Ian Hall is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Griffith University.
Michael Wesley has argued that the theory and practice of multilateralism needs to be subjected to rigorous analysis. As others — mostly recently Robert Ayson and Daniel Woker — have covered the theory, let me turn to the practice.
Since 2007, multilateralism has not served Australia's government well. Indeed, it is fair to say the three biggest failures of the Rudd-Gillard administrations are bound up with an unreasonable faith in multilateral processes.
In three cases — climate change, illegal boat arrivals and dealing with China — a dogmatic insistence that multilateralism is the best way to conduct foreign policy has helped to damage the government and, more importantly, undermined its capacity to advance the national interest.
First, climate change. As Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd worked hard to make the Copenhagen summit work and make a binding global deal on carbon emissions happen. To a degree, he staked his reputation as a 'master diplomat' on their success. But in doing so, he left himself and his Government high and dry when the negotiations broke down.
The rest, of course, is history: the polls turned against Rudd's Emissions Trading Scheme, the PM lost his job, and his successor forced to resurrect a watered-down (but equally unpopular) policy by the Greens.
Then there is the Government's handling of illegal boat arrivals. As the clamour over asylum seekers grew during 2010 and early 2011, and the numbers of people in detention on Christmas Island grew, the Government reached instinctively for a multilateral deal. What was needed, argued Chris Bowen, was a 'regional framework' and that meant getting the region's endorsement for a processing centre in Timor Leste through the Bali Process. Again, the negotiations went nowhere, leaving the Government to conduct a frantic search for a bilateral deal on terms less favourable to Australia, and arguably to the migrants themselves.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is Australia's China policy. From the outset, back in 2007, this was designed around three pillars: diplomatic bonhomie, led by the Mandarin-speaking 'Lu Kewen'; greater investment in defence, just in case things go wrong; and the creation of a new multilateral institution, an 'Asia Pacific Community' (APC).
In theory, the APC made a great deal of sense — such an organisation might bind the People's Republic into institutional structures and processes that would limit its capacity for unpleasant behaviour. In practice, it failed because Asian states were convinced it wouldn't work.
It is tempting to dismiss this regional rejection of the APC as naive or short-sighted. But actually, it made sense and was born of bitter experience. The APC was not debated in a vacuum. It was proposed at perhaps the worst possible moment, at the end of a decade-long ASEAN-driven attempt at 'socialising' China in a less formal and more flexible way than the APC plan conceived. This failure conditioned regional appraisals of Rudd's scheme: if ASEAN couldn't tie China down, the region reasoned, what hope for Australia?
The collapse of the APC idea ought to have led to a recalibration of Australia's China policy. Instead, it led to inconsistent signaling of Australian intentions to the Chinese, as the Government turned on the charm one day, then warned of the 'China threat' the next, as well as panicked calls by analysts for a renegotiation of the American alliance. Consistency and coherence — two diplomatic essentials — were lost.
On climate change, asylum seekers and China, the instinct to seek an ideal multilateral deal rather than better-fitting alternatives have harmed the Rudd-Gillard governments. On all three, the best became the enemy of the good. 'Multilateralism-as-ideology', as Michael Wesley calls it, is not just a matter of theoretical debate: it is undermining Australia's regional diplomacy and leading its politicians astray.
Photo by Flickr user Auntie P.