Australia and the US in the age of disruption
23 Nov 2017|

Australia and the United States enjoy deep historical links in the areas of law, the economy and defence.

As we confront the challenges of the age of disruption, there are five policy approaches that will guide a Shorten Labor government in our relationship with the US:

  • First, we must have a clear idea of our national interests, and of the national interests of the US, and work to harmonise those interests to