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Australia's multilateralism fetish

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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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18 May 2011 14:47


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

In my book, There Goes the Neighbourhood, I describe multilateralism as 'the band aid of Australian diplomacy'.

It's a habit Australian policy-makers have fallen into, a universal solution to any problem that arises. Once an institutional solution is proposed, it cauterizes the need to think about the problem any more. By focusing on the familiar, comfortable mechanisms of multilateralism, policy-makers can avoid the need to think really hard about the problem itself. Australia has so fetishized multilateralism that the other options in its diplomatic toolkit have been starved of resources and serious intellectual engagement.

This is really dangerous, because multilateralism has become the copper wire phone network of twenty-first century international relations: it's good that it's there and still performs useful functions, but it's useless for dealing with the really important and pressing tasks. There's little prospect that the big challenges we face – global warming, financial imbalances and instability, food, water and energy competition, a changing and unpredictable global power balance, rising migration pressures, nuclear weapons proliferation – will be addressed multilaterally.

Multilateralism's malaise has five causes:

  1. Inflexibility in both membership and mandate: international organisations tend to preserve their memberships, power hierarchies, agendas and decision procedures in aspic. They are very hard to change. They can admit new members as required but find it impossible to exclude members that are no longer relevant. Those countries that used to be powerful but are no longer stubbornly refuse to countenance a demotion. The result is that regional and global institutions become obsolete as the world around them changes.
  2. Institutions have become more conducive to conflict than co-operation: any major issue that requires international collaboration will be referred to a multilateral body, and it is here that opponents of the proposed solution can kill it. Multilateralism has been around long enough that all countries know the many ways it can be gamed. The veto points are numerous and familiar, from loading down agendas to weak chairs to filibustering to leaders who agree to save face but instruct officials not to act on the agreement.
  3. The contradiction between size and capacity: the bigger the organisation, the harder it is to get agreement, and the less binding and decisive its decisions become. A great example is the Doha Round. So tortuous have been its deliberations that the deal on the table – estimated by the Petersen Institute to promise the equivalent of just one day's global trade in trade gains – is regarded as not worth the pain of fighting an agreement through the US Congress.
  4. The rise of competitive co-operation: the unwieldiness of universal membership organisations has spawned smaller organisations – 'the herd of Gs' – from the G77 to the G7 to our latest fetish, the G20. But smaller organisations inevitably breed internal and external opposition: internal from countries that prefer a different configuration (what about a G10; the old G7 minus Canada and Italy plus the BRICs? [all said in a French accent]); external from the countries left out (reference Singapore's campaign to start a 3G – the Global Governance Group).
  5. Old institutions never die, they just clog the landscape. It's very rare for institutions that have outlived their usefulness to be killed off. It's much easier to just propose a new body for each new problem that arises, or constellation of countries that become important. Meanwhile, the space junk of past multilateralism chews up diplomatic capacity, leaving fewer and fewer resources to work on pressing problems.

This isn't a call to scrap multilateral institutions; they perform a wealth of useful functions. But let's get real about the prospects for multilateralism in dealing with the really pressing issues the world and this country are facing. It's time to start thinking of new techniques and mechanisms for dealing with the new international relations of the 21st century.

Photo by Flickr user nathangibbs.

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