possesses if we are to wrest order from chaos, and protect our national interest.

As the Anthropocene Age takes hold, the range of our transnational national interests increases exponentially. Although a ‘middle-ranked’ power, we have the world’s 13th largest economy, and its 20th strongest military. Our interests – trade, climate, arms control, bio-diversity, regulated AI and cyber warfare – are global. However Australia has continued to reduce the weight of its contribution to the rules-based order. Our relative foreign aid contribution is less than a third of the UK’s. And how can we have a credible policy towards our Pacific neighbours, when we are not credibly tackling the climate change that threatens their sovereign shores? Our values are absent.

This is a time of crisis and opportunity. Australia needs to be an influencer, not just a consumer; transformational, not just transactional. To withhold from a maximal role at the bilateral, regional, and multilateral level, building the normative framework within which our prosperity, stability, and rule-based system can flourish, is a form of cultural cringe.

At the foreign policy level, we must strive to be a constructive global citizen, projecting clearly articulated Australian values, and creating value-derived rules with other nations when our values can be converged through diplomacy. We must be there at the drafting table, with our values – “good ideas and the power of persuasion” as Paul Keating once said – proposing or rejuvenating the interests that will protect us, sustain our prosperity, and preserve the only planet we have.

At the level of the nation, the values conversation is indispensable. Australians are looking for leadership in the age of disruption, when our whole political economy, and the world’s, faces inevitable review. A tough border policy is far more defensible when framed as a tension, or compromise between incompatible values: our obligations towards refugees, versus the obligation to stifle a lethal trade in human life, for example. Those tough values choices are the stuff of politics, and that’s when we turn to clear, frank, enlightened political leadership that should reflect the Australian character.