home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

Prospects for International Community

Presentation by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC to DFAT Graduate Training Program on International Relations, Canberra, 7 September 2012

‘International community’ terminology

  • This is an inherently imprecise expression subject to endless criticism by those who say it implies a unity/homogeneity/solidarity/collectivity/consistency of behavior which is simply not there in the real world among the large cast of actors that make it up (usually governments and intergovernmental organizations, but in some contexts extending to major civil society  organizations as well).  

- Of course it is correct that there is no such homogeneity: but nor is there among the personalities and interests in play in even a small village – and we have no hesitation in using the expression in that context.

  • ‘International community’ is simply a convenient and flexible shorthand way of describing the broad cast of players that  – in a particular context involving a global problem or challenge of some kind – either have done something (‘the i/c acted decisively on Libya’), have not done something (‘the i/c  has been paralysed over Syria’) , or you want to do something (‘the i/c should more strongly support nuclear disarmament’), even though you know  there has not been, and is never likely to be, absolute unanimity.
  • The substantial issue for discussion is not terminology, but the desirability, and achievability, of cooperative multilateral behavior and cooperative multilateral institutions to achieve common global objectives  ­- or putting it more shortly, how to improve global governance. 
  • Subsidiary themes I’ll also open up for discussion:

- how should national policymakers weigh and prioritize pursuing these global objectives as distinct from national interest objectives more narrowly and traditionally conceived

- what are the skills needed for effective multilateral diplomacy

Defining common global objectives

  • This is the easy part , because there is broad international agreement on objectives worth pursuing, and common challenges to be met:

- These are sometimes described as ‘global public goods’  (2006 Zedillo Task Force on GPG focused as examples on international peace and security, international financial stability, international trade, protection of the global commons, prevention of infectious disease, and knowledge  transfer)

- By their nature these goods are often beyond the capacity of even great powers to resolve unilaterally or bilaterally and require cooperative international policymaking and delivery  –  as with a clean and safe global environment; a world on its way to abolishing all weapons of mass destruction; a world without mass atrocity crimes; and a world free of extreme poverty.

- Common global challenges were described usefully by Kofi Annan as ‘problems without passports’ – these include in addition achieving such goods as a world free of out of control cross-border population flows, of health pandemics, of international trafficking of drugs and people, of organized international crime, of piracy and cross-border terrorism.

Meeting the challenges of global governance

How can we improve the overall system of global governance, to increase our chances of success in addressing these issues?

As interconnected as we are in the contemporary world, we are also profoundly disconnected. Cooperative international governance of the kind we need to effectively address so many of these problems is not totally lacking, but it is very far from being an instinctive habit of mind among the world’s policymakers and decision-makers. And it is enormously far away from being institutionally entrenched to the extent it has to be: dysfunctionality is endemic in the international system at multiple levels.

The perennial problems of collective action are alive and well when it comes to global public goods of the kind we are talking about. Whether it’s reducing carbon emissions, nuclear disarmament, effective action to address cross-border health risks or just about anything else, all the familiar barriers to take-up such goods that economists describe are on display here:

-preservation of sovereignty (countries’ reluctance to accept international binding rules and monitoring of their own compliance with agreements);

-differing preferences (the fact that countries have different strategic, economic and political stakes in specific solutions to global problems);

- the “free rider” problem (the incentive to wait until others provide the solution and then enjoy it);

-  the “weakest link” problem (meaning that an effective solution can only be applied when every country fully complies with a common approach); and

- the “summation” constraint (whereby the successful solution of a global problem is literally the sum of the individual efforts of all the separate participants, which can mean a very long wait before enough is done to make a difference).

Meeting the challenge of improving global governance is about as impossibly big a problem as there is. But it becomes a lot more manageable conceptually – and I think ultimately practically – if one breaks it down into the five distinct sub-problems which Thomas Weiss and Ramesh Thakur have identified in their recently published book, Global Governance and the UN. To find effective solutions to most current global problems there are five big gaps that need to be closed which we have done so far only very erratically and incompletely: the knowledge gap, normative gap, policy gap, institutional gap and compliance gap.

- The first is the knowledge gap: getting something done about an international problem means, for a start, ensuring that all the relevant players know that it exists. In the case of conflict prevention, for example, it is critical that there be knowledge both of the risk of impending violence, and the factors at work — political, economic, cultural, personal — in creating that situation, and appropriate mechanisms to communicate that knowledge to the appropriate decision makers;

- The second gap is normative: one of the most crucial factors in determining whether there will be an appropriate response is the existence or absence of relevant international norms, i.e. generally accepted standards of proper behaviour for the kind of situation in question, especially as recognised and embodied in UN resolutions and declarations (at the soft end of the normative spectrum) and conventions and treaties (at the harder end). There are some important and recent examples of normative gaps being significantly filled in the peace and security area: including the emergence of strong international sentiment against landmines and cluster bombs through the Ottawa and Oslo treaty processes are two of them, and the embrace in 2005 of the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle in response to mass atrocity crimes.

