Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:18 | SYDNEY
Thursday 02 Jul 2020 | 23:18 | SYDNEY

Why the Left should embrace power politics

24 December 2008 12:25

Ed Cohen is a research associate at the Lowy Institute.

Often in Australian international security discourse we hear that our interests are best served through the creation and maintenance of a ‘rules-based international order’. This is often juxtaposed with the Howard-era mantra of strong bilateral alliances, coalitions of the willing and selective engagement. Yet as with many foreign policy dichotomies, this is largely a false one.

The credibility of international ‘rules’ has always depended on the ability and willingness of certain states to enforce them, despite the normative power that rules may develop of their own accord. As for the much-maligned ‘coalitions of the willing’, they are surely not fundamentally different from how diplomacy has often worked: groups of like-minded states, in varying numbers, have often banded together in pursuit of their own interests and/or, as in the case of Iraq, in the name of certain international rules or norms.

What this debate has unfortunately become about is the legitimacy and efficacy of particular processes, not whether power should be used to pursue certain objectives. A case in point was the Labor Party’s position in the lead-up to the Iraq War that it would support military action against Iraq if the UN Security Council approved it. Yet that position failed to address the underlying issue, which was whether the Iraq venture would be a sound foreign policy decision. Even if that process was followed through, would it really have made the outcome any better?

Although fair, relevant and respected international rules are highly desirable, particularly for a country such as Australia with interests often far beyond its capacity to influence them, we should not lose sight of the fact that, in the final analysis, we will rely on overwhelming (and preferably American) power to sanction our moral position. This is not simply an apology for Howard-style alliance politics. It is a call to those on the left who profess liberal internationalism to place a bit less emphasis on institutional processes and the legalising or criminalising of foreign policy decisions, even though that may be very important in some instances, and a bit more on using national power and national decisions to ensure that it is contributing to the credibility of international processes. 

What the left should consider is what does ticking the boxes of process actually represent. Unless the process will lead to a decision that is credible and enforceable, it will amount to little more than an elaborate show — possibly legitimate but without much substance. Focusing on process questions risks avoiding taking positions on issues and ignores the overarching reality of political life, which is the exercise of power.   

While much ink is spilt debating the merits of creating new security and diplomatic ‘architecture’, it should not be forgotten that institutions (in the loose sense of anything from rules and norms to formal organisations) are only as good as the political relationships from which they originally emerged. If we find ourselves disappointed that diplomatic processes or institutions are not working as we would like, then we must try to reforge the political consensus behind them, rather than just argue over procedural elements as if it were possible to legislate problems away.

An example might be the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If we wish to continue to support both the substance and spirit of the NPT, then surely the question should be how do we make the strategic case for nuclear weapons to be reduced and what is the best way to do that, rather than relying on an a priori assumption that states should give them up because they’re bad and dangerous.

This is of course not a call to abandon the spirit of liberal internationalism or international laws, an ethos which largely serves nations’ interests well. Rather, it is a call to be more alert to fact that moral sentiments, as Marx observed, often arise out of material conditions and are not necessarily self-evident.

During a heated argument on Middle East policy, Toby Zeigler, the White House Communications Director on The West Wing, said to his ex-wife, a very liberal House Representative for Maryland, ‘they’ll like us when we win’. Even if that statement is too blunt, progressives could do worse than to look again at ways in which statecraft and power can also be used to achieve moral progress internationally, rather than assuming that power must always be tamed for morality to flourish.