With Friends in High Places: Australia’s G-20 Membership

March 13, 2010

Australia is a wealthy nation with a small population occupying a large continent located a great distance from historical sources of security and prosperity.

Because of this, the one foreign policy theme that has united our otherwise diverse post-war prime ministers has been the desire to join (and, if necessary, erect and strengthen) institutions through which Australia can influence international decisions and touch the international flows of power.

Prime ministers have favoured different kinds of institutions and busied themselves with different types of issues. Often these differences have been the subject of bitter political conflict. Yet the impulse behind their efforts has been consistent.

Robert Menzies and John Howard, for example, focused their energies on alliance institutions: the formal apparatus of the ANZUS treaty and the informal but nevertheless deep-rooted practices of the alliance. On several occasions they took Australia to war primarily for alliance management purposes.

As a lawyer and liberal internationalist, Gough Whitlam took the UN extremely seriously. (He later served as ambassador to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.)

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were in office just as the wealth and influence of Asia spiked. To secure Australia a spot at the Asian table, they decided they first needed to build the table, hence Hawke’s efforts to establish the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and Keating’s initiative for APEC leaders’ meetings.

Kevin Rudd has been an activist in his first term, engaging in all three of these types of institutional endeavours.

He has worked assiduously on the alliance with the United States and his relationship with President Barack Obama, launched a bid for the UN Security Council and proposed a new, overarching, Asia-Pacific community.

But it is in a fourth area, that of global economic co-operation, that Rudd has gone furthest towards squeezing Australia into the world’s inner councils.

The prime minister was one of the most influential voices in Obama’s earbefore his decision in Pittsburgh last September to designate the Group of 20 as the premier forum for international economic co-operation.

There were many sound reasons for this battlefield promotion but from Canberra’s perspective Australia’s membership of the G20 was first among them. The G20 derives significant authority from its economic weight: together, its member countries represent nearly 90 per cent of global gross national product, 80 per cent of world trade and two-thirds of the world’s population.

It also has enormous geopolitical heft. Its members include the global hegemon and its chief rivals; all five permanent members of the Security Council; six nuclear weapons states; several regional metropolises; and the most important countries in the Muslim world.

Purists hope the G20 will resist mission creep and focus on the co-ordination of international economic policy.

Yet history is against them. The G20’s predecessor as the steering committee of the international economy, the Group of Eight, gradually built up significant political muscle.

Summits of the G8 involved discussion of issues well beyond its formal remit, including foreign aid, climate change, nuclear weapons and terrorism.

The extension of summit invitations to the leaders of emerging powers represented the ultimate laying on of hands by the international community. National leaders conducted important bilateral meetings on the sidelines of G8 meetings. Those meetings are now taking place on the margins of G20 summits.

For the foreseeable future, in any case, it is one of the most important clubs in the world, and Australia is a member. Former prime ministers of both political colours will understand the significance of this.

Australia’s membership of the G20 enables us to further our national interests and contribute to the global good. It is already a source of national prestige, signifying our success as a country, an economy and a political player. It brings our Prime Minister into regular contact with the world’s most powerful leaders.

Through time, the G20 will affect the way Australian leaders think about the world. Just as our U.S .alliance has led us often to see things from the U.S. perspective and our APEC membership has sensitised us to Asian concerns, so will our G20 membership bend our thinking towards the greatest global issues of the day.

Naturally, Australia’s capacity to influence global outcomes will remain limited by the resources we can bring to bear. But there is no reason Australia cannot help to determine the path the G20 takes after the global financial crisis. The G20’s influence on Australian foreign policy has been seriously underestimated. Australia is going global.