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Sir James Plimsoll Lecture

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It's a privilege to deliver the Sir James Plimsoll Lecture, in memory of one of Australia's most eminent diplomats, and a highly-respected Governor of Tasmania.

Sir James was a predecessor of mine as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and I am honoured to be the first among his successors to deliver this lecture.

I never met James Plimsoll. But every Australian diplomat of my generation knows of him. His was not just a fine policy mind but he also possessed in large abundance that most important attribute for a diplomat in the field: the capacity quickly to win the trust of others. People confided in "Plim". He had that effect on those he met.

Plimsoll was not only a predecessor of mine in Canberra but also in New Delhi. Both of us in fact were appointed Secretary from the position of High Commissioner to India. Each morning as I walked up the stairs of the Australian High Commission to my office, I would pass his black and white photograph: a face which conveyed quiet confidence, a touch of mischief and a wide openness.

The topic of my speech tonight - "The Challenges of Multilateralism" – may sound obtuse to a wider audience. The idea of "multilateralism" is not after all something commonly discussed in the broader community. It's a word that daily echoes the quiet spaces of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and of course is commonly used in broader foreign policy circles. But it's a slippery, uncommon word on the outside.

And yet it is vitally important for both Australia and the global community. It is, in many ways, the way we make our world.

Indeed, 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 the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

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 is not an end in itself. Nor is it an alternative to bilateral relationships. Indeed the two go hand in hand. The stronger our bilateral relationships the better our chances of securing multilateral outcomes. Both are anchored in our national interests.

Bilateral relationships are and will remain the core of our diplomatic statecraft. They are where our efforts to protect and advance Australia's national interest start and often finish.

But foreign policy is more than the sum of our bilateral relationships. We do not live in a world of only two players. Our external environment is shaped and driven by the actions, needs and interests of nearly 200 nation-states, and indeed non-government and major corporate institutions, that make up our world.

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. True its record after 70 years 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 which reshaped the geo-political map of the second half of the twentieth century. The truth is if we did not today have the UN we would have to invent it – warts and all.

Before globalisation, multilateralism probably didn't matter too much. In the age of empires, the fate of the empire was the central concern. One might ally with another, particularly in joint defence against a third, but there was little sense of the global common good – of national interests that were also international interests.

Sir James Plimsoll

Operating effectively in multilateral institutions is an art, and James Plimsoll took to it quickly.

At the end of 1945, as Major Plimsoll of the Australian Army, with no previous diplomatic experience, he was thrown in the deep end as a delegate on the inaugural meeting of the Far Eastern Commission (FEC) in Washington, under the critical eye of the Australian foreign minister at the time, Dr H.V. Evatt. Evatt, impressed by Plimsoll, made him Australian representative on the FEC for two years, before he joined the Department, and went on to serve in the Australian mission in New York.

There, Plimsoll adapted quickly to what was the new multilateral system. He developed a deep understanding of how to advance Australia's interests in what was a newly emerging form of diplomacy: one in which outcomes could be achieved by working with a range of partners, taking account of different interests and perspectives. Looking around corners as much as looking straight into eyes.

Two anecdotes show his quality.

While he was working in New York in 1948-50, Korea became the first hot exchange of the Cold War. In the still brand new United Nations, then and now the institutional foundation stone of our multilateral system, Plimsoll worked closely alongside an American delegate some 30 years his senior, John Foster Dulles, co-drafting resolutions on Korea. Later in his career, when Dulles was US Secretary of State and Richard Casey was Australia's foreign minister, Casey was greatly impressed to hear Dulles address Plimsoll by his first name.

After the North attacked over the 38th Parallel in 1950, UN forces, led by the Americans, were deployed on the peninsula, with initial success. The international community established UNCURK – the UN Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea – anticipating an early end to the war. China's intervention ended that hope.

Then only 33, Plimsoll was chosen as Australia's representative on UNCURK, with the rank of Ambassador. Although the other delegates were all much older than Plimsoll, he had a critical background many of his colleagues didn't – years of UN experience in dealing with Korea.

