Australia's dying multilaterilism

Kevin Rudd

Anyone interested in comprehending the dimensions of the revolution in multilateralism, which occurred after the defeat of the Axis Powers, should read Foreign Minister Doc Evatt's statement to the Australian House of Representatives on 13 March 1946.

As Evatt surveys the international scene, following his return from a meeting of the Executive of the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations in London, you cannot but be awestruck by the scope of the project in which he was engaged.

Evatt is almost matter of fact, as he reminds the House that it had only just recently approved a Bill for an Act to approve the Charter of the United Nations; and that in a short few months since then, three of the six principal organs of the United Nations - the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council - had come into being, while the fourth, the International Court of Justice, was just about to.

Evatt was not blind to the deficiencies of the new order that he, in such large measure, had helped shape.

The tone of his parliamentary address is anything but Utopian. It has all the flavour of a gritty Australian realism. But it is a realism coloured by that other great Australian virtue, fairness: a view that, by virtue of common human endeavour, we might just be able to shape something better than the organised barbarism we had tasted not just once in the century, but twice.

"For small powers, the multilateral system offers the only chance. For middle powers, it offers the best chance."

Half a century later, it is worth reflecting on what the Doc had to say:

I do not wish to quarrel over words, but I think it is quite erroneous to describe the United Nations organisation merely as an 'experiment'. On the contrary, it is the best presently available instrument, both for avoiding the supreme and ultimate catastrophe of a third world war, waged with all-destroying weapons, and also for establishing an international order, which should and can ensure to mankind security against poverty, unemployment, ignorance, famine and disease. The United Nations ... exists to help realise the twin objectives of freedom from fear of aggression and freedom from want. Australia shall continue steadfastly and courageously to play our part in this organisation, on which must rest most of the hopes of men of goodwill throughout the world.

Those were heady days. Evatt casts a long shadow which few, if any, of his successors have eclipsed.

Australia chaired the first ever session of the United Nations Security Council. Australia, through Evatt himself, was the third President of the United Nations General Assembly. Australia, largely through Evatt, was the prime mover in the creation of the Economic and Social Council.

And the list goes on. Evatt grasped this single and central fact: for small powers, the multilateral system offered the only chance. For middle powers, it offered the best chance.

Evatt had experienced first hand Australia's marginalisation at the hands of Churchill, both in the conduct of the war and in the construction of the peace. Evatt's experience was little different from Hughes' a generation before.

Evatt crafted a tradition of Australian engagement - comprehensive engagement - in the construction and operation of the new multilateral order. It was not just a Labor tradition, although Evatt, beyond dispute, was its prime mover. It became, very soon, a bi-partisan tradition; an Australian tradition.

Where Evatt led, Spender and Casey soon followed. Whereas Evatt constructed the Economic and Social Council, his conservative successors constructed its regional embodiment, the pre-cursor of ESCAP, the Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the East (ECAFE).

With ebbs and flows along the way, an unapologetic and uncompromising commitment to multilateralism became part and parcel of the Australian foreign policy firmament. At least until recently.

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