During Scott Morrison’s recent trip to the US, did the PM absorb some of Donald Trump’s intellectual genius by a mysterious process of osmosis? How else are we to explain his incoherent, befuddled speech at the Lowy Institute on Thursday evening where he puffed up his own importance by running down the United Nations?
Like Trump’s tweetonic diarrhoea, Morrison’s words will rally the base among the writers and readers of The Australian. But they are unlikely to generate much angst in the UN community, in part because it’s a confused ramble and in part because Australia is not a big name there.
‘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’.
What on earth is he on about?
Still, I’m glad the PM has tasked DFAT with a comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes. The UN system works in myriad ways to shape our daily lives, mainly but not always for the good. The world is interdependent in such diverse areas as financial markets, infectious diseases, climate change, terrorism, nuclear peace, food supply, fish stocks, water tables and ecosystem resources. All of these require joint action for optimum outcomes. The United Nations lies at the centre of this interdependent and networked multilateral global order.
‘The key to progress’ Morrison tells us, is ‘individual, like-minded sovereign nations acting together with enlightened self-interest’. Like the illegal 2003 Iraq war? Listening to the more circumspect UN would have brought a lot less grief to Iraqis, avoided destabilising the entire region, not empowered Iran, and prevented a loss of US reputation and resolve, to Australia’s detriment.
Morrison declared that ‘under my leadership Australia’s international engagement will be squarely driven by Australia’s national interests’. PM, every country’s international engagement is driven by national interests. The UN is the forum for collaborating on common interests-driven national interests and muting clashing interests-driven conflict.
Is he saying Australia will reject a Security Council resolution adopted under chapter 7 of the UN Charter ordering us to do, or not to do, something? If so, that would be a violation of international law: it is not a voluntary but a mandatory directive that binds even a Security Council member that voted against the resolution.
Or, is he saying that Australia will not implement resolutions adopted under permissive clauses outside chapter 7, or resolutions of the General Assembly, or international agreements and declarations to which we have not signed up? If so, he should schedule a session with DFAT where he can be assured that Australia can indeed accept or reject them. Of course, we may have to pay reputational (as with our torture-like treatment of boat people), self-harm (as with our environmental policies) and material costs (for example if we were to spurn health norms issued by the World Health Organisation).
Morrison’s framing of binary choices is fallacious. He rejected the binary choice between China and the US. He should have shown similar sagacity on bilateralism and multilateralism, national interests and globalism. The East Timor crisis would have been more challenging for us in 1999 without the bilateral-multilateral synergy of the Australian-led, UN-mandated peacekeeping force and political mission. The UN is fundamentally an inter-governmental organisation where policy is set by member states.
Part of the accoutrements of national sovereignty is the freedom to be as stupid as we want. But in passing let’s note that in 1996, it was the Howard government that took the lead in getting the General Assembly to adopt the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in an effort to coerce India into giving up the nuclear option. Now that others have adopted exactly the same tactical manoeuvre to adopt the nuclear Ban Treaty, we cry foul over UN over-reach.
Or is he saying that Australia has the will and wherewithal to adopt an a la carte approach to UN-centred multilateralism? We know he subscribes to miracles. But it may be a miracle too far to believe that Australia can construct a world in which all others have to obey universal norms and rules, but we can opt out whenever, as often, and for as long as we like on global norms with respect to refugee treatment, indigenous policies, nuclear weapons and climate change.
Conversely, a world in which every country retreated into unilateralism would not be a better guarantee of Australia’s national security and economic wellbeing than rules-based multilateral regimes. To Morrison, ‘rules based global order’ might be just a marketing slogan. Yet the principle is vital for Australia’s national interests that encompass far-flung commercial, strategic and environmental interests and links. The UN system is the biggest incubator of rules to govern the world, from trade, refugees and the law of the sea, to the use of force and the regulation of armaments. This means that even while rejecting any individual UN norm because of divergent national interests, we must still work hard to protect the principle of UN-centric multilateralism: destroying that will cause fatal damage to our core national interests.
Speaking in the presence of John Howard, Morrison declared: ‘we will decide our interests and the circumstances in which we seek to pursue them’. If only we had a PM who has the sagacity and fortitude to say: ‘we will decide who our enemies are and the circumstances in which we go to war’.
‘Pragmatic’ international engagement based on the cooperation of sovereign nation states, according to the PM, is ‘being challenged by a new variant of globalism that seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies’. Really? A quick refresher in post-1945 international history: for six decades the US-led West, with Australia a raucous cheerleader, elevated global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies on human rights, women’s rights and, more recently, gender equality. If Morrison wishes to reverse these advances, let him say so. Conversely, to facilitate an intelligent conversation, perhaps he could provide concrete examples of just what in hell he is talking about.
International organisations including the UN are the agents, and nation states are their principals. Policies are decided by member states, never UN officials. The single most influential member is the US. This doesn’t mean the US gets all it wants all the time. But before right-wing nutters get into a frenzy about my claim, let them posit their candidate for the most influential UN member state.
The west continues to exercise influence totally disproportionate to the 13% share of world population. Three of the five permanent members of the Security Council – 60% – are Western. By 2021 when Antonio Guterres completes his first term, a West European will have been Secretary General for 29 of the UN’s 76 years, compared to 20 years for Asians who make up 59% of the world’s population. Most of the heavyweight senior ranks are held by Westerners, including heads of political, peacekeeping, humanitarian and disarmament affairs. Ditto most of the important UN agencies.
The real problem is that with the US in decline and China rising, the West faces becoming norm takers and doesn’t like the prospect. How exactly does Morrison think he can reposition Australia to become a standard setter? Especially when he is threatening to disengage Australia from some of the main currents of multilateralism so that others will turn around and ask: ‘Australia, where the bloody hell are you’?
The United Nations remains our best and only hope for unity-in-diversity in a world in which global problems require multilateral answers: solutions without passports for problems without passports. Peter Dutton’s solution of enlarging the pool of passport-less Australian citizens is not the answer.
Ramesh Thakur, emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, is a former United Nations Assistant Secretary-General.