Monday 23 May 2022 | 19:41 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 May 2022 | 19:41 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Conservatives and the UN

28 November 2011 10:40

Paul Davies, formerly with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, writes:

There is a great Gareth Evans-James Baker story that sounds too good to be true but I've been assured is real. Sometime in the early '90s Gareth was ear-bashing the Secretary of State over some international initiative of ours, and his frustration with Baker's reluctance to agree with the wisdom of Gareth's approach was getting the best of him. He apparently told Baker, 'The problem with you Americans, Jim, is that you have a reflexive prejudice against the UN'. Baker paused, smiled and replied, 'No, Gareth, it's not a reflexive prejudice. It's a considered prejudice'.

The problem with blogging is you never get to complete the analysis. I think in respect of American conservatism and international institutions, Sam, you're going to have to complete the analysis. From the several posts you've written for several sites for several sites on the topic I've yet to see you reckon fully with the reasons why American conservatism disdains multilateralism. To do so, I think, you need to examine what Baker meant by a considered prejudice and why it remains an accurate summary of conservative thinking on the subject.

I think you're on to something with the contention that changing power relativities magnify the importance of institutions for America's future security and economic interests. However, if you think through the factors that may have produced the current attitude of conservatives to the UN and multilateralism generally, you'll be able to make a more powerful point, in my view. Which is that those institutions have done little of value and need conservative American voices pushing for drastic reform if they're to contribute to addressing the multitude of challenges a vastly more interconnected world faces. If they resist, in my view, the US is right to seek to supplant them with institutions that will.

Baker's point is that, for a start, Republicans' supposed anti-multilateralism isn't inchoate – it's the outcome of historical analysis and philosophical examination. It's considered. And, as the age of my anecdote will attest, the anti-multilateral bent of conservatives in America is not associated with post 9/11 nativism, the rise of the neocons or any recent intellectual putsch from the Heritage Foundation. It's got a pedigree in the core of realist political thinking and is validated, in their eyes, by a clear-eyed assessment of history.

Any realist would have applied a two-part test – one philosophical, one instrumental — to assessing the value of an multilateral institution:

  • Is this place somewhere we can meaningfully advance our interests?
  • Given the US role in establishing these institutions in the aftermath of World War II and setting up their goals to bring about a more liberal world order, are they succeeding on their own terms, even if they aren't necessarily the best mechanism for advancing US interests?

I think a good part of the explanation for Baker's 'considered prejudice' is in the fact that the answer to both of those questions, at the time, was 'no'. Events since have done little to change conservatives' minds. 

Looking back from Baker's time, you'd have seen a UN system that had been arguably counterproductive in the epoch-defining struggle to defeat Soviet communism and enlarge the liberty of developing countries. You'd have seen a system that had, by positing an equivalence between socialist and capitalist economics, acted as an enabler of Soviet efforts to lead countries down the historical blind alley of socialism. You'd have seen a system whose achievements in disarmament had arguably strengthened the Soviet Union's hand by handing it strategic parity (and sometimes superiority) that was only broken in the 1980s by America's serial defections from disarmament orthodoxy. You'd have seen a system that hadn't (yet) meaningfully advanced political liberty or human rights – most of the recent growth in political liberty was still ahead of us in 1991. It hadn't rid the world of a disease since the 1960s (and still hasn't). It had failed on all these fronts in spite of dedicated and genuine American engagement, resources and leadership. Using the rough two-part test of realist analysis, there were good reasons to disdain the UN in 1991.

Events since (Rwanda, Bosnia to name two) show that international will to tackle major challenges doesn't summon itself through institutions as they are currently formed. It takes leadership. And the UN has, institutionally, resisted American leadership but not enabled Chinese, European or Brazilian leadership to promote any new global consensus. 

The institutions aren't up to the job anymore, and that is not a reflection of American disengagement – it's an outgrowth of the ossification of the institutions themselves. Spend half an hour in the public gallery of the General Assembly even today and you are magically transported to a place where it is always 1977, poverty is the inescapable condition of the globe, developing nations have no political or economic agency in world affairs and the only solution is the massive transfer of resources from the United States. 

Walk down the street from Turtle Bay and you can see a photo on the front page of the New York Post with President Obama greeting the President of Argentina (spiritual home of the thesis of underdevelopment) in France at the G20.

(As an aside, I would also not underestimate the extent to which the determined efforts of many Arab countries to use the comprehensive suite of UN institutions to denormalise Israel plays a role in conservative rejection of multilateralism as embodied in the UN. You only have to spend a day – as I have – watching the World Health Assembly, under the cover of discussing 'health in the occupied territories', relitigate 1948 and reheat the most naked anti-semitism to cure you of any sense that WHO does much of value anymore. I also note that anti-Israel shenanigans provoke a heated bipartisan response in America, as the Administration's promise to withdraw from UNESCO if it gives Palestine full membership attests. But my point is that conservatives really hold a grudge against the UN for stunts like that.)

Conservatives in America actually have proven quite adept at midwifing into existence institutions that stand a better chance of meeting their two part test – the WTO (negotiated largely under Reagan-Bush), the G20 (initially a Clinton-era Finance Ministers process but which morphed into a successful Bush II legacy as the world's major global summit), and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, a Bush initiative that drew in private and foreign government support to execute global disease treatment programs that were evidently beyond UNAIDS or WHO. And there have been some casualties along the way – the G7, arguably, being the biggest among them.

I wouldn't characterise conservatism as disdainful of institutional solutions to global problems. They're disdainful of the historical failure and perceived philosophical bankruptcy of the old order of multilateralism that failed to succeed either to advance American interests or succeed on its own terms.

Here's where the opportunity emerges which I mentioned earlier. Changing power relativities require a more plastic approach. The argument oughtn't be that conservatives are wrong for disdaining multilateralism. It's that they aren't yet capitalising on the opportunity to make the case for institutions that stand a better chance of avoiding the failure they are justified in attributing to the UN. I'm more optimistic, given the record of successive US administrations, that a future Republican government will take up that challenge, as the Obama, Bush and Clinton Administrations did.

In terms of American domestic politics right now, I can assure you this is a long way down the list of priorities for any contender, and with good reason. The Republican candidacy is going to be decided firmly on their perceived strength on the economy. I would not read much at all into the foreign policy statements of candidates at this point. Remember at this point in 2007 Barack Obama was telling union audiences he advocated renegotiating NAFTA. Early promises that stoke the base and which appear weapons-grade crazy are bipartisan and irrelevant. (I could do a longer analysis about the role of domestic constituency formation in how America ends up with the policies it does that would blow the minds of the Australian punditocracy, but I'll save that for another time.)

Now, of course, you've got to make your case in 300 words for a blog post and here I've rattled off over 1000 words. Which is a bit unfair. But I hope what I've written does invite you to try to write about why, on their own terms, conservatives may be, if not justified, then at least consistent with their philosophy and sense of history in being reluctant multilateralists.