Commentary | 13 March 2010

With friends in high places

Australia is a wealthy nation with a small population occupying a large continent located a great distance from our historical sources of security and prosperity. As a result, the single foreign policy theme which has united our otherwise diverse postwar prime ministers has been the desire to join (and, if necessary, erect and strengthen) institutions through which we can influence global decisions and touch the global flows of power.

 

  • Michael Fullilove

Australia is a wealthy nation with a small population occupying a large continent located a great distance from our historical sources of security and prosperity. As a result, the single foreign policy theme which has united our otherwise diverse postwar prime ministers has been the desire to join (and, if necessary, erect and strengthen) institutions through which we can influence global decisions and touch the global flows of power.

 

  • Michael Fullilove

Executive Summary

Australia is a wealthy nation with a small population occupying a large continent located a great distance from our historical sources of security and prosperity. As a result, the single foreign policy theme which has united our otherwise diverse postwar prime ministers has been the desire to join (and, if necessary, erect and strengthen) institutions through which we can influence global decisions and touch the global flows of power.

Different PMs have favoured different kinds of institutions and busied themselves with different types of issues. Often these differences have been the subject of bitter political conflict. Yet in all cases, the impulse behind them has been similar. Robert Menzies and John Howard, for example, focused their energies on alliance institutions – the formal apparatus of the ANZUS treaty and the more informal but nevertheless deeprooted practices of the alliance. On several occasions, they took Australia to war primarily for alliance management purposes. As a lawyer and liberal internationalist, Gough Whitlam took the United Nations extremely seriously (and later served as Ambassador to UNESCO). Bob Hawke and Paul Keating served in office just as the wealth and influence of Asia spiked.

In order to secure Australia a spot at the Asian table, they decided they first needed to build the table – hence Hawke’s efforts to establish APEC and Paul Keating’s initiative for APEC Leaders’ Meetings. Kevin Rudd has been an activist in his first term, engaging in all three of these types of institutional endeavours. He has worked assiduously on the alliance and his relationship with President Barack Obama? launched a bid for the UN Security Council? and proposed a new overarching AsiaPacific community.

But it is in a fourth area – that of global economic cooperation – that Rudd has gone furthest toward squeezing Australia into the world’s inner councils. Rudd was one of the most influential voices in the ear of the president prior to his decision in Pittsburgh last September to designate the Group of Twenty (G20) as the premier forum for international economic cooperation. There were many sound reasons for this battlefield promotion, but from Canberra’s perspective Australia’s membership of the G20 was first amongst them.

The G20 derives significant authority from its economic weight: together, its member countries represent nearly 90% of global gross national product, 80% of world trade and 2/3 of the world’s population. It also has enormous geopolitical heft. Its members include the global hegemon and its chief rivals? all five permanent members of the Security Council? six nuclear weapons states? several regional metropoles? and the most important countries in the Muslim world.

Purists hope that the G20 will resist mission creep and focus on the coordination of international economic policy. Yet history is against them. The G20’s predecessor as the steering committee of the international economy, the G8, gradually built up significant political muscle. Summits of the G8 involved discussion of issues well beyond its formal remit, including foreign aid, climate change, nuclear weapons and terrorism. The extension of 2 summit invitations to the leaders of emerging powers represented the ultimate laying on of hands by the international community. National leaders conducted important bilateral meetings on the sidelines of G8 meetings. Those meetings are now taking place on the margins of G20 summits.

For example, at the London meeting in April last year, Obama held his first meeting with Chinese president Hu Jintao and discussed a new arms control treaty with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. We cannot know what role the G20
will assume in the future. It may wither and die like other institutions before it? on the other hand it may increase in importance because of the yawning gap between the scale of the world’s challenges and the incapacity of other institutions to meet them.

For the foreseeable future, in any case, it is one of the most important clubs in the world, and Australia is a member. Former prime ministers of both political colours will understand the significance of this.
Australia’s membership of the G20 enables us to further our national interests and contribute to the global good. It is already a source of prestige, signifying our success as a country, an economy and a political player. It brings our prime minister into regular contact with the world’s most powerful leaders.

Over time, the G20 will affect the way Australian leaders think about the world. Just as our US alliance has led us often to see things from America’s perspective, and our APEC membership has sensitized us to Asian concerns, so will our G20 membership bend our thinking toward the greatest global issues of the day. Naturally, Australia’s capacity to influence global outcomes will remain limited by the resources we can bring to bear. Our ability to be a leader of the organisation, rather than a laggard, will depend on our creativity and ambition. But there is no reason why Australia cannot help to determine the path the G20 takes after the global financial crisis.

The G20’s impact on Australian foreign policy has been seriously underestimated. Australia is going global.

Michael Fullilove is the director of the global issues program at the Lowy Institute and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.