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Conflict or Cooperation?

Reflections on International Relations, Climate Change and a More Peaceful World

Frank Stilwell

It is a truism to say that the nation faces a crucial turning point: isn’t it always so? Dilemmas and difficult choices are the norm. However, because the current international context is so fraught with difficulties, deciding national policy stances requires particular care. Two aspects dominate. On the one hand, there is evident discord, even increasing talk of military conflict, between major global powers. On the other, there are active and ongoing moves for greater global cooperation to deal with the existential threat of climate change.

Can the latter reduce the former? Is it conceivable that putting greater focus on the processes requiring cooperation in one sphere could reduce conflict in the other? Indeed, if international cooperation on climate change action fails, increased global conflicts are inevitable – over resources, over climate refugees, even over habitable spaces. But if cooperation to redress the drivers of climate change is attainable and effective, could that not have benefits in terms of generally peaceful international relations?

Allan Behm’s opening essay in this edition of the Evatt Journal helpfully points to the role that international cooperation must play. Indeed, the recent COP26 deliberations did continue that process, notwithstanding some frustrations and disappointments at Glasgow. However, Australia’s position there as a laggard, if not pariah, is surely a source of major embarrassment within the community of nations. More than that, it could portend adverse consequences in other arenas where national reputations for being a responsible global citizen matter. To have a political leader who has been described by the French President as a liar compounds the problem.

How much different it would be if Australia, as one of the world’s most affluent nations, showed leadership – and generosity to poorer nations – in tackling the climate change problem. Even more so if it also showed leadership in fostering world peace. Indeed, the former could be a significant step to the latter. Where people work together to confront collective challenges, their differences about the smaller details tend to be subordinated to the shared purpose. Similarly with nations. If we want to minimise conflict – and who of sound mind would wish otherwise in a context where nuclear weapons abound? – we need to focus on the international issues where cooperation is paramount.

This call to “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” is not just a rhetorical flourish. Nor is it being Pollyana-ish by not facing up to reality. The unfortunate reality is that the more focus is put on conflicts – as Messrs. Morrison and Dutton are inclined to do – the more sharply battle-lines will be drawn. Walking back from the edge then becomes difficult, and rival accusations about who started it don’t help at all, as the adverse economic fall-out from the China-blaming rhetoric shows. The behavioural norms of the school playground are not a sound basis for the conduct of foreign affairs where respect and cooperation are not just the necessary rhetoric, they are the essential practice.

A better role for Australia in international affairs would be as a voice for peace, working in conjunction with other medium sized and smaller nations, especially our regional neighbours, thereby offsetting the power plays between the most powerful nations. This is consistent with the approach to foreign policy advocated by Australia’s most distinguished international statesman, Dr. H.V. Evatt, who was President of the General Assembly of the United Nations at the time the UN Declaration of Human Rights was established. It is even more relevant today. Australia, working with other medium-sized and smaller nations rather than formally aligned with a superpower, could help to foster that more peaceful and sustainable world. For a start, changing from laggard to leader on effective climate change action would significantly enhance our credibility among neighbouring Pacific nations.

Entering into the AUKUS arrangement has taken us in a different, less effective and more dangerous direction, potentially placing Australia in the front line of any regional conflict and reducing national independence. Australia’s prospective acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines is also prodigiously expensive and likely to undermine the basis for mutually advantageous international trade. Yet more important is the potential for a calamitous outcome if conflict were to escalate into a nuclear exchange and all the attendant dangers to human and environmental destruction. A more sensible role for Australia would be in pushing for steps towards global nuclear disarmament being taken within the international community.

Being a laggard on climate change action and a “deputy sheriff” for defence is problematic in so many respects – strategically, economically, socially and environmentally. A national re-set is necessary and urgent. The principles that “Doc” Evatt enunciated point to a much more attractive and sustainable possibility.


Frank Stilwell is Professor Emeritus in Political Economy at the University of Sydney, an Executive member of the Evatt Foundation and a founding member of the Council for Peace with Justice.


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