The assumptions that have sustained and underpinned Australian security and economic policy for decades are in meltdown. The post-Second World War global order – an open, rules-based system underpinned by a robust network of security alliances, and by effective multilateral institutions in which rules could be agreed and norms reinforced – is the only one we have known in our modern history. Its maintenance has depended more than anything else on American belief in the liberal norms laid out in the San Francisco peace treaty and the Bretton Woods organisations. As the Trump administration conspicuously abandons those norms, that order is now unravelling with remarkable speed.
Other factors have of course contributed to the current uncertainty. China, no longer content to benefit from the liberal global order without trying to reshape it, is now matching its spectacular economic rise with a determination to wield major political and strategic influence, regionally and globally. Russia under Putin, after a long period of post-Cold War quiescence, is using its Security Council and military authority to play itself back into the role of regional hegemony and global spoiler whenever and wherever it can. The European Union is divided and troubled. Few other intergovernmental organisations, including ASEAN in our own region, are punching at anything like their necessary weight.
But it is above all the United States that is now tearing up the order it did so much to create, with Donald Trump initiating trade wars, treating allies as irritating encumbrances, preferring despots to democrats, regarding multilateral institutions with contempt, and walking away from painfully negotiated international agreements – above all the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords – in a way that has left America’s word in doubt and its soft power in tatters. Even when this president does the right thing – as with the circuit-breaking Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un – it is manifestly with such superficial understanding of the issues, indifference to process, and fragility of temperament that it is hard for anyone to be confident that the ultimate outcome, which will necessarily involve protracted multilateral diplomacy, will be triumph or disaster.
It has not been unknown in the past – as I have good cause to remember as a long-serving foreign minister and international conflict-prevention NGO head – for the US to be insensitive to allies’ concerns, to justify consorting with dictators as necessary realpolitik, to be keener on international law in principle than in practice, and indeed to exhaust all available alternatives before doing the right thing. Nor is it entirely unexpected that, after all its hectic – and perhaps too often under-appreciated – international commitment of recent decades, there should be a mood in the US for return to the kind of isolationism which prevailed earlier last century.
But what is new, and largely unanticipated, is America behaving neither as primary defender of the liberal international order nor as a state in inward-looking retreat from it, but rather what Robert Kagan has described recently in these pages [AFR 16-17 June] as a “rogue superpower” – “active, powerful” and “recognising no moral, political or strategic commitments … no sense of responsibility to anything beyond itself”. It may be that this characterisation is overdrawn. Or, if it is not, that the Trump ascendancy will prove an aberration, and normality will resume in 2020. But there is enough truth in it, and enough reason to believe that irremediable damage has been done to the world order as we have known it, for Australia to need to do some very hard thinking as to how we respond.
One approach to such a response, for which I have argued for some time, is “Less America. More Asia. More Self-Reliance”. Which means not walking away from the US alliance, with all the multiple benefits it has long delivered, but being much more circumspect about over-reliance upon it for our security. And putting more resources into defence, and acting as genuine diplomatic free agent – creative, proactive and not constantly looking over our shoulder to Washington. And strengthening relationships at all levels with key regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea – and trying to develop a more multi-dimensional relationship with China, especially by working with it in multilateral forums on global and regional public goods issues like the environment, development, peacekeeping and arms control. Inherent in this approach, which seems to be gaining some traction as the Financial Review’s Andrew Clark noted in his piece ‘New Reality of Surreal Times’, AFR 16-17 June, is the simple, but not soft-headed, proposition that every state’s security, prosperity and quality of life is best advanced by cooperation rather than confrontation, and that Australia should be a relentless campaigner for just that.
How Australia should react – in domestic as well as international policy – in response to the hugely challenging new global realities we are all now facing will be debated by a stellar cast of national and international decision-makers and analysts at the fifth annual ANU Crawford Leadership Forum starting in Canberra next Sunday, co-sponsored by The Australian Financial Review and the Business Council of Australia. This is the only national forum of its kind, bringing together on an invitation-only basis three tribes of leaders— from the public sector, business and universities and civil society – who all too rarely interact. Its deliberations could not be more timely.
Gareth Evans is chancellor of the Australian National University, a former cabinet minister throughout the Hawke-Keating governments, and president emeritus of the International Crisis Group.