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Evatt’s international legacy

Andrew Mack

'When Dr Evatt came [to the UN] he was a virtually unknown second-string delegate, with the background of a professor and Labor politician. He leaves, recognized as the most brilliant and effective voice of the Small Powers, a leading statesman for the world's conscience.' New York Times (Fraser, 2014: 100).

'We need to ask ourselves whether US exceptionalism is an adequate central organising principle on which to build a new world.  Is it an enduring model that will help—in twenty, in ten, even in five years’ time—Australia to understand the world better and to find a place in it?' – Paul Keating, 2002.

'Australia needs a foreign policy, and it needs it urgently. Australia does not have a foreign policy. – Paul Keating, 2016.

Evatt on the world stage

Whilst Doc Evatt is remembered for his illustrious legal and political career, perhaps his greatest achievement was in his role as third President of the United Nations General Assembly during 1948 and 1949. As President he was recognised as ‘the most brilliant and effective voice of the Small Powers’ (Fraser, 2014: 101). His ground breaking efforts first gave Australia the ‘middle power’ status it enjoys today. This achievement was all the greater when seen in in the context of the immediate post war global struggles between the emerging superpowers of the US and USSR. In Gore Vidal’s somewhat sensationalist – but nonetheless true – characterisation of the times, he referred to the contemporary global ‘clash of titans’ where  the US and the USSR used third-party allies as surrogates in the bloody fight for shares of  the ‘earth's still smoking carcass’ (Vidal, 1995:157).

Evatt stood strong against the dominance of the ‘titans’, pushing for the UN to show a commitment to a broadly representative (rather than raw power)-based voice for all member-states. This was in order to ‘protect the rights of the weak from the depredations of the strong’ (Fraser, 2014: 101).  Evatt showed great courage and strength of character in arguing for small states’ rights in the face of the superpowers’ demands on all non-aligned countries to decide ‘whether you are with us, or you are against us’ in their struggle for territorial dominance. For realists, support for smaller powers’ independence in such fraught times would be seen as naive and idealistic. For the rest of us, Evatt’s courage and commitment gives heart those who seek a broader foreign policy agenda than the present bipartisan and uncritical support of the US foreign policy agenda.

Alan Renouf gives us a real insight into Evatt’s passionate commitment to the rights of smaller powers. According to Renouf, Evatt believed that power politics was the antithesis of democracy and that it ‘grated on his liberalism, that it was undemocratic (it would not give Australia a fair go) and that had been discredited by history’ (Fraser, 2014: 17). From this perspective, power politics would always exclude small and medium countries like Australia from having any real influence in international affairs. Good outcomes could only follow good procedure – i.e., good procedure rather than power politics. Evatt’s political strategy was to demonstrate to smaller and middling nations that Australia would defend their interests where they were seen to be at odds with those of the great powers.

This discussion is designed to provide fuel for the argument that it is in Australia’s interests to move from a foreign policy stance that is largely defined by security objectives and underpinned by ‘strategic dependence’ on the US. The aim is investigate an alternative stance that gives greater emphasis to regional relations and issues, and promotes an emphasis on the way foreign policy impacts on Australian standards of living. The core theme is that Evatt’s legacy of ideas and political/strategic practice provides a way of grounding the widespread and growing demand for alternative, more autonomous Australian foreign policy conceptual approaches and practice. Paul Keating points to the urgency of this imperative, first with his stimulation of the debate – as above – in his claim we don’t have a foreign policy, then going to the practical reality that Australia lacks a foreign policy that is capable of negotiating the rise of China and the diminishing influence of the United States (Keating, 2016).

The alternative foreign policy directions raised in this discussion paper are based on the concepts underpinning what Harries refers to as, the Evatt ‘tradition’ (Harries, 2004: 80). This conceptual base enables us to expand our thinking from the present foreign policy security-dominated preoccupation to include broader considerations such as multilateralism, regionalism and the impacts of foreign policy on Australian standards of living. This is the background for a continuing dialogue on Evatt's legacy of ideas and approaches. 

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser reminds us that Evatt was the first leader to move from the concept of ‘strategic dependence’ towards the creation of independent policies that more cogently reflected Australia's interests. The first issue is thus to show how current policies are not necessarily reflective of national interests. This goes to the way in which Australia’s commitment to international relations is largely defined by our strategic dependence on the US. It is argued that Norway – whilst remaining as a firm ally of the US – has created independent ‘middle power’ policies. This is a good example for Australian foreign policy.

