Prompted by Hugh White's latest Fairfax op-ed, I read DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese's recent AsiaLink speech today.

There's a lot to think about in the speech, not least the fact that Varghese continues the recent trend among senior figures in Canberra to embrace the term 'Indo-Pacific' (take a bow, Rory). And Varghese's reference to the need for continuing economic reform in Asia brought to mind Michael Wesley's observation that all the Asian giants (China, Vietnam, India and Indonesia) have been cautious reformers. Their success, he argued, had 'nothing to do with the quality or singlemindedness of their reforms. It has everything to do with size.'

I was also struck by Varghese's comments about foreign policy realism, giving it a Hedley Bull-like twist:

The point here is not to draw a dichotomy between realism, on the one hand, and rules and institutions, on the other. Quite the contrary. We need to reaffirm the importance of the role that rules and institutions can play: in helping to find common ground; in preventing escalation and in managing disputes; and in building a sense of common interests. These remain some of our best defences in trying to protect the prosperity and security we enjoy today.

This point — rules and institutions don't conflict with a realist foreign policy centered on national interests, but can in fact be a tool for pursuing those interests — tends to be overlooked on the right of politics, where multilateralism is sometimes seen to be synonymous with radical left-wing visions of a post-sovereign world government. For some on the right, joining such bodies implies a surrender of Australian sovereignty to unelected international authorities. For an example of such thinking, see then Shadow Foreign Minister Andrew Robb's contribution to The Interpreter from 2008, in which he draws a stark distinction between realism (which he associates with a preference for bilateralism) and idealism (which focuses on multilateralism).

Yet self-identified conservatives such as John Howard and his foreign minister Alexander Downer took some important steps to strengthen Australia's embrace of Asian regionalism. They recognised that participating in such bodies is completely consistent with a concern for preserving national sovereignty. In fact, for middle powers in particular, taking part in multilateral diplomacy is one of the foremost ways in which they get to exercise their sovereignty, since they do not have the luxury of doing it with military force, as great powers can.