The first meeting of the committee on Korean soil was not an auspicious one. In Seoul, it was held by candlelight. The fighting was so close critical power infrastructure had been knocked out, and the lights had failed. For most of the UNCURK delegates, the first, best thing to do was to immediately relocate the committee somewhere outside of Seoul – preferably across the Sea of Japan.

Courage is not always the most practised of the diplomatic arts.

But Plimsoll knew he had to hold the nerve of the delegates, to keep the committee seated in Korea. UNCURK might need to leave Seoul, but retreat from Korea would have looked bad. He argued to stay put. He didn't just talk to the other delegates in the room – he cabled Canberra and got a message to Washington. These two capitals persuaded the other member states on the committee to stay put. He won the argument, and the delegates stayed on in war-frayed Seoul to try to find a way forward.

After his time in the Korea, Plimsoll had six and a half years in Canberra, often acting as secretary when Arthur Tange was away. He worked closely with Casey, and got to know Menzies, who for a couple of years was foreign minister as well as prime minister, very well. Plimsoll felt he knew Menzies' mind – and Menzies had great respect for Plimsoll, who became Permanent Representative in New York at the age of 42.

On one occasion in 1962, when the issue of Rhodesia was coming up for the first time in the General Assembly, Plimsoll was trying to get a read from Canberra on how he should proceed. Canberra told him that Menzies was coming through New York, and he could consult the prime minister directly. But when Menzies arrived, Plimsoll found it very hard to draw him on Rhodesia. Several times, he tried to pin the prime minister down. Finally, at the end of the visit, when Plimsoll was seeing Menzies onto the plane, he asked him again for guidance on Rhodesia.

Menzies patted Plimsoll on the back and said: "My boy, I'm glad it's you, not me, making that speech."

The gains of multilateralism

The multilateral system that Plimsoll helped nurture has generally served the world well.

After all, since the Second World War, we have not had another global conflict. We sometimes came close, during the Cold War, but diplomacy and our international system has acted as a vital stabiliser along the way.

Our international economy has undergone significant reform. Trade has been liberalised, globalisation and more open markets have proceeded to deliver more prosperity and wealth around the world, particularly since the decolonisation period, than ever before. Democracy and the rule of law are much more widespread than they were in the ashes of 1945.

Slowly, we have learned how to work together on newly-identified problems, such as environmental issues, that were not on the radar in the Bretton Woods period. In the Montreal Protocol, the speed with which we were able to negotiate the phase-out of many of the highly-damaging chlorofluorocarbons – a human invention that had been damaging the ozone layer since at least the 1950s – showed a mature world, able to honestly grapple with novel issues.

Surprisingly, even during the Cold War, we were – as an international community – able to negotiate on a range of issues, even when you might have expected conflicts of interest to prevail. The Antarctic Treaty – an imaginative agreement that not only supports the demilitarisation of a unique and pristine environment, but puts aside competing territorial claims to focus on scientific research. It is a fine example of effective multilateralism and one that is rightly well known in Hobart.

Multilateral efforts have helped deliver other significant benefits. Human life expectancy has gone up. In the time since the Second World War, we have developed more effective mechanisms to help the world's poor –systems that have been able to provide some relief during the worst crises faced by the poorest people around the world. We have made significant progress on eradicating disease – wiping out or reducing to pockets the spread of diseases such as smallpox and polio. And, with a sustained push, we are close to doing so with others such as tuberculosis and even malaria.

Much of the credit for that, of course, lies with national policies that promote economic growth, as well as the advance in medicine and science over those years, particularly the invention of antibiotics and the spread of immunisation. But the part of the international system centred around the World Health Organization, and the aid programs that have been a feature of the post-war economic restructuring, have underpinned and supported scientific progress - and have helped get new medicines to the people who have needed them most.

The specialised agencies are the success stories of the UN system: practical multilateralism at its best – and in the problem solving spirit of one of the earliest examples of successful global multilateralism: the 1884 meeting which established the Meridian at Greenwich – a vital aid for navigation in the modern world.