It is vital for any discussion on future foreign policy directions to account for the links that exist between Australia’s international relations and domestic political and economic policies. This is especially true for any country tightly connected – as Australia necessarily is - to the international political and economic system. A corollary of this is that every country so connected adopts the dominant credo that drives and rationalises how that international system works. The most obvious example of this is the Washington Consensus. This policy framework was introduced by the US and has become an essential policy prescription underpinning all economic and political relations since the mid-1980s. The agenda has driven all trade agreements, APEC and the conditionalities of the international credit rating system.1

As a result of Australia’s acceptance of the liberalisation credo and agenda we have seen the ideology of economic rationalism implemented into national policy. This ‘liberalisation’ process has led to the breakdown of a century-worth of systemic and institutional arrangements that have protected Australians from unrestrained capitalism. The most prominent of these arrangements being the maintenance of wages against rises in costs of living – per the Court of Conciliation and Arbitration – and the public ownership of vital infrastructure in the national interest.

Thus foreign policy constructed on the principles of neoliberalism/economic rationalism has had a massive impact on Australian living standards of living, the distribution of wealth and job security. It is especially pertinent to critique this role of the liberalisation credo given that the credo and resulting policy is under attack as a result of its generation of massive wealth maldistribution and economic crisis – the GFC. This is in the ‘national interest’.

Australia goes to war – again

My initial preoccupation with revisiting the Evatt legacy was driven by the need to find out why Australia continues to uncritically participate in US-led military interventions. The official justification for our participation continues to be that the ‘enemy’ represents a clear and present national security threat to Australians.  The latest threat drove the expansion of Australian airstrikes against Daesh from Iraq to Syria. According to Kenny and Wroe the ‘Abbott government pushed for Washington to request that Australia expand its air strikes against the Islamic State terror group from Iraq to its more dangerous neighbour Syria’ (Kenny and Wroe, 2015).

To its credit, the Labor opposition was initially a little reserved about the need for the expanded airstrikes, with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten saying 'we're not going to rush into this' (Kenny & Wroe). However, in a letter to me explaining the opposition’s position, Labor expressed support on certain provisos. Firstly, ‘the support was based on an assurance the action will be proportional and within international law, founded on the firmly established principle of collective self-defence. Secondly with the proviso that ‘In accordance with the UN Charter … [the Abbott Government will] formally notify the United Nations Security Council of Australia’s decision’. Finally, Labor also urged the Government to agree to a parliamentary debate to explain the long-term strategy for Australia's role in Iraq’. There is no evidence of such notification, nor of any parliamentary debate on the matter.

The necessary debate about the rationale for Australian military intervention could start – is started in this paper – with a determination of what defines the ‘national interest’, both with regard to security and in the broader terms as described above.  Evatt pointed to this imperative in a broadcast prior to the UN San Francisco conference: 'While security is the first task, it is not enough to plan for security alone; economic and social conditions are potent factors in international relations'. The great powers had not wanted to discuss the mingling of welfare and security, and Britain, in particular, was annoyed (Fraser, 2014: 100).

Alliances and interests

Owen Harries provides seven cogent reasons for his perception that ‘going all the way with the USA’ can be at odds with Australia’s national interests. Whilst all the reasons require elaboration and critical assessment, the most important rationale concerns the weakening of Australia’s position in the UN. Harries argues ‘for the internationalists of the Evatt tradition’ the primary weakening factor is the association ‘conspicuously with a course of action that, in the eyes of most members, lacked UN authority’ (Harries, 2004: 90). Obviously for realists of the Howard, Abbott and much of the security establishment variety, concern for the UN is not their first priority, but as  – as Harries says  – ‘at a time when much of the serious diplomatic power game is likely to he played in the UN, as the other permanent members of the Security Council use it to try to restrain the United States, this has more significance than it would normally have’.

This returns us to Evatt’s principle of ‘protecting of the weak from the depredations of the strong’. As Renouf showed, the value of Evatt’s political strategy of demonstrating to smaller and middling nations that Australia would defend their interests is entirely lost where Australia cannot operate even partially independently.

The Evatt tradition

Eminent Australian international relations scholar, Owen Harries characterises Evatt’s UN role in terms of what he regards to be the three Australian policy paradigms that have defined foreign policy since the Second World War. These are the realist/power interests position; the nationalist/internationalist; and those focusing on the regional interest. He nominates the major representatives of these as Menzies, Evatt and Spender/Casey  – adding Keating as the major contemporary protagonist for regionalism. The realist school  – with its  scepticism towards most international institutions, especially the United Nations – conforms to Coalition approaches whilst the  Evatt tradition is ‘represented mostly clearly on the Labor side of politics and, as well as Evatt himself, Gough Whitlam and Gareth Evans have embodied much of what it stands for’ (Harries, 2004: 82) . Evatt’s tradition is a vital element in the formulation of contemporary regionalist policy, as this is epitomised in Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s sponsoring of the Australia in the New Pacific Century White Paper. 

The Norwegian alternative

An incorporation of the Evatt tradition into contemporary Australian foreign policy could accommodate the imperative to maintain strong relations with a great and powerful friend, but still allow a democratic determination of national autonomy. As Langmore and Egeland argue, Norway is a useful ‘middle and small power’ example of how their American alliance has not constrained the implementation ‘of a number of distinctive and influential policies’. Chief of these relates to engagement with the UN, peaceful conflict resolution, disarmament, development, and the environment and human rights (Langmore & Egeland, 2011: 2).

John Langmore and Jan Egeland translate the Norwegian model into some practical possibilities for Australian foreign policy. The most important of these is the ‘continuing financial deprivation of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; the neglect of practical, peaceful conflict resolution; the impoverishment of departmental and scholarly work on disarmament; the inadequacies of voluntary financial contributions to multilateral and NGO development programs; strengthening international peace and justice, and public education and scholarship (Langmore & Egeland, 2011: 9). These points deserve our continuing consideration in workshops on the evolution of a practical foreign policy program.

Summing up: practical alternatives

The Evatt tradition provides a solid foundation on which to build a more independent foreign policy discourse. This could be the basis by which we can move from the concept of ‘strategic dependence’ on the US towards the creation of policies more in line with Australia's national interest. The following proposals provide a basis for an Evatt foundation initiation of ‘Evatt legacy’ foreign policy workshops. 

  • A critical assessment of the foreign policy conflict-resolution and ‘the national interest’ criteria of the two major parties. Such assessment could illuminate policy contradictions and limitations to build a more progressive and independent stance.  

  • Redefinition of ‘the national interest’ with specific regard to regional relations – examples: G20, ASEAN, White Paper on the New Pacific Century.

  • An expanded DFAT soft power agenda.

  • An assessment of the foreign policy recognition of the role and accountability, of multi-national corporations; the threat of climate change; of war and instability, and refugees.

Finally, the point of this research of is to build a wider public appreciation of the issues involved in generating a greater national autonomy in foreign policy creation. This could be achieved as per former Senator and President of the Evatt Foundation Bruce Childs’ recommendation that the seminars on Evatt's legacy could be best led by people with depth of knowledge of these (foreign policy) fields, as the basis for constructing a ‘layperson’s guide to foreign affairs’.


Andrew Mack is an Executive Member of the Evatt Foundation, Adjunct Professor of Economics with Boston University, Division of International Programs (Sydney Internship Program), and an editor of the Journal of Australian Political Economy.


Notes & Sources

1. The term 'Washington Consensus' encompasses the ten goals of all neoliberal institutions such as the IMF and World Bank: fiscal discipline, public expenditure priorities, tax reform, financial liberalization, competitive exchange­ rates, trade liberalization, foreign direct investment, privatisation, deregulation, and property rights.

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Ede, Emma (2008), Internationalist Vision for a Postwar World: H. V. Evatt, Politics & the Law. A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of B.A. (Hons) in History. University of Sydney.

Fraser, Malcolm (2014), Chapter 5, Dr H.V. Evatt. In Dangerous Allies, Carlton Victoria, Melbourne University Press.

Gowan, Richard (2014), Australia in the UN Security Council. Lowy Institute publication, June.

Harries, Owen (2004), Benign or imperial? Reflections on American hegemony. Boyer lectures, ABC Books for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Sydney.

Hogan, Ashley (2008), Moving in the Open Daylight: Doc Evatt, an Australian at the United Nations, Sydney University Press.

Keating, Paul (2002), John Curtin’s world and ours. The John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library Anniversary Lecture, Curtin University of Technology, Perth.

Keating, Paul (2016), Australia lacks a foreign policy to negotiate the rise of China. Sydney Morning Herald, August 31.

Kenny, Mark and Wroe, David (2015), Tony Abbott pushed for US request to join Syria air strikes. Sydney Morning Herald August 26.

Kilcullen, David (2015), Blood Year – Terror and the Islamic State. Quarterly Essay, Issue 58.

Langmore, John and Egeland, Jan (2011), Learning from Norway – Independent middle-power foreign policy. From Griffith Review Edition 32 Winter: Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas.

Ungerer, Carl (2007), The 'Middle Power' Concept in Australian Foreign Policy. Australian Journal of Politics and History: Volume 53, Number 4, pp. 538-51.

Varghese, Peter (2015), Untitled Speech by Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Lowy Institute, 20 August.

Vidal, Gore (1995), Palimpsest: a memoir. New York: Random House.


Suggested citation

Mack, Andrew, ' Evatt’s international legacy', Evatt Journal, Vol. 15, No. 6, October 2016.<>


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