Photo of Mr Peter Varghese

"Diminishing Conflicts in Asia and the Pacific" book launch

Remarks by Mr Peter Varghese, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

The ANU, Canberra

25 June 2013

Acknowledgements

Diminishing conflicts

Thank you for your invitation to launch “Diminishing Conflicts in Asia and the Pacific”.

Scholarship, at its best, explains without simplifying; captures complexity without losing the thread of a narrative and most of all seeks to place the specific in the context of a wider insight.

By this measure this is indeed a book of fine scholarship.

It is also a book of genuine utility to policy makers and so gives expression to the one of the founding objectives of this great university:  to bring academia and government closer together and to strengthen policy by exposing policy makers to the analytical rigours of good scholarship.

At the core of this book is an issue fundamental to any foreign policy:  what drives conflict and how to end it.

And the first strength of this book is that it does not shy away from complexity.  It frankly admits that it “cannot claim to have a found a magic recipe for peace”.

Now that might be a depressing conclusion but only if you think we live in a world of simple answers to complex problems – which admittedly far too many do.

For me, the value of this book is that it finds meaning in the granularity of conflict.  Not for its authors a grand unifying theory of  peace making.  But also no giving in to analytical despair.

This book may not have found a magic recipe for peace but it has unearthed some very important insights about what works and what does not work.  And something clearly is working because, as the editors note, annual recorded battle deaths in the Asia Pacific fell by 50 to 75 per cent in the decade from 1994 to 2004.

There are some big themes in this book.  Does democracy bring peace?; how much can we rely on economic growth to resolve long standing internal conflicts?

One of the important conclusions of this book is that the answer to these questions will depend on the particular circumstances of the conflict.

Now at one level that could be seen as an analytical cop out or even a caveat worthy of Sir Humphrey.

But I took it another way:  as revealing a truth which policy makers too often ignore:  to resolve a conflict you first have to find its grain and then work with it, not against it.

That is an important insight and if more policy makers had absorbed it many more of our efforts at peace making might have been more successful.

Too often we tend to think of conflict resolution in terms of the application of power and shifting power equations through intervention.  I am not dismissive of these elements.  Most conflicts reflect a complex set of power relationships.

But these elements are only ever at best necessary conditions, rarely are they sufficient to find peace.  For that we also need to understand the underlying dynamics.  We need as much an anthropological analysis as we do a military strategy.

This is a book that will be useful to diplomats.

Not just those concerned with the Asia Pacific.

It addresses the encouraging but still largely unknown fact that since the early 1990s there has been a marked decline in armed conflict globally.

Spurred by the Human Security Report of 2005 that described “a dramatic and sustained decline in the number of armed conflicts”, which, combined with an “uneven but equally dramatic decline in battle-deaths that has been underway for more than half a century”, has produced a more peaceful world.

This sparked controversy at the time, prompting questions concerning conventional measures of war dead.

As well as why such data excludes fatalities not directly related to war, which suggest – among other things – that underlying tensions may not have been resolved.

The book makes a worthwhile contribution to this debate because of its focus on Asia and the Pacific – a region that has experienced a substantial decline in conflict

It is also worthwhile given the different skills that chapter authors bring to the debate.

All but one of the case studies in this book are at least co-written by staff members of the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

This alone is testament to the depth of knowledge of the region among the College’s academic staff, given the vast terrain this book traverses.

And all authors are academic specialists in the area that they are writing on rather than statisticians and quantitative analysts who have largely lead the debate so far.

Australia’s security role in the region

Australia has a proud record of involvement in peace and security missions across Asia and the Pacific.

We were the first nation to contribute peacekeepers to the first UN mission in 1947, overseeing the ceasefire between Indonesians and the Dutch.

One of Australia’s most recent security missions, the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, RAMSI, is ten years old next month.

The RAMSI experience picks up many of the themes of this book. 

RAMSI has helped restore and maintain law and order, facilitate economic growth and rebuild the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force and other key institutions of government.

But RAMSI was never intended to displace the role of government and civil society in Solomon Islands.

Because the root causes of the tensions and the reconciliation and social reforms needed to address them are beyond the remit of any foreign intervention.

RAMSI has helped by creating the conditions in which the Solomon Islands Government and civil society can take forward this huge and complex job.

But no one expects it to be easy, and an externally imposed solution would have little chance of success.

RAMSI has laid the foundations for a sustainable nation but only Solomon Islanders can heal their own wounds.  A point I am sure the editors of this book will endorse.

Conclusion

So to the three editors – Edward Aspinall, Robin Jeffrey and Antony Regan – and to all the contributors I extend my congratulations and admiration.

You have made an important contribution to our understanding of conflict and peace in our region.  You have produced a book not just of scholarship but also of utility to policy makers.

And hopefully you have made all of us that little bit wiser about what works and what does not work.

I am delighted to launch “Diminishing Conflicts in Asia and the Pacific”