View from The Hill

Multilateralism is under stress but still vital, argues DFAT secretary

Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Peter Varghese thinks there is still a important place for multilateralism. AAP/Lukas Coch

Those in the Abbott government are not great fans of the United Nations or of multilateralism in general.

Yet the government has inherited from Labor the two year temporary seat on the Security Council. And next year Tony Abbott will host the G20 meeting. Circumstances have built a strong strand of multilateralism into the Abbott government’s foreign policy.

Tomorrow the secretary of the Foreign Affairs department, Peter Varghese will deliver a forceful case for the continued significance of both the UN and multilateralism more widely, in an address that also recognises the stresses on the multilateral system and looks at paths for making it work despite its difficulties.

In his Sir James Plimsoll lecture, Varghese argues that multilateralism is vitally important for both Australia and the global community.

“In a broader sense, it is almost the only way we can deliberately make our world. That statement is particularly true for Australia, even more so than for many other states, because we belong to no natural geo-political or cultural grouping,” like the European Union or ASEAN, he says.

“Australia cannot bully or buy its way in the world. An international rules-based order is therefore in our best interests, and an effective multilateral system is the surest way to get there.”

Multilateralism and bilateralism “go hand in hand”, Varghese says. Bilateral relationships will remain the core of our diplomatic statecraft, but foreign policy is more than the sum of our bilateral relationships.

“Multilateralism is the practice by which we democratise the rules and norms of international behaviour; the process by which we weigh and value the interests and perspectives of all of our partners, even as we pursue our own national interests.”

The UN in particular holds a special place, Varghese says.

Its record is mixed, its political posturing can be frustrating, its inability to agree on decisive action can be annoying. But “for all its flaws the UN does possess a unique legitimacy and it has played a pivotal role on issues such as decolonisation … If we did not today have the UN we would have to invent it – warts and all.”

Varghese says that despite the gains of multilateralism, such as in advancing economic reform, democracy and the rule of law, “in 2013 we have a sense that multilateralism is under intense pressure”.

There is the feeling that “we need the multilateral system more than ever, but it is not delivering on our expectations”, for example on trade (with the Doha round stalled) and security issues. Reform of the UN remains urgent, but as far away as ever.

“There is a scepticism, in the public mind, that the international structures we have established can achieve the ends we, as an international community, identify as critical to our progress. That scepticism extends deeply through the United Nations itself. Our international institutions are perhaps poorly understood, but they are judged even more poorly”.

The pressures facing the international system include the increased number of participants, the fact its structures date from earlier times, the unprecedented speed of technological change, and the complexity and workload of today’s world.

The present multilateral system is largely the invention of the United States and Western European countries but now the dynamics are altered fundamentally, Varghese says. Emerging powers are no longer willing to accept outcomes they do not perceive take their interests into account, and some do not share the core values and interests of Australia and other Western countries.

“The multilateral system’s ability to deliver co-ordinated results is in decline as effective action no longer rests in the hands of a few relatively like-minded states, but requires co-operation from an increasingly diverse and more competitive group of states.”

Varghese canvasses various ways of advancing reform in face of the stresses.

He points to the positive development of the “lightning-quick evolution of the G20 into a leaders meeting in the wake of the global financial crisis and its status now as the premier institution of global economic reform”.

“Reform of the UN is hard to envisage but other structures have and are emerging to help us deal with security and economic challenges – like the East Asia Summit, the critical institution in these areas for our region.”

Varghese argues it needs to be recognised that the “grand bargains” of the past – such as the Uruguay trade round, the Kyoto Protocol - may not be a model we can always emulate.

The way the World Trade Organisation stalemate has driven trade liberalisation into the territory of bilateral, regional and sector-specific reform may be a model for other contexts, he says.

Climate change is a global problem but its solution may not be a grand bargain including all countries. “We should also look at alternatives that have more scope to deliver actual emission reductions – for example, a greater focus on practical mitigation initiatives and the legislative and regulatory frameworks in the countries that are the greatest polluters.”

Varghese points to a paradox of multilateralism - unilateral steps can often have large multilateral consequences.

“We all, for example, want a global agreement on climate change and we all hope it can be agreed by 2015.

"But consider this: if the US and China were to take serious unilateral steps significantly to reduce carbon emissions it would cover something like 40% of global emissions – and exert a powerful gravitational pull on what the rest of the world may be willing to do.”

“My point is this: multilateralism is not dead. It is under immense strain and it is changing its shape and nature.

"But in trying to find solutions to our most pressing global problems, we have to keep an open mind, and be prepared to consider work-arounds. The global solutions we find may or may not be global multilateral ones.

"We have to balance our desire for universality and common agreement with our interest in progress in the company of those nations who share our views and are willing to act.

"And we have to have a clear view on what the UN system does well, and what it does less well.

"But the art of finding global solutions remains as important as it ever was.”

Listen to Senator Sam Dastyari on the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast, available below, by rss and on iTunes.