- The third gap that needs to be filled is policymaking: generating understanding and agreement about the right levers to pull in response to a particular problem. The international system cries out for a workable global policy formulation mechanism that recognises the reality that in the contemporary world security, economic and other major policy problems like saving the global environment overlap, and that will consolidate ideas, debate options, and generate policy conclusions that have an inherent credibility and momentum, and universal take-up potential.

The G8 (United States, Canada; France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom; Japan; Russia) has long had aspirations to play that global policymaking role, and is tenaciously trying to hang on to it, but its composition prevents it from being seen as a legitimate policy leader, certainly in this part of the world. The best available practical solution lies in the further evolution of the G20, from a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in 1999 to an all-purpose global policy formulation and advocacy body, meeting regularly at the head-of-government level, as it has now done since the onset of the global financial crisis.

The present G20 structure (United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico; France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, the United Kingdom; Russia; China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia; Saudi Arabia; South Africa), does incorporate all major regions, some 80 percent of world trade, 85 percent of global GNP and roughly two thirds of the world’s population. It is just small enough to make decisions, but large enough to be genuinely representative – encompassing all, or nearly all, of the world’s major and emergent strategic and economic powers.

The G20’s present policy remit extends to financial stability and macro-economic rebalancing, with additional toes dipped into economic development, food security, anti-corruption and, most recently, nuclear energy safety. Two further non-economic areas that have been canvassed for possible inclusion on its agenda, and which would be important new stages in its development as a general policy-setting body, are climate change and clean energy, and (building on the work of the G8 in this respect) nuclear security and counter-terrorism.

- This raises the fourth gap, that of institutional capacity to deliver effective results. Many of the institutions in which we have invested responsibility for today’s most pressing global questions have representation and legitimacy problems (being slowly overcome in the case of the international financial institutions but still acute in the UN Security Council), or seem simply no longer fit-for-purpose, e.g. the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, which despite quite a proud history has had no discernible negotiating achievement to its name for the last fourteen years. If the urge to cooperate is to translate into effective international cooperation in practice, then some significant institutional renovation is going to be necessary.

Ultimately the most crucial institution for the maintenance of global peace and security is the UN Security Council, the only international body with full, universally accepted executive decision-making authority. But its composition, together with the veto powers vested in its five permanent members, of course reflects far more the power realities of 1945 than those of the 21st century. If it remains unreconstructed and unreformed, without countries like India, Brazil and South Africa being always at the table, it is only a matter of time – maybe another fifteen years at best – before its credibility and authority will diminish to dangerous levels in the eyes of most of the world.

The only solution for which any kind of consensus seems possible in the short term would be to lift the limit on non-permanent members being immediately re-elected after serving a two-year term, so as to enable continuous engagement – if not formal permanent membership – by the new major powers. Last year’s Security Council included Brazil, Germany, India, Nigeria and South Africa (with Japan and Turkey both having recently completed two-year terms) so it does seem that there is an emerging consensus in the General Assembly as to who needs to be at the table.

What has been intriguing about the current Council is that even with so many strong voices, consensus was achieved in March on the extraordinarily sensitive issue of the use of coercive military force for internal civilian protection purposes in Libya. It’s true that this has been followed by complete paralysis in the Council over Syria – but there were other dynamics at work here other than the concentration of these voices. 

The other crucial institutional gap to fill is strengthening the regional organizations which both the UN Charter and practical experience tell us are crucial in the maintenance of international peace and security. That applies to the notionally most advanced and sophisticated such organizations like the European Union (still anything but an effective union in terms of its foreign policy clout; to the important but still very incompletely developed, such as the African Union (AU) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); to what I would have to describe as the barely functioning, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). Despite their origins in economic cooperation, all these organisations have actually or potentially important roles to play in peace and security issues, including under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, and will need to take up more of the burden in this respect in the future.

In the wider Asia Pacific – or Indo Pacific – region, the biggest institutional gap, and it’s a policy gap as well, has been the absence of any dialogue and cooperation forum bringing together at leadership level all the key players to discuss economic, security and other key issues and the interconnections between them. APEC focuses only on economic issues and does not include India, the ASEAN Regional Forum focuses only on security issues and at ministerial rather than head of government level, and until recently the East Asian Summit (EAS) has not does not included key players, the US and Russia. But with the EAS now responding to that omission, and now meeting at head of government level, with a full complement of all the major players, and a broad-ranging political agenda, that gap seems at last to be effectively filled.

Of course what we need with this new architecture, if it is really going to enhance stability, prosperity, state security and human security, is real dialogue and policy cooperation that will not only defuse potential conflicts and maintain overall stability but produce, among other things, real incentives for open investment and strong economic growth. We do not need just another expensive series of photo-opportunities of leaders making set-piece speeches endorsing pre-cooked lowest-common denominator communiqués.

