The Liberal Party’s rocky relationship with multilateralism
22 Jun 2020|

‘Covid-19 is a shared crisis—a reminder that many problems are best solved or, indeed, can only be solved through cooperation. At the heart of successful international cooperation is the concept that each country shares, rather than yields, a portion of its sovereign decision-making. And in return, each gets something from it that is greater than their contribution.’

— Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, National Security College, 16 June 2020

Australia’s foreign minister has made a wonderful argument for multilateralism.

Stress ‘argument’. Marise Payne does battle for the heart and mind of her party. Payne’s ‘Australia and the world in the time of Covid-19’ confronts the multilateral rejectionism in the Liberal Party over the past 25 years.

The speech is one of Payne’s strongest because it draws on the personality and philosophy that have marked her career. Reflecting her life inside the party, the speech builds a bridge between conservative instincts and liberal principles.

Some might see it as offering mere truisms on multilateralism. Not so in the Liberal Party context. For the Libs, this is a fight about what’s true and the true faith.

Payne does gentle pushback joined to persuasion in support of principle—the way she usually navigates rough party terrain.

The bridge Payne offers the Libs is that national interests can be well served by multilateralism. She is mounting a sophisticated case to counter the rejectionism that John Howard directed at the United Nations and multilateral institutions.

The rejectionist view is that the UN is a distraction from, even an impediment to, Australia’s core foreign policy interest; Australia should engage multilaterally only when the system is doing practical stuff that clearly serves our national interests. A decade ago, I noted that Howard’s phobia about the UN was on full display in his memoir:

There have been two strands of Australian political opinion on the United Nations: Evatt Enthusiasm and Menzies Scepticism. [Robert] Menzies preferred the reassurance of great and powerful friends to the ambition of the world body. John Howard shares that sentiment and has pushed the Menzies position so far that he’s almost created a new category. Howard has gone from scepticism and sniping about the UN to give the Menzies strand a grudging, even rejectionist tinge.

Australia’s second-longest-serving prime minister had a mental tic about the UN that became a rejectionist party mindset. The Lib chant of ‘bilateral good, multilateral bad’ is a strange mix of Oz pragmatism and US neocon rants.

Rejectionism can be risible: during the foreign policy debate for the 2010 election, Julie Bishop made the exasperated point that the Libs weren’t actually arguing that Australia should withdraw from the UN.

The chant oversimplifies Howard. His rejectionism in retirement isn’t an accurate guide to what he did in power. In office, he often embraced multilateral institutions and instruments. His national interest language fed a quiet commitment to internationalist solutions—the same bridge Payne offers the party.

Rejectionism coloured Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ‘negative globalism’ moment in October in his Lowy Institute foreign policy lecture: ‘We should avoid any reflex towards a negative globalism that coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community. And worse still, an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy. Globalism must facilitate, align and engage, rather than direct and centralise.’

Morrison ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to do a ‘comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes where we have the greatest stake’.

As Canberra’s truest multilateralism believer, DFAT looked beyond Morrison’s coercion language to embrace his thought that Australia hasn’t been involved as it should be in setting global standards.

The audit is done and—surprise—the PM’s diagnosis is absolutely correct. And the answer is that Australia needs to do much more on the multilateral stage (there’s a reason DFAT’s art is called diplomacy). Greg Earl offers a characteristic Earlism (astute and dry): the Libs have discovered the joys of positive globalism.

Presenting the audit findings, Payne demonstrates anew that a foreign minister’s most important diplomatic relationship is with her prime minister. She reorients ScoMo’s ‘negative globalism’ to the positive.

The audit, she says, ‘affirmed that multilateral organisations, especially international standard-setting bodies, create rules that are vital to Australia’s security, interests, values and prosperity’.

Most politicians learn by doing. And the pandemic has given the Morrison government deep lessons, in the Payne telling:

Covid-19 has shown that our international order is as important as ever. There is need for reform in several areas, but the pandemic has brought into stark relief the major role of international institutions in addressing and coordinating a global response to a global problem across multiple lines of effort. What has been exposed is the magnitude of the consequences if we fail to ensure these institutions are fit for purpose, accountable to member states, and free from undue influence.

Australia wants global institutions fit for purpose, ‘free from undue influence’, with a strong Indo-Pacific focus. The UN and its agencies must be reformed to ‘improve transparency, accountability and effectiveness’. Oz foreign policy will seek to preserve system fundamentals:

– rules that protect sovereignty, preserve peace, and curb excessive use of power, and enable international trade and investment

– international standards related to health and pandemics, plus areas such as transport and telecommunications that underpin the global economy, which will be vital to a post-Covid-19 economic recovery

– … norms that underpin universal human rights, gender equality and the rule of law.

New rules are needed, Payne said, for ‘critical technologies, including cyber and artificial intelligence, critical minerals and outer space’.

Multilateral rules and norms enlist nations to deal with nasty stuff. The news headlines from the speech focused on the kick at Russia and China for pushing disinformation about the pandemic: ‘[I]t is troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy to promote their own more authoritarian models.

Fighting words unite the party, as Payne points the Libs to the golden goals of globalism and the valuable norms of multilateralism.

The Libs know they want rules: the 2016 defence white paper referred to ‘rules’ 60 times—45 of them in the formulation ‘rules-based global order’. The answer to the rejectionists lies in the ambitious complexities of that simple phrase: a rules-based global order.