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More on conservative internationalism

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20 June 2012 16:21

As flattered as I was to see the effect my argument made on Michael Wesley, I cannot let his characterisation of it stand in its entirety.

In the course of his post, Michael allies my 'conservative internationalism' with Harry Gelber's observation that states don't always enter into multilateral structures for idealistic reasons but often for defensive ones. While that is perfectly true, it is not the whole truth I am trying to capture with the phrase 'conservative internationalism'.

Louis Susman travels to Buckingham Palace to present his credentials as US Ambassador to the UK, 2009. (By Flickr user usembassylondon.)

In fact, the realism implied in Harry's argument (weak states engage in multilateralism to increase their influence over the strong) is one of my targets. Realism is too flat and colourless to fully explain the richness and complexity of international society, and I have argued in various places that conservatism offers insights into aspects of international relations and diplomacy that realism overlooks.

The reason I describe realism as flat and colourless is that realists see the international realm as being purely a contest for power. I'm caricaturing slightly, but Harry Gelber's 'defensive internationalism' actually illustrates this point. According to this worldview, the multilateral institutions themselves have no independent significance; they are merely the stage on which the perpetual contest for power between states is played out.

At best, realists are willing to allow that international institutions are useful for managing the struggle for power in the international system. And while this is also true, the term 'management' tends to reduce the practice of diplomacy to an almost technical task that simply needs a forum (flags, a round table, some translators) to allow leaders and their representatives to manoeuvre. The multilateral forum, by this telling, is a kind of chessboard across which the players move.

But the practice of diplomacy, hundreds of years old and with its own institutions, language, lore and rituals, does more than just facilitate the management of relations between states. By embedding inter-state relations in a web of tradition, diplomacy takes some of the edge off the Hobbesian contest for power, clothing it in an admittedly thin and sometimes threadbare constitution.

Among many other Australian observers, Michael has from time to time shown frustration with ASEAN, which does indeed have very few concrete achievements to its name. But that's not the only way to measure the success of such institutions. As I said in an earlier debate, one way to reduce the chances of conflict as the balance of power shifts in our region is to not just manage the contest for power but to tame or sublimate it. That's a role which the traditions and institutions of diplomacy play.

These institutions are not mere mechanical devices designed to achieve a settled purpose; they are the product of traditions of behaviour, the modern manifestations of a body of traditional practice that stretches back to the Treaty of Westphalia and before. The practice of diplomacy, operating within a settled body of traditions, rules and rituals, itself has the effect of moderating and pacifying the inevitable struggle for power that goes on between the major players in a political system.

Realism, which is pre-occupied with the question of power, doesn't have much to offer when it comes to exploring how we might negotiate the regional power shift. For the question of power is really only the beginning of managing a new Asia Pacific and global order. This is where conservatism can be valuable, since it argues that power and coercion are insufficient to make social relations sustainable. What's needed is the gradual organic growth of common traditions and institutions of the kind that, in our own societies, prevent us from having to endure a Hobbesian existence where power and strength determines every question. That's a form of internationalism for which Asia Pacific states ought to have an appetite.

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