- The fifth gap that needs to be mentioned is the compliance gap – which shows up particularly in comparing international and national governance. Even the Security Council itself, whose decisions are supposed to have, at the formal level, the force of law, has to rely on individual member states to apply the diplomatic isolation, or economic sanctions or in extreme cases forceful military action on which it might agree. The decisions of the International Court of Justice are not self–executing, and in any event apply only to those states who accept its jurisdiction. Equally the establishment of the new International Criminal Court has not been accompanied by the creation of any international marshall’s service, fully supported by the whole international community, which would enable its indictees to be apprehended, brought before the court, and effectively punished, and give the Court really substantive rather than mostly symbolic teeth.

Here as with most of the other gaps I have been identifying, there are no quick and easy fixes: just a long, grinding process of identifying areas where greater cooperation is required, and encouraging governments to provide it.

National government decisionmaking: good international citizenship

I have been referring in all of this to international governance or decision-making as if this were something separate and distinct from national governance. But of course it isn’t. Most international organisations don’t have much of a life of their own away from the governments that created them, fund them, critically watch their every move and often directly constrain them – and this brings us back to our topic of the particular responsibility of national policymakers in responding to global issues.

What is crucial at the national governance level is that there be real buy-in to the improvement of global governance in all the ways I have been describing: a real willingness to pursue an external policy that takes seriously the big challenges of peace and security, development, and human rights and dignity that remain, and puts the necessary human resources and financial resources into meeting them. But that kind of commitment is much rarer than it should be.

External policy is of course like any other aspect of government policy in that at its heart must be the protection and advancement of one’s own country’s national interests. And most leaders are very comfortable with defining those interests in quite narrow security and economic terms – what’s necessary or desirable to protect the country from threat or attack, and to increase the income and quality of life of its people.

But that’s a position that has become much more difficult to sustain, intellectually and practically, in recent decades, as the world has become ever more globalised and interdependent. For those governments and leaders who remain resolutely tradition-minded, and reluctant to see these concerns as anything more than discretionary and entirely dispensable add-ons when it comes to external policy, I have argued for a long time that they should look at the issue in different way, and see the pursuit of all these global challenges as being actually a third category of national interest: in addition to security and economic interests narrowly defined, there is every country’s interest in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen.

The idea, in a nutshell, is that to seek to make a cooperative contribution to meeting a whole range of the global challenges I have referred to is not just the foreign policy equivalent of boy-scout good deeds, but works to a country’s advantage in two main ways.

First, because much of good international citizenship is not really selfless at all: in a globalised, interdependent, fast-travelling, fast-communicating world, a lot of what at first sight seem to be just remote and abstract values issues really do have the capacity to impact quite strongly on each of our own traditional security and economic interests.

Secondly, to the extent that selflessness is involved, to the extent that we support, and spend time and energy and political and financial capital on, things that are much more important to others than to us and from which we don’t stand to derive, directly or indirectly, any obvious economic or security benefit – like a particular aid project in a country with no oil or mineral resources, or trying to mediate a far-away conflict, or contributing to international peacekeeping efforts in Central or East Africa – nonetheless a reputational advantage accrues which can be very useful indeed when an issue comes along that is more important to us than to others, and on which we want others’ support.

Of course there is also a straightforwardly moral dimension to all this as well: governments should act on catastrophic human rights violations, or on contributing a significant share of our GDP to development assistance, or work to stop drug trafficking and human trafficking, or for that matter on responding to climate change, not just because our own narrow economic or security interests might be directly or indirectly advanced now or in the future, but simply because it’s the right thing to do, and we diminish our common humanity if we don’t.

The skills needed for multilateral diplomacy

Let me conclude, since you are all fledgling diplomats, by spelling out what from my observation and engagement (not as a diplomat, but as a foreign minister, international NGO head and member of multiple international commissions and panels) are the skill sets that make for successful multilateral practitioners, working the ‘international community’. They are in fact not very different from what makes for successful bilateral diplomacy – or what common sense would suggest:

  • Empathy – the ability to understand (not approve> that’s sympathy) where the other person is coming from, and to communicate that understanding in a way that builds at least a partly personal relationship.
  • Mastery of the issues and arguments – in enough detail to be confident and persuasive. That can be difficult when one is not totally personally comfortable with the argument being put – but that comes with the territory.
  • Writing, and especially drafting, skills – an extraordinary number of problems can be solved with creative language: not just a matter of finding lowest common denominators, but sometimes new denominators that can get opponents out of their trenches (e.g. R2P, cf. Brundtland’s ‘sustainable development’)
  • An appetite for risk ­ – a willingness to be creative, to push the envelope and explore new ways of solving problems. You may not have much scope for this as a junior diplomat, but you should always be prepared to question briefs that seem to be inadequate or wrongheaded
  • Stamina – the capacity to stay at an issue for as long as it takes: and multilateral diplomacy can sometimes take a very long time indeed.
  • Patience – an almost infinite tolerance for rubbish: not in the sense of accepting it, but being able to absorb it, then bounce back.

I can’t claim to be the best example myself of all those skills – especially the last – but my message in this respect, like so many others you will hear from your elders over the course of your career, is of course ‘Do as I say, not as I do’!