This article is part of the series—Raisina Edit 2022.
While there have been some attempts to co-opt new powers into the international order through reforming multilateralism to reflect their rise, the dominant narrative from Western countries is concern about the erosion of the rules-based international order.All countries use a mix of multilateral, regional, bilateral, and minilateral tools. Much as Morrison might be annoyed by the international hectoring of Australia’s record on climate and human rights, it will still engage with multilateral institutions and use them to progress its interests. What is interesting is when and why countries choose to use each of these tools.
Brookings expert Thomas Wright describes how, as populism and nationalism have become strong forces in many countries, it has become more difficult for leaders who favour multilateralism to mobilise support.Domestic forces have also had a significant impact on multilateralism. For example, under the Trump administration, the US largely disengaged from multilateral institutions and agreements, turning away from its commitment to the post-Second World War international liberal order. Brookings expert Thomas Wright describes how, as populism and nationalism have become strong forces in many countries, it has become more difficult for leaders who favour multilateralism to mobilise support. The positive case for inclusive multilateralism to tackle global challenges appears to have limited appeal politically. In the US, the Biden presidency may be the establishment’s last best chance to demonstrate that liberal internationalism is a superior strategy to populist nationalism. But then when Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, it looked like a different international system. There was a UN General Assembly Resolution that overwhelmingly demanded Russian withdrawal. There was coordinated action on sanctions with concerned countries reaching out to other like-minded countries to agree an approach, then convincing others to come on board. Along with cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international banking system and individual sanctions, the combined effect has been significant, being described by a Russian spokesperson as akin to “total war”. This suggests that fears of the end of multilateralism have been overstated. The good news is that multilateralism has weathered dramatic moments and challenges before. Even during difficult times like the Cold War, multilateralism still functioned to some extent because there were issues that required coordination through a universal body. Multilateralism is—and has always been—hard, but there is no alternative. There will always be a need for a space for countries that often do not agree to take limited collective action.
With their narrower membership, decision-making processes can move faster among like-minded networks without a need to defer to multilateral consensus building that has often resulted in lowest-common-denominator outcomes.These minilateral vehicles offer some advantages that bilateral, regional, or multilateral ones do not. Compared to multilateral groupings, minilateral platforms are smaller, more exclusive, flexible, and functional. With their narrower membership, decision-making processes can move faster among like-minded networks without a need to defer to multilateral consensus building that has often resulted in lowest-common-denominator outcomes. On the other hand, the exclusive nature of minilateralism means that an initiative centered on only one major power gives it relatively free rein to assert its influence over the smaller participating countries. Australia has been a noticeable proponent of minilateral approaches. First, through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, bringing together Australia, India, Japan, and the US; and most recently, with Australia entering into an enhanced trilateral security partnership with the US, and the UK (AUKUS). While the reactions to AUKUS in the region have been mixed, there was definite pushback from some countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia. The danger is that such groupings can be perceived as Australia stoking tensions and undermining stability as part of the US efforts to challenge China. Malaysian think tank expert Shahriman Lockman believes that this will always be a factor for Australia in the region: “Southeast Asians will never quite understand the depth of the relationship between Australia and the US and as a result they will make quick conclusions about Australia and America.” Australia’s links outside the region have created something of a problem for the country in creating a narrative of shared interests with the ASEAN countries. Indonesian academic Evi Fitriani explains that, in difficult times, countries are likely to take pragmatic moves and clutch to reliable partners; what countries like Australia and Indonesia have found out is that “that they do not belong to each other’s reliable clubs.”
When Morrison delivered his “negative globalism” speech, he announced a comprehensive audit of Australia’s involvement in global institutions and rule-making processes.One lesson that has been widely drawn is that such minilateral initiatives undermine ASEAN centrality. But Australia’s reaction to this has been bemusement. It seems obvious that it is possible to pursue such initiatives while genuinely believing in ASEAN centrality.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.
Melissa comes to Asialink after 13 years as National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA). Under her leadership the AIIA was ...Read More +