Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 13:54 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 13:54 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Conservative internationalism

27 June 2012 17:25

Harry Gelber responds to Sam Roggeveen's 'More on conservative internationalism':

I would not want to disagree with most of your comments. It would, for example, be very difficult to argue against your penultimate paragraph. But I wonder whether the general trend of your argument may not lean too far in the direction of a structural internationalism which has been hugely popular in recent decades but seems to me increasingly at variance with what real states and real electorates are, increasingly, doing.

For example, there is no longer (if ever there was) such a thing as 'our region' on which Australian diplomacy, trade, defence etc should concentrate. Our relations with the USA, parts of the Middle East, not to mention parts of Europe, are simply more important in many ways than our relations with, say, Thailand or the Philippines or Burma, let alone PNG.

As for the 'contest for power' which you mention, (a) international relations – as you would surely agree – are not always about 'power'. International aid programmes, for example, are largely about establishing networks of influence that an unkind observer might regard as bordering on neo-colonialism; (b) neither Australia nor any other of our interlocutors, allies etc, is confined to any one institutional framework. On the contrary, the last couple of decades have produced a multiplicity of international fora among which we, and others, can 'forum shop' in order to further particular ends with particular persons or groups or states (a point I have made at greater length in this month's  'Quadrant'.)

Moreover, ever since the Treaty of Westphalia, which you very properly cite, power and influence have never been static but have constantly shifted and continue to do so. That is only one among several reasons for distrusting the utility, even relevance, of any one managerial organisation among states. If only because any single international organisation is all too likely to produce a relatively static constitutional and managerial structure over time. Such things – as is visibly the case in the EU and elsewhere — usually become increasingly removed from the popular views, interests and voters which they were originally created to represent.

Any idea that Mr Barroso, for instance, could override, or even deeply influence, the views of Mrs Merkel or M Hollande, is patently absurd. They represent the voters of effective states. He does not. Ms Gillard may, from time to time, choose to genuflect to the G20, but it would be fanciful to imagine that the group will influence her views about how to run Australia's foreign policy or economy, though an individual president (eg. of the US or of China) might well do so. 

One need hardly add that all this is quite apart from the vast influences increasingly exercised by states in matters like nano-, communications, surveillance and other technologies. It is an increasingly serious question whether the study of what we have all become used to calling 'international relations' is any longer even possible without taking account of these technical dimensions. What roles, if any, entities like the EU, ASEAN, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization etc might play in this new world is far from clear.