a wealthy nation with a
small population occupying a large continent located a great
distance from historical sources of security and prosperity.
Because of this, the one
foreign policy theme that has united our otherwise diverse post-war
prime ministers has been the desire to join (and, if necessary,
erect and strengthen) institutions through which Australia can
influence international decisions and touch the international
flows of power.
Prime ministers have favoured
different kinds of institutions and busied themselves with different
types of issues. Often these differences have been the subject
of bitter political conflict. Yet the impulse behind their efforts
has been consistent.
Robert Menzies and John
Howard, for example, focused their energies on alliance institutions:
the formal apparatus of the ANZUS treaty and the informal but
nevertheless deep-rooted practices of the alliance. On several
occasions they took Australia to war primarily for alliance management
As a lawyer and liberal
internationalist, Gough Whitlam took the UN extremely seriously.
(He later served as ambassador to the UN Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organisation.)
Bob Hawke and Paul Keating
were in office just as the wealth and influence of Asia spiked.
To secure Australia a spot at the Asian table, they decided they
first needed to build the table, hence Hawke's efforts to establish
the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and Keating's initiative
for APEC leaders' meetings.
Kevin Rudd has been an activist
in his first term, engaging in all three of these types of institutional
He has worked assiduously
on the alliance with the US and his relationship with President
Barack Obama, launched a bid for the UN Security Council and
proposed a new, overarching, Asia-Pacific community.
But it is in a fourth area,
that of global economic co-operation, that Rudd has gone furthest
towards squeezing Australia into the world's inner councils.
The Prime Minister was one
of the most influential voices in Obama's earbefore his decision
in Pittsburgh last September to designate the Group of 20 as
the premier forum for international economic co-operation.
There were many sound reasons for this
battlefield promotion but from Canberra's perspective Australia's
membership of the G20 was first among them.
The G20 derives significant
authority from its economic weight: together, its member countries
represent nearly 90 per cent of global gross national product,
80 per cent of world trade and two-thirds of the world's population.
It also has enormous geopolitical
heft. Its members include the global hegemon and its chief rivals;
all five permanent members of the Security Council; six nuclear
weapons states; several regional metropolises; and the most important
countries in the Muslim world.
Purists hope the G20 will
resist mission creep and focus on the co-ordination of international
Yet history is against them.
The G20's predecessor as the steering committee of the international
economy, the Group of Eight, gradually built up significant political
Summits of the G8 involved
discussion of issues well beyond its formal remit, including
foreign aid, climate change, nuclear weapons and terrorism.
The extension of summit
invitations to the leaders of emerging powers represented the
ultimate laying on of hands by the international community. National
leaders conducted important bilateral meetings on the sidelines
of G8 meetings. Those meetings are now taking place on the margins
of G20 summits.
For the foreseeable future,
in any case, it is one of the most important clubs in the world,
and Australia is a member. Former prime ministers of both political
colours will understand the significance of this.
Australia's membership of
the G20 enables us to further our national interests and contribute
to the global good. It is already a source of national prestige,
signifying our success as a country, an economy and a political
player. It brings our Prime Minister into regular contact with
the world's most powerful leaders.
Through time, the G20 will
affect the way Australian leaders think about the world. Just
as our US alliance has led us often to see things from the US
perspective and our APEC membership has sensitised us to Asian
concerns, so will our G20 membership bend our thinking towards
the greatest global issues of the day.
Naturally, Australia's capacity
to influence global outcomes will remain limited by the resources
we can bring to bear. But there is no reason Australia cannot
help to determine the path the G20 takes after the global financial
crisis. The G20's influence on Australian foreign policy has
been seriously underestimated. Australia is going global.