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Indigenous Diplomacy for an Australian Civilisational Ethos? 

Australia is a colonial country. The resulting unresolved grievances and challenges must be grappled with, but engagement between original and First Nation peoples can be a vehicle for Australia’s enlarged engagement in global politics. 

The first peoples of the Australian continent developed forms of political ordering and diplomacy that operated for tens of thousands of years prior to the emergence of the state and the contemporary global order. These long-standing and broadly relational ways of managing inter-polity affairs raise important questions about contemporary political order and diplomacy, and provide innovative resources for grappling with rapidly changing and challenging global politics.  

In March 2023, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Senator Penny Wong announced the appointment of Australia’s first Ambassador for First Nations People and opened the inaugural annual lecture on Indigenous Diplomacy at the Australian National University. The lecture was subsequently published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs alongside a series of responses grappling with the academic and practical challenges of turning toward Indigenous diplomacy.  

Unlearning dominance?   

While foreign policy orthodoxies are more likely to be bolstered than reconfigured in times of change, there can be value in paths less worn. The longer-term and larger perspective invited by tens of thousands of years of First Nations inhabitation of the Australian continent asks: Is Australia’s regional and global security and standing amid great power rivalry advanced by Anglophone relations and realist calculations of power? How much traction does this give us with Pacific neighbours or Asian countries to our north? As the world changes, can Australia change? 

The political logics and ideologies that founded the Australian and other settler states gained ascendency on the world stage over the course of the 20th century. These logics have been reproduced  in International Relations (IR) scholarship and have come to dominate theoretical approaches to foreign policy. But First Nations peoples have simultaneously and continuously challenged European-derived dominance of global politics and raised their voice for alternatives. They have done so not only in seeking accommodation with liberal democracies but by advocating for the pursuit of politics on First Nations’ terms. 

Australia is a young country. Need it continue on autopilot, borne of political ideas and forms sourced from the other side of the world, or can it evolve by partly drawing on political ideas grounded in the Australian landscape?  

Relational autonomy 

By using the landscape as a template for political ordering, First Nations peoples of the Australian continent developed autonomous yet related polities. As sites in the landscape are connected, so are peoples. The resulting relational systems generate apparently paradoxical combinations of elements: recognition of differences alongside ties that bind; assertiveness and independence alongside connection. Relational autonomy “requires guarding autonomy while being attuned to the relational constitution of the cosmos; it defends a form of autonomy which is always already related to and interdependent with others.” 

Relational autonomy facilitates multipolarity with Aboriginal characteristics, and in conditions of limited hierarchy this promotes stability and in turn generates long-term security. To this extent first peoples of Australia seem to have approached security, that most crucial of public goods, indirectly through a relational logic. Rather than, as many peoples have, pursuing security head on and in ways that spark the fears of others and give rise to security dilemmas, the pursuit of relational stability is central to Aboriginal pursuit of life free from danger or threat.  

But First Nations people are not “peaceful” as imagined by some Europeans. Relational autonomy keeps relations flowing when relations are good, but it also helps people to relate amid enmity and conflict. But here it differs from European understandings by pursuing a relationalist (rather than survivalist) ethos: ”Aboriginal inter-polity ordering arises not solely because of the play of contestation with other nations – though that is not entirely absent – but because peoples maintain cross-cutting responsibilities to others, human and non-human, even as they assert their autonomy.” 

Cultivating civilisational culture  

First Nations peoples are Old Peoples who have had time to develop a political philosophy and approach to inter-polity relations through an extremely long-term process of political design. Australia, in contrast, is a young country which, having asserted sovereignty through invasion and the rapacious cruelties of colonialism, is now making its way on the world stage. Despite remarkable material progress and being a welcoming refuge for many, the dominant logics underpinning the Australian polity leave it somewhat insecure and uncertain, an ungrounded albeit slowly evolving European outpost in an unfamiliar region. 

As Australia works through its founding violence and seeks to find its place in the world it can gradually develop a unique civilisational tradition through respectful engagement with First Nations peoples. Many First Nations people wait for newcomers to be ready to enter into meaningful dialogue, relentlessly and patiently asserting their political order and forms of diplomacy as the original jurisdiction of the Australian continent. When mainstream Australia is ready, we can engage in a process of modern nation-building that draws on landscape as a compass to pursue autonomy while fulfilling our relationalist responsibilities at home, regionally, and globally.  

Australia’s foreign policy is constrained by its heritage and the current dominant political architecture, but it can become more commensurate with First Nations ways of approaching inter-polity relations. A commitment to a principled, pragmatist, muddling-through of relations between settler and First Nations Australia offers avenues for progressing an independent yet evenly relational stance for responding to Australia’s current regional and global circumstances. 

Morgan Brigg is Associate Professor and Deputy Head of School in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. He specialises in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, governance, and the politics of knowledge.

Mary Graham is a Kombumerri person through her father’s heritage and affiliated with Wakka Wakka through her mother’s people. She is Adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.