Striv­ing to Build a Bet­ter World

Global Asia - - CONTENTS CONTINUED - Re­viewed by Nayan Chanda

Con­cerns for a just world per­vade Gareth evans’s In­cor­ri­gi­ble Op­ti­mist: A Po­lit­i­cal Me­moir.

In 1968, when Gareth evans landed in saigon as a 24-year-old back­pack­ing stu­dent, he strug­gled to get out of an air­port teem­ing with amer­i­can mil­i­tary and de­part­ing Viet­namese. as the former aus­tralian for­eign min­is­ter writes in this bril­liant and ab­sorb­ing po­lit­i­cal me­moir, it was hard even to find a ho­tel with a bed “to ac­tu­ally sleep in.” he ended up in a squalid place. hear­ing a com­mo­tion on the land­ing out­side, he opened the door to find a drunken GI beat­ing a young half-naked Viet­namese girl with a broom as she fled down­stairs scream­ing. the “whole sick­en­ing cameo,” he writes, “seemed to sum­ma­rize in an in­stant, in a way that I had never fully grasped in my pre­vi­ous years of cam­pus demon­strat­ing ev­ery­thing that was hor­ri­ble not only about that war: the sheer scale of the hu­man suf­fer­ing and mis­ery it al­ways in­volves.”

evans’s ac­count, es­pe­cially of his days of stu­dent ac­tivism and travel, of­fers a unique per­spec­tive on the de­vel­op­ment of one of asia’s most re­mark­able diplo­mats, who made his mark in re­gional peace-mak­ing and as­sur­ing in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity. Writ­ten with verve and self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mor, In­cor­ri­gi­ble Op­ti­mist of­fers the fas­ci­nat­ing back­story of how many ma­jor for­eign-pol­icy ini­tia­tives were con­ceived and im­ple­mented and dif­fer­ent pol­icy bat­tles were fought in the cor­ri­dors of power and cham­bers of par­lia­ment.

evans’s me­moir is par­tic­u­larly valu­able for its can­dor and in­sight. In post-colo­nial south­east asia, min­is­ters and diplo­mats mostly sprang from the West­ern­ized elite and no­bil­ity, and for the most part they were in­ward-look­ing, de­ter­mined as they were to avoid ex­ter­nal in­ter­fer­ence and for­eign en­tan­gle­ments. Only the end of the Cold War brought to the fore a need for greater re­gional co-op­er­a­tion and mul­ti­lat­eral diplo­macy. as these dy­nam­ics de­vel­oped, a bright, in­ter­na­tional-minded evans, the son of a tram driver in Mel­bourne, was pre­par­ing to be one of the first suc­cess­ful politi­cians to con­nect main­land asia and its Western-al­lied neigh­bor to the south.

What makes his me­moir par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing is the ac­count of his po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing as a stu­dent leader drawn into anti-racist and civil­rights strug­gles. this of­fers a valu­able clue to his long in­volve­ment in later years with peace, hu­man rights and dis­ar­ma­ment on the global scene. his in­ter­est in other so­ci­eties and cul­tures, and the ways of the world, was fur­ther shaped by his trav­els dur­ing his stu­dent days. In­vited by the us gov­ern­ment on a stu­dent lead­er­ship pro­gram in 1965, evans got his mildly pro-viet­nam war views chal­lenged by the anti-war protest move­ment on amer­i­can cam­puses. his views were fur­ther shaped three years later when, on his way to Ox­ford to take up a schol­ar­ship, he back­packed for six months through asia and the Mid­dle east, in­clud­ing the saigon visit men­tioned above.

start­ing as a young mem­ber of the aus­tralian law Re­view Com­mis­sion, he rose to be­come an aus­tralian labour Party law­maker, serv­ing in both houses of par­lia­ment for 21 years. For 17 of those years, he was in the cabi­net, even­tu­ally as min­is­ter of for­eign af­fairs. as his lively and of­ten hu­mor­ous ac­count makes clear, his skills honed in de­bat­ing and joust­ing on the floor of par­lia­ment and in the party back­room were in­valu­able in his later years as for­eign min­is­ter and in­ter­na­tional ne­go­tia­tor and me­di­a­tor.

