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Australia growing out of multilateralism

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This post is part of the Multilateralism and its critics debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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20 May 2011 15:40


This post is part of the Multilateralism and its critics debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Ian Hall is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Griffith University.

Michael Wesley's one-man assault on multilateralism goes a bit too far, but not much. Multilateralism surely has its place, in contexts where all the players are happy with the rules of the game – like Europe, for example, where dreary horse-trading over agricultural subsidies or food standards has replaced old-fashioned high-stakes diplomacy. Whether it works in the Asia Pacific or for Australia, however, is another issue.

We ought to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic about multilateralism – if it works to our advantage, then use it, but if not, don't. Michael is right to say that some Australians think multilateralism is the solution to every problem. It patently isn't, especially in the Asia Pacific.

Open, conference-style diplomacy doesn't work when the participants have high levels of mistrust. When they do, global multilateral summits – like those in the Doha round or the Copenhagen climate change talks – become settings for public name-calling or diplomatic ambushes, lowering even further the chances of agreement.

With this in mind, we can see that multilateralism is ill-suited to Australia's region and to Australia's interests. In the Asia Pacific today there are simply too many unresolved disputes – over territory and history – and too many lingering resentments to make multilateralism workable. Levels of trust are just too low and the political will to address these differences too lacking.

Secondly, the Asia Pacific is simply too dynamic. Some states are rising fast and some declining, albeit slowly. Some states have embraced democracy and some have not. Some openly threaten their neighbours with annihilation. In this context, no right-minded state is going to lock itself into institutional architecture that might constrain its future ability to address these challenges.

Lastly, the multilateral institutions that do exist are viewed less as mechanisms for mutual benefit and more as instruments for individual gain. ASEAN plays this role for Indonesia, SAARC for India, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for China. There is no guarantee that future institutions will not be again subverted by the most powerful players.

The critical question for Australia ought to not to be how can we further multilateralism, but will more 'architecture' serve our interests? When Australia was a small, far-away, vulnerable country it made sense to call loudly for more inclusive multilateralism. With luck, these institutions might restrain Australia's more unpredictable and unfriendly neighbours, while giving Australia a voice – or at least a platform from which to speak – in world affairs.

Today, however, Australia's position is quite different. It is a wealthy, relatively powerful natural resource superpower that has just not yet woken up to the creative role it can play in a rapidly changing region. Rather than designing more architecture, it needs to deal with the problems it can help solve, like aiding the development of the South Pacific and building mutually beneficial partnerships with like-minded states like India and Indonesia that need Australian know-how, investment and raw materials.

Photo by Flickr user Spinning Things.

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