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Multilateralism works, within limits

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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 09:37


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

Senator Russell Trood is a Liberal Senator for Queensland and a former professor of international relations at Griffith University.

As usual, Michael Wesley writes with flair and considerable insight on the failings of multilateralism. As I wrote in my 2008 Lowy paper on The Emerging Global Order: Australian Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, international organisation, and by extension multilateralism, is indeed in trouble and suffering globally from a deficit of legitimacy. This  is causing governments to look increasingly sceptically on its utility as a tool of 21st century diplomacy.

Liberal politicians (and realists) such as myself have always believed that the really big and important issues in international affairs will not be resolved through institutionalism/multilateralism. Solutions to serious problems almost always demand bilateralism or extended bilateralism built around some form of great power coalition.

In this we stand in marked contrast to the Labor tradition of foreign policy, though not perhaps some its more recent variants. The Howard Government's repositioning of Australian foreign policy on the bilateral/multilateral spectrum after the Hawke/Keating era is eloquent testimony of the differences. But while Michael's critique of institutionalism reflects much of my own, it is, perhaps for the sake of emphasis, somewhat overdrawn. 

First, much that makes the global order work, to the extent it does, relies on institutionalism. International air travel, delivering the mail, managing international banking, facilitating global trade, maintaining something like a law of the sea and a great deal more would hardly be possible without functioning international institutions. And arguably there are some things that might be preferably left to institutions if we could find an effective way to do so — global health, nuclear non-proliferation and the management of refugees could be among them.

Second, institutionalism is arguably a critically important element of a liberal international order, serving as a kind of buffer against the colliding aspirations of ambitious states, and not necessarily just those of great powers.

Third, while some of Australia's governments have been on occasions rather delusional about the extent of our international influence, we arguably have something of a talent for multilateralism. We are better international engineers than international architects and to that extent, can often find a way to make institutionalism work in our favour. 

One of the challenges of 21st century international relations is not so much to appreciate that institutionalism is failing us, but to find a way to halt its alarming decline. As Michael intimates, we should start with modesty of purpose and expectations, acknowledge that there is no quick fix for 'multilateralism' but that all institutions require different solutions, and recognise that whatever 'middle powers' might be able to do, not much is going to happen without great power leadership and that much of our hope here rests with Washington.

Photo by Flickr user Katey Nicosia.

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