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The rules-based system

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COMMENTS

12 August 2008 14:25

My criticism of Shadow Foreign Minister Andrew Robb's recent speech was that it is difficult to see a clear link between an individualist, free market approach in domestic politics to one focused on bilateralism in foreign policy. Mr Robb did much to clarify that link in his blog response

...we don’t see there being a one-size fits all, 'State knows best', collective, centralised, international rules-based system as being the priority direction in a policy sense. It may evolve but it is not the starting point for foreign affairs.

We do see that individual situations often require unique responses and not a heavy set of rules that must apply regardless of circumstance in international affairs. As I said yesterday, surely it was better to have China and India working in the much smaller AP6 group to reduce greenhouse emissions than waiting until we (possibly) get everyone signing up to a 192-nation, post-Kyoto deal, that may or may not have some obligations for China and India.

There's much to be said for keeping specific circumstances in the forefront of policy formulation. Conservatives have always been wary of political grand designs, preferring to muddle through, and some of that sentiment is apparent in Andrew Robb's post. Mr Robb's scepticism about international rules also reveals a conservative temperament, in that the right tends to guard national sovereignty very jealously. Just as conservatives are suspicious of  big government at home, so are they wary of what an international government might do to national sovereignty.

Yet I think Mr Robb's piece is too suspicious about a rules-based system. Mr Robb seems to argue that those who favour a rules-based system do so because they believe 'the all-powerful state knows best'. But of course he knows that, in the international as well as domestic realms, clear rules are critical for the private sector to flourish. Nor do rules need to be 'heavy' or heedless of circumstance, as Mr Robb describes them. Certainly they can be, but well drafted, enforced and adjudicated rules are surely better than no rules at all.

Of course impartial enforcement and adjudication of rules are often hard to deliver in the anarchical international sphere, but that is no reason not to try. I suspect that what Mr Robb is guarding against is the overweening regulatory instinct of the EU, which leads to absurdities like the rule governing how bendy a banana can be. But remember that for all its excesses, the EU is still a club that nations are fighting to get into. And the EU has done a great deal to liberalise markets among its members, something I'm sure Mr Robb applauds.

It is not beyond the wit of bright politicians to design international rules-based systems that actually improve our liberties and make us more affluent. But its hard to be part of that process if you're suspicious of rules themselves.

Photo by Flickr user Mark Jefferson, showing a detail of 'Banquet in celebration of the treaty of Munster' by Bartholemeus van de Helst. Photo used under a Creative Commons license.

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