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Reader riposte: If not consensus, what?

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COMMENTS

20 January 2011 16:06

Linda Quayle writes:

Consensus is never an inspiring concept. It too readily finds itself in company with adjectives like dull, compromised, or suboptimal.

Understandably, then, Sam's piece, 'Hague on the Commonwealth', contrasts consensus with hopes for radical change or speedy progress. In similar vein, ASEAN is regularly pilloried for retaining the idea of consensus in its Charter (even though ASEAN demonstrates that consensus doesn't have to equal unanimity).

The question is: what is the alternative to consensus' This is not a rhetorical question to preface a piece of punditry. It's a real question that deserves more analysis.

Convergence – all wanting the same thing – is possibly the ideal answer, and in situations of greater homogeneity, this is a very powerful force. The EU, for example, with much to unite it historically and culturally, can realistically attempt to work on this basis. It's not easy, even for them, but at least they have a sporting chance of approaching problems in roughly the same way.

But in situations of much greater disparity – such as the Commonwealth, or ASEAN, or international society at large – it is far more difficult to achieve a convergent world view. In these situations, there are two frequently deployed alternatives to consensus. One is inaction. Most of us probably agree this is an unacceptable response to pressing problems, whether they are ethical, economic, or environmental.

The other alternative we routinely reach for is coercion – naming and shaming, overt bullying, and the employment of punishments (suspension from a regional organization, sanctions, or – in the most extreme case – armed intervention).

The coercive alternative begs two questions. The first is: do these approaches actually work' There's no short and easy answer here, but the evidence is at best mixed. The second is: what do these approaches do to international society' Arguably, they significantly reinforce its hierarchical characteristics. These are always present, given the disparities of state power. But Ian Clark has noted a marked tendency, since the end of the Cold War, for powerful states within global international society to de-emphasize principles of equality and universality of membership in favour of a more limited and hierarchically organized concept. This reordering puts them and their values at the core, and everyone else in a qualitatively different place.

If you're part of the solidarist, exclusive core, this might seem like a great idea. If you're not, you may have a different view. And if we continue to push international society along this path, then we may be disappointed when we need genuinely global traction on – say – climate change or economic recovery.

So do we need to revisit consensus'

Consensus doesn't mean giving up on any kind of normative progress. Consensual documents – such as the ASEAN Charter – may evoke wholly understandable condemnation from those who want something more progressive. But the Charter negotiations at least continued the task of opening up space for unpalatable subjects to be aired. And the result was a product that not only kept all ASEAN's members still under one roof (useful for all of us), but also included lots of small but significant openings that civil society and various other groupings in Southeast Asia have been busily and creatively working to exploit and enlarge. Consensus may mean slowness, and that is certainly frustrating – but it doesn't mean no progress at all.

It also doesn't necessarily mean one-size-fits-all. There are dangers in multi-speed provisions and 'ASEAN minus X'-type formulae, but these dangers may be offset by the unity that is preserved to fight another battle another day. There is room for more creative exploration here.

ASEAN is about to provide some instructive new data on this debate. Indonesia, amid much fanfare, has now become the ASEAN Chair for 2011. High on its agenda are human rights, the protection of migrant workers, and the advancement of a 'people-centred' ASEAN – issues that have proved decidedly sticky in the past.

Indonesia took a normatively assertive part in the Charter negotiations. These efforts produced, on the one hand, resentment among some regional members, and on the other, deep disappointment among many influential Indonesian players at the consensual result eventually obtained. These twin results gave the Charter a decidedly bitter flavour to many.

So how will Indonesia proceed this time'

This is a country that is very familiar with the idea of rowing between two reefs. This time the reefs are inaction and coercion. Given its vocal contingent of legislators and civil society, it is unlikely to end up on the first. But there will be many siren calls from the second. Will Indonesia follow the strategies of its democratic counterparts in the global arena, using its undoubted subregional weight for worthy goals, but risking exacerbating the core-periphery syndrome that is already a marked feature of ASEAN' Or will its diplomacy prove able to inspire the kind of productive consensus that will genuinely (if slowly) move ASEAN's agendas forward, while still preserving a vital unity'

It's hard to get excited about consensus-building. It may not always be the right diplomatic strategy. Yet it's the stuff of international relations in a diverse world. And it's a skill that those in the current core may increasingly find themselves needing to hone if global power continues to shift.

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