The challenges of multilateralism

But today, in 2013, we have a sense that multilateralism is under intense pressure.

That the ability of the multilateral system to deliver coordinated results is in decline. That we need the multilateral system more than ever, but it is not delivering on our expectations.

Consider trade.

The Doha Round of trade negotiations is stalled.

But even though we cannot, at this time, see any real hope of a broad, general agreement, we need to take the long view. The WTO is far from a failure. Its dispute settlement mechanisms allow for countries to find a binding resolution to specific trade disagreements. And we are seeing new approaches to trade liberalisation negotiations even in the absence of a successful Doha Round, such as the Trade in Services Agreement currently under negotiation.

But the public struggles to hear those messages. The success of the earlier Uruguay Round helped create an expectation that the next grand bargain in trade – a vital boost to the global economy – could only be a few years away, when negotiations started in Doha in 2001.

Consider security.

Unsurprisingly, the pledge made by the international community after World War Two, through the Preamble to the UN Charter, was powerfully worded:

"We the peoples of the United Nations determined

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom."

We've made progress, certainly. And the UN system has played an important role. Banning the use of chemical weapons; holding us back from where we could have been in terms of the spread of nuclear weapons. Just this year, with Australia in the chair, we reached agreement on an Arms Trade Treaty, the first multilateral arms control treaty in many years.

But why do we still live in a world in which we see what we've seen during the Syrian conflict? The UN was established to defend and support global security. Yet still, nearly 70 years after its inception, war and conflict strike time and again around the world. Chemical weapons are still in use, even a century after the horrors of the First World War, and nuclear weapons continue to proliferate, albeit much slower than they would otherwise have done in the absence of a global non-proliferation regime.

Reform of the UN itself is as urgent as it ever was – and as far away as any of us can imagine.

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.

More players, novel issues and a changing world

What are the pressures facing the multilateral system?

To start with, of course, we have to admit that it was designed by human hands. But the cracks in our international order are more than just human error.

Part of it is a numbers game. The number of participants in the international system has grown dramatically – from 51 members of the UN in 1945 to 193 members today and from 23 members of the WTO's predecessor organisation (the GATT) in 1947 to 159 members of the WTO today.

To some degree, the international system is showing its age. Many of our structures were designed in the post-war world – and we just don't live in that world any more. There have been, and continue to be, major shifts in the distribution of economic weight, and resulting changes in the distribution of strategic power. Significantly, a major new power, China, has joined key global institutions like the WTO, reflecting its appreciation of the importance of trade liberalisation for its exports. But the increased weight of China, and other emerging economies in institutions like the WTO, IMF and the World Bank, has also brought changes to how these institutions work. The multilateral system is used to giving developing countries differentiated treatment in trade and other negotiations. But how much sense does that make today when we are dealing with developing economies that are in the top twenty?

Also, the unprecedented speed of technological progress in our time means we are constantly playing regulatory and legal catch-up – think about the extent to which the cyber world creates new regulatory challenges. On that front, Australia has recently led a successful effort to establish that international law applies to state behaviour in cyberspace, chairing a UN group of governmental experts on this subject. Or the legal framework around bio-ethical issues like genetic manipulation or selection. We're constantly struggling to keep up with a rapidly evolving social and technological environment. Why would we assume our international order be spared the same challenges?

Driven by our inter-dependence, the complexity and workload of multilateral institutions has changed dramatically, too. In 1909, there were 37 international organisations. By 2000, the number exceeded 7,000.

There are good multilateral institutions, and those that are not so effective. Some that are ineffective can be explained as having a mismatch between power and participation. In other words, you can have an institution with many active and engaged participants – but the actual power they have to effect change might be a very different calculus.

This goes to the heart of a basic tension in global multilateralism: the mismatch between national power and global democracy. Global multilateralism rests on the equality of states. But power resides with the handful of states with the strategic and economic reach to shape events. The story of multilateralism is the constant quest to expand the reach of the former and constrain the raw power of the latter. It works best when states with power accept that their broader interests are served by a system of international rules and norms which apply to all.