evans shuns the tra­di­tional chrono­log­i­cal ap­proach and presents his tale the­mat­i­cally. Chap­ters such as jus­tice, race and en­ter­prise re­count his early years in aus­tralian pol­i­tics as at­tor­ney gen­eral, min­is­ter for re­sources and en­ergy and min­is­ter for trans­port and com­mu­ni­ca­tion in labour gov­ern­ments. the leg­isla­tive ar­cana might tire some non-aus­tralian read­ers, but the chap­ters of­fer in­sight into the evo­lu­tion of aus­tralia from a white sanc­tu­ary to a vi­brant multi-eth­nic so­ci­ety that is very much a part of asia. Five chap­ters are de­voted to evans’s nine

in­tense years as for­eign min­is­ter, manag­ing re­la­tions with a volatile north­ern neigh­bor, In­done­sia, and ven­tur­ing into re­gional diplo­macy with the as­so­ci­a­tion of south­east asian na­tions and world pow­ers. the fi­nal three chap­ters trace his years as a world states­man at the un, deal­ing with protecting civil­ians in civil war and nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment; as chair­man of the Brus­sels-based In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, im­mersed in is­sues from geno­cide to civil strife; and his cur­rent role as the chan­cel­lor of aus­tralian na­tional univer­sity.

One of his first acts as for­eign min­is­ter was to show aus­tralia’s com­mit­ment to asia and play a cre­ative role be­fit­ting a “mid­dle power.” as some­one deeply touched by the fact that all the young men he had met dur­ing his trav­els to Cam­bo­dia had van­ished into the Kh­mer Rouge’s maw, he threw him­self into the stalled Cam­bo­dia peace process. With the help of his col­leagues, he put flesh on the idea of in­sert­ing the un into Cam­bo­dia in peace­keep­ing, elec­tions and in­terim ad­min­is­tra­tive roles — some­thing that al­lowed China a face-sav­ing way to abandon the Kh­mer Rouge and even­tu­ally end the civil war.

the red thread run­ning through the book is his deep con­cern about cre­at­ing a safe, just and equitable world. Con­cerns such as these, and his be­lief that the world can be made a bet­ter place, re­veals the “in­cor­ri­gi­ble op­ti­mism” that has driven him to un­der­take what of­ten could ap­pear as a fool’s er­rand. he has met dis­mal fail­ures, but also known great suc­cesses, and en­coun­tered de­cent in­di­vid­u­als com­mit­ted to im­prov­ing the world.

evans re­tains great re­spect for the Chi­nese diplo­mats he dealt with over the years and cau­tions against over­re­act­ing to Chi­nese as­sertive- ness — which is in some ways nor­mal for a ris­ing power af­ter cen­turies of hu­mil­i­a­tion. But an in­di­ca­tion of his lively and prag­matic mind is that he al­tered this view within a year af­ter fin­ish­ing the man­u­script.

evans re­vised the no­tion that it was bet­ter to avoid the ap­pear­ance of con­tain­ing China. In a re­cent in­ter­view, with ref­er­ence to strength­en­ing the so-called “Quad” — aus­tralia, Ja­pan, the us and In­dia — he told me: “I do think it is im­por­tant that there be vis­i­ble co-op­er­a­tion be­tween all the other sig­nif­i­cant coun­tries in the re­gion to make it clear that we all value rule-based in­ter­na­tional or­der.” While aus­tralia should value its eco­nomic re­la­tions with China and not be “too spooked by China’s chest-beat­ing and wing-flap­ping,” he said, “we are not go­ing to sit idly by and watch a steady en­croach­ment of sovereignty in the south China sea.” he wryly noted that a cou­ple of coun­tries — Cam­bo­dia and laos — have be­come “wholly-owned” sub­sidiaries of China.

these de­vel­op­ments cer­tainly dent his op­ti­mism, as do the grow­ing signs of dys­func­tional democ­racy in the “post-brexit, post-trump, post­truth Western po­lit­i­cal world.” But he is not yet ready to throw in the towel. “as I write these words,” he con­cludes in the book, “the en­vi­ron­ment for good pub­lic pol­icy-mak­ing, both in­ter­na­tion­ally and do­mes­ti­cally, is as des­o­late as I can ever re­mem­ber ... but it is im­por­tant to keep things in per­spec­tive. Pen­du­lums do swing, and wheels do turn.”

The red thread run­ning through the book is his deep con­cern about cre­at­ing a safe, just and equitable world.

Nayan Chanda is Yale­global On­line’s found­ing ed­i­tor and a Global Asia Ed­i­to­rial board mem­ber.

In­cor­ri­gi­ble Op­ti­mist: A Po­lit­i­cal


By Gareth Evans Mel­bourne Univer­sity Press, 2017, 277 pages, $45.25 (Hard­cover)

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