On the side of the angels?

| October 9, 2018

Australia keeps getting listed among the nations that should form an angel coalition to the save the world as we know it. Or, perhaps, the world as we used to know it.

Flummoxed, fazed and fearful: Trump!! Putin! Xi? Democracy struggles and power surges. The call goes up for a goodwill coalition to do the vital work of global diplomacy.

Nations are never angelic. But dismayed at disruptive times, the smart national interest should be to stand on the side of the angels.

My ‘angel coalition’ usage is deeply ironic when applied to the multilateral machinations of nations. Yet policy with a pizzazz label gets attention and can shift the conversation. Even achieve action. And we could do with some optimistic angel-like effort. Thus, the idea of lining up with the angels grows.

France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, says Europe should align with ‘powerful democracies’ to protect ‘the fundamentals of multilateralism’. Le Drian’s angel list beyond Europe: India, Australia, Japan, Canada and Mexico.

Le Drian pushes against the US and Russia, putting more detail into the thoughts President Emmanuel Macron offered at the UN (‘new model’ versus ‘survival of the fittest’). The French foreign minister is appalled by Donald Trump, and wants ‘goodwill powers’ to lean against a US that ‘methodically and regularly jeopardizes the fundamentals of multilateralism’.

An angel coalition concept was the centerpiece of a Gideon Rachman column in May, fretting about the need to hose down the international ‘bonfire of agreements, norms and rules’.

Rachman wants an informal alliance of middle-sized powers to support the global rules-based order. He starts small, with a six-nation grouping, in descending order of population: Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Australia. Rachman writes that the six should get to work on trade, climate change, arms control and peace efforts in the Middle East and Asia:

They are all rich democracies, which means they are likely to have similar interests and values. They are all big trading nations. They all have real military capacity and (with the exception of Japan) a willingness to deploy forces overseas. And they share an interest in international rules that go beyond trade and investment, but also encompass the defence of international human rights standards.

The version offered in Foreign Affairs is a ‘committee to save the world order’ from revisionist and rejectionist powers, plus the new surprise culprit, the US.

To save the liberal order, Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay argue, the major allies of the US should leverage their economic and military might to form a G9.

Their G9 lineup is five from Europe: France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the EU; three from Asia: Australia, Japan and South Korea; and one from North America: Canada.

Together, they represent the largest economic power in the world, and their collective military capabilities are surpassed only by those of the United States. This ‘G-9’ should have two imperatives: maintain the rules-based order in the hope that Trump’s successor will reclaim Washington’s global leadership role and lay the groundwork to make it politically possible for that to happen. This holding action will require every member of the G-9 to take on greater global responsibilities. They all are capable of doing so; they need only summon the will.

Finding the will—and some measure of united purpose—should be easier and quicker than usual in international diplomacy, because of the glaring need.

A protectionist and isolationist US is lighting bonfires. Time to act to save the multilateral house, or as much furniture as possible, to defend global rules in an age of national challenges to international order.

The immediate task facing the coalition of the appalled and anguished is to protect the international trading system and the World Trade Organization; the two are not synonymous but they’re related.

Donald Trump wages trade war and seeks to crash the machinery of the WTO by refusing to appoint new judges for dispute resolution. The coalition of the willing needs to turn the other cheek on trade war (angelic behaviour required) and isolate the US at the WTO.

Australia has the standing and the resources to be an energetic angel: the good international citizen from Oz, happy to help, working for the rules-based system. This is diplomatic business as usual—seeking partners to do deals and building coalitions for larger purposes.

To do angel duty, though, Australia is going to have to break with its Washington-centric instincts. Diplomatic activism will mean jumping out from the well-worn grooves of the alliance. It’ll be a test of Canberra’s sophistication, to pursue diplomatic interests that don’t align with alliance habits.

Australia puts the US at the centre of our vision of the Indo-Pacific future, in the 2016 defence and 2017 foreign policy white papers. But the Indo-Pacific future we want doesn’t match the US we have today. Ditto China.

The angels must find ways around a feckless US, a reckless China and a Russia that rides rough and rogue.

The beauty of a coalition of the willing is that anyone who’s willing can come to the table. Australia needs an assembly of angels that isn’t another version of old European/North Atlantic understandings. The rules matter to everybody; a disparate, shifting assembly is needed for diverse purposes.

In the constant round of consultations and caucusing, Canberra is going to want to talk to Indonesia and India as much as to Canada or France.

The medieval debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin has a modern version. How many nations will stand on the side of the angels? How many angels does it take to salvage the multilateral system?

This article was published by The Strategist.

SHARE WITH:

Graeme Dobell has been reporting on Australian and international politics, foreign affairs and defence, and the Asia Pacific since 1975. From 2008 to 2012, he was Journalist Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.