That is the perspective Australia has sought to bring to our current term on the UN Security Council: the only institution with the authority to authorise the use force in dealing with threats to international peace and security. The Security Council can be seen as an attempt to reconcile the tension between power and participation. Its core is the P5 which have the power of veto and the privilege of permanent membership. But it also includes ten non permanent members serving two year terms.

The current multilateral system is largely an invention of the United States and a clutch of Western European countries. But this is changing, and changing dramatically. The emergence of new powers in a multilateral world, the increasing pace of globalisation, the influence of non-state actors and the massive wealth transfer from the West to the East have altered the dynamics fundamentally.

Emerging powers are no longer willing to accept outcomes which they perceive do not take their interests into account. Some do not share the core values and interests of Australia and other Western countries. Some favour state sovereignty over individual rights, and so are wary of interventions in national affairs. Some favour a greater role for the state, and have shown little interest in taking a leadership role on the global stage.

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

The inter-dependence that has come about through globalisation has meant that expectations from the public of the multilateral system are high, but many of the tools that the West has traditionally relied on have dissipated.

The increasing influence and activity of China, India, Brazil, South Africa and a number of other players – like South Korea, Egypt, Turkey, Chile, Mexico and Indonesia – will continue to tilt this power balance.

The United States, too, is adapting its approach. Historically, the US saw broad-based multilateralism, and the edifice of global public goods, as squarely in its national interest. This was unusual to say the least. There is no historical precedent for a global hegemon to define its interests as best served by a system of multilateral rules underpinned by the ideal of global public goods. For a country like Australia the post war world would have looked very different – and much for the worse – if the US definition of its interests had been more narrowly framed.

But while the US is still deeply committed to the international order, it is also increasingly attracted to benefit of smaller arrangements that are not necessarily universal in nature, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The intellectual, legal and normative assumptions underpinning established practices and principles in the international system are under challenge.

It is not just the shifting power dynamics that are causing the multilateral system to struggle.

The complexity of the issues we face, and the sweep of the impacts of globalisation, are major factors.

Governments are expected to manage not only traditional security issues, but a whole range of economic and transnational issues: climate change, pandemics, natural disasters, migration and refugees, food and water constraints, global financial turbulence, currency manipulation and so on.

For many of these issues, anything other than a global approach will not be effective.

The future of multilateralism

What are we to do in the face of the stresses we can see on our international order and the institutions of multilateralism?

We might well ask what Sir James Plimsoll would do.

Reform is always difficult, particularly when the perspectives around the world on our multilateral institutions are so divergent. But we have seen progress in recent years. 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 – replacing the G8 – shows we are able to respond to the changes I've identified today. The growing economic weight of China is already being reflected in the international financial institutions – over the course of years and decades, reform is possible. 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.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to recognise that our system is imperfect – and thus always subject to change and evolution. The grand bargains of earlier decades – like the Uruguay Round of the WTO, like the Montreal Protocol and, with its limitations, the Kyoto Protocol – may not be a model that we can always emulate, even with our most pressing global issues.

The way in which the stalemate in the WTO has driven trade liberalisation significantly into the territory of bilateral, regional and sector-specific reform may well be a model we can apply to other contexts. The Trade in Services Agreement, with current membership, could cover more than 70 per cent of global services trade, worth US$3.3 trillion a year. Significantly, it is designed to not only deliver services liberalisation to existing members, but also – potentially – to set the standard for a future WTO negotiation.

The TPP offers another model. It is a regional, rather than a global negotiation, but still, a system that relies on countries which see the benefits of ambition banding together, and allows other entrants to come on board when they are willing. That final point is critical – we don't want to see the emergence of exclusive blocs. Rather, we want the benefits of progress to be available to all countries, such that even those not involved at the start of a negotiation can ultimately sign on.

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.

Here is another 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 per cent 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. That's what happens, under intense heat and pressure. Change in our international order is inevitable. 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 look at how we engage civil society in the multilateral system – because we are long past the point where the policy positions of governments were the only thing that mattered.

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 – a point James Plimsoll would no doubt endorse.

Last Updated: 7 November 2013
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