Why Turnbull has to ‘do a Merkel’

epa05022934 German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (L) shake hands as they pose for the media upon Turnbull's welcome with military honours at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 13 November 2015. The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is on his first major overseas tour to meet world leaders since he ousted Tony Abbott two months ago from the top post in a party-room vote.  EPA/WOLFGANG KUMM

The cynicism or moral immobilism of the Western powers toward the Syria conflict has been a reminder that states all too often conform to the behaviour pattern predicted by the neo-realist conception of international relations. Yet in a handful of countries, including Australia and Germany, the popular response to the refugee crisis created by the conflict has reminded these states that they also have signed up to international treaties and United Nations resolutions on human security. We must also recall that the original conceptions of realism as an international relations theory were rooted in moral values, an understanding that escapes the now dominant neo-realist school among the major powers and their academic fellow travelers.
The sad news is that the turn to human security by the grass roots in some late-adopter countries, such as Australia, has happened at the same time as the traditional defenders and even the source countries of the doctrine, such as Sweden and other Nordics, are turning decisively away from it under the influence of Islamophobia. In the United States, many Governors at the state level have lined up to declare their territory off limits to the Syrian (Muslim) refugees.
Germany has remained steadfast (more or less) in its long standing commitment to human security. Angela Merkel will be remembered in history for her astonishingly brave commitment, as the Syria crisis worsened, to take one million refugees — a move backed by large sections of the German community.
Many other states declared sympathy for the refugees and undertook some relief measures but their responses have for the most part been minimalist–and realist, as if the plight of the millions of refugees could only be handled through the lens of state interests.
The recent abandonment by major Western powers of human security as a guiding principle has been inescapably clear in their eventual submission to a Russian-dominated outcome in the conflict. The moral corruption of this submission to Russian preferences was evident in their lack of leadership across the board on the refugee crisis, with only a few exceptions among Western leaders, such as Merkel. Putin has read the moral cowardice of the West perfectly and reacted accordingly.
But the relationship between Western states and the doctrine of human security is not the same as their relationship to traditional hard security. The concept of human security is a more cosmopolitan one and it’s foot soldiers are citizens not people in uniform.
In Australia, the citizenry has not for the most part been engaged with the ideals of human security in the country’s diplomacy or national security policy. There has been a long tradition of humanitarianism, but this is not the essence of the concept of human security. The latter is defined not just by compassion but by a willingness of states and citizens to operationalize in their country’s national policies and laws an understanding that state security includes the sum of the security of all of the people the state affects, both at home and overseas.
In this doctrine and ethical principle, states have a moral responsibility to condition their military policy and diplomacy toward protection of “the people” as well as the “state”.
For the trend towards human security to be sustained among the grass roots in Australia, and not give way to fear-mongering as we have seen in Sweden, the country’s national institutions have to move. The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has to “do a Merkel” and bring the asylum seekers back to Australia. But individual civil servants in Australia also have taken stock of their ethical responsibilities to act differently.

Greg Austin copy

Dr Greg Austin is a Professorial Fellow with the EastWest Institute in New York

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