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Multilateralism: Pushing party barrows

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COMMENTS

9 December 2011 10:13

The utilitarian element in the Australian character injects a certain cynicism into approaches to multilateralism and international activism.

The US suffers the 'black_helicopter' demonisation of the UN. In Oz it is more often a matter of black humour and a species of bleak realism, which is the counterpoint to the more standard language about Australia's 'good international citizenship' and middle-power activism. Not to mention that characteristic Australian need to join any new club that is being formed.

It is a complicated mix. Australia is keen to play and wants to belong, yet is prey to moments of doubt and derision. Consider the multilateral dimension in two of the big 2012 plays of the Gillard Government: climate change and uranium sales to India.

The carbon tax puts Australia in the front ranks in Durban and ties Labor's fortunes closely to whatever levels of multilateral muddle-through or mayhem the climate change summit delivers. By contrast, the Labor conference decision on uranium is a significant whack at the nuclear non-proliferation process that has served Australia well, while delivering the Defence Minister the warmest of welcomes on his visit to India.

The mix of international activism leavened by acid experience is just as marked on the other side of Australian politics.

Step forward Alexander Downer, Australia's longest-serving Foreign Minister, who has toiled since 2008 on the problems of Cyprus as a special adviser to the UN Secretary-General. You can't get much deeper into the multilateral mechanism than that. But here is Downer's cry from the heart of the machine, describing his recent session with the UN Security Council in New York:

I make a ten-minute presentation and then each of the 15 members, represented by their Ambassadors, gives me their views. They are informed, but their varying narratives based on a single set of facts reminds me how hard diplomacy can be, particularly in a multilateral setting. No wonder they find it so challenging to agree on all the major issues facing the world; the Arab Spring, Iran, Burma, climate change, economics. These days there is no ideological difference between the members of the Security Council. Their differences are based entirely on national interest. Which tells multilateralists something about the reality of multilateral diplomacy; it’s just a bunch of countries pushing their own barrows, but in the one room.

The bleak realism position personified.

Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies too was inclined to a rueful sigh about 'that strange melange of disunited nations known as the United Nations.' And Downer may have been channeling one of his Liberal ministerial predecessors, Paul Hasluck. Reflecting on his days as a young diplomat during the formation of the UN, Hasluck judged that Labor External Affairs Minister Bert Evatt seemed 'to lose sight of the rocks of power politics under the full flood of internationalism.'

Evatt's passion for the UN has enabled Labor to mix a strong multilateral flavour into the depiction of its own history. Yet, for all the hopes that Evatt invested in the UN, he was also the key author of a successful amendment to the draft Charter which limited the right of the Security Council to interfere in domestic affairs of member states:

Article 2(7): Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.

Evatt fought for the 'domestic jurisdiction' article as insurance for the White Australia policy, to ensure Australia's migration policy could not be made subject to the orders of the Security Council. Labor's patron saint for all things multilateral wanted some limits.

Casting aside nuance (a useful rule for pundits and columnists), the Australian argument about the UN can be divided into two strands: Evatt Enthusiasm or Menzies Scepticism. One innovation of John Howard's leadership was to introduce a third strand, going beyond the scepticism and sniping characteristic of Menzies. This column dubbed it Howard Rejectionism and offered up evidence from Howard's autobiography. 

It is interesting that multilateralism is one of the few policy battlegrounds where Howard didn't seek to steal Labor's clothes, or at least refashion the garment. In many other areas, from the allegiance of working class 'battlers' to ownership of the word 'mate', Howard was deft and diligent in snatching Labor totems. On multilateral institutions, though, Howard deserted the ground claimed by Labor. That was not the usual positioning of a canny leader who always prided himself on understanding the sentiments flowing through the average backyard BBQ debate. 

Howard's rejectionist sentiment has captured modern Liberalism to the extent that the Coalition is opposing Labor's effort to be elected to a seat on the Security Council. And that rejectionism will be one element in the Liberal campaign against the carbon tax. The Howard shift means Kevin Rudd can mount the case that Howard 'systematically denigrated' (subscription) the UN. Labor could never make quite the same case about Menzies.

Beyond whacking at Howard's UN hostility, the real test for Rudd is winning that race for a Security Council seat in 2013-14. See here for Michael Fullilove's elegant explanation of why Australia is running against Luxembourg and Finland for one of the two spots on the Council reserved for the members of the Western European and Others Group.

Not the least in Australian problems with the UN may be grappling with the truth that in defining our place in the world, Oz belongs with the 'Others'. And in the race to beat Luxembourg into second place, things may not be going too well. Rudd is being 'coy' when questioned on Australia's chances of coming second. When was the last time you thought of The Kevin as being coy about anything?

Above, Herbert Evatt with Alger Hiss at the 1945 San Francisco Conference to agree upon the UN Charter. Photo by Flickr user UN Photo.

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