Charteris Oration 2013: Peter Varghese on Challenges for Australia’s Foreign Policy


Australia faces big challenges in foreign and trade policy, says Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary, Peter Varghese, and how well we address them will be crucial to our future security and prosperity.

Mr Varghese, who has just returned from two weeks of ministerial talks in Washington, was delivering the 2013 Charteris Oration at the annual dinner of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Sydney.

The DFAT chief executive identified the search for multilateral agreement on issues such as climate change and trade as among the most significant, with the established international system “in decline”.

“We can neither buy nor bully our way in the world”, he said. “Today the global multilateral system is under intense pressure. We need it more than ever, but it is getting harder to find agreement.

“The international system is showing its age. Many of our structures were designed in the post-war world, and we just don’t live in that world any more.”

Mr Varghese argued there is a mismatch between national power and global democracy, while the influence of non-state actors and the massive transfer from the West to the East had altered dynamics fundamentally.

He continued, “Emerging powers are no longer willing to accept outcomes which they perceive do not take their interests into account.  Some do not share the core values and interests of Australia and other Western countries.  Some favour state sovereignty over individual rights, and so are wary of interventions in national affairs.  Some favour a greater role for the state, and have shown little interest in taking a leadership role on the global stage.”

While Australia has already supported multilateralism, Mr Varghese suggested another model is needed to make progress – bilateral deals that would have significant global impact.

“Consider this”, he asked, “if the US and China were to take serious bilateral steps to reduce carbon emissions, it would cover something like 40 per cent of global emissions – and exert a powerful gravitation pull on what the rest of the world may be willing to do. My point is this: In trying to find solutions to our most pressing global problems, we have to keep an open mind and be prepared to consider work-arounds”.

The Charteris dinner, held at Sydney’s Union, University  & Schools Club, was attended by former foreign minister Bob Carr, leaders from the business and academic communities and ambassadors that have served in more than 20 countries.  Colin Chapman, president of the AIIA in NSW, noted that Scotland-born Archibald Charteris had founded the Institute in 1924, making it 90-years old next year.

“In World War I he’d worked as an intelligence officer, and his younger brother John was chief of intelligence to Field Marshall Earl Haig, so he knew quite a bit about spying”, said Mr Chapman.

Charteris came to Sydney with his bride, who he married on the eve of embarking on the SS Osterley from England, to take up the post of Challis professor of law at the University of Sydney.

“He was a conspicuous character in appearance and in manner with a strong sense of humour. In an age of convention, he was an unconventional, even careless, dresser – he would not have been allowed into the Union Club.

The AIIA NSW president observed that when Charteris founded the Institute, it was a time when Britain ruled the waves and dictated Australia’s foreign policy. “He would not have conceived of the day when the strains of ‘Rule Britannia’ were consigned to the Last Night at the Proms, or when our foreign minister’s energies would be focused on ‘more Jakarta, less London’, or that China would cast her spell on every aspect of our national life, still less that the Snowden revelations would get the oxygen of publicity, rather than a D-Notice”.


Read the full speech by Peter Varghese AO




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