The world has changed a lot, except the threat of violence
Most of us at some stage or another have received an invitation to a school reunion. Although I would hate to admit how long it has been since I left high school.
Even more sobering was an email I received inviting me to a reunion for the class of 1981 diplomatic cadets joining the Department of Foreign Affairs.
It is worth thinking about how much the world has turned on its head over the last 30 years.
Back then, we were still at the height of the Cold War and the Soviet Union seemed not only impregnable but still on the march. Back then, Deng Xiaoping had not long taken over China and his economic reform program had barely begun. Back then China’s economy was not much bigger than Australia’s.
Back then, the peace treaty had not long been signed between Egypt and Israel in order to bring about a temporary peace in the Middle East, following the wars that had erupted in each of the decades following the establishment of the Israeli state.
But apart from these changes, there is another point as well. And that is the sheer pace of change which leaves us all breathless.
This has been brought about through the transformative power of new communication technologies. The world is not only a smaller place now, where hundreds of millions of people travel each year. It is also a smaller place because of the explosion of Twitter, Facebook and what we more broadly call the social media.
We see this today no more clearly than in the Middle East. It is a radically different place than when I was last here in December. The winds of change are blowing across this region but the truth is, none of us are sure where it is going to end up.
Yesterday I was in the United Arab Emirates where the core topic of conversation was Libya. What would happen and would the world support a no-fly zone to further prevent civilians being killed by Gaddafi’s warplanes?
From Abu Dhabi I will make a short stopover in Cairo at the invitation of the new Egyptian Foreign Minister, who has only been in office a couple of days, on my way to Tunisia - before heading back home.
In Cairo on Saturday, discussions with the 22 member Arab League will again focus on Libya and whether or not a no-fly zone should be imposed. The truth is the UN Security Council is not likely to impose a no-fly zone unless the Arab League supports one. So we have been having our voice heard here and elsewhere on this very important decision likely to affect the lives of innocent civilians trying to rid themselves of a despot.
In Tunisia, we see thousands of people streaming across the borders to escape the violence, and that is where we are pitching in with the rest of the international community to help provide accommodation, food and water to those trying to escape a war zone.
A number of people will still ask why are we involved in this and why do we care. My argument will always be that it is the right thing to do. But it is also in our interests to do so. And we do so in partnership with other members of the international community.
Because if this region goes belly up, the consequences are massive, the growth of terrorist cells, strengthening the hand of a nuclear capable Iran, damaging the prospects of peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a large outflow of people and not to mention impacts on the price of oil, economic instability and a decrease in trade and investment.
I am looking forward to coming home. Being Foreign Minister reminds me afresh of how great Australia is. The truth of the 21st century however is that it’s impossible to lock ourselves away from the rest of the world. We are part of a dynamic, sometimes dangerous world, with which we have no option but to be fully engaged, including the Middle East where we have so many interests at stake.
We can’t pretend someone else will look after our interests here, because they just won’t.
The pace of change I have seen during the 30 years of my professional life is only likely to intensify and become even more challenging to deal with. Our national interests demand that we continue to run a robust foreign policy that argues our national interests and looks over the horizon to where the next challenges and opportunities may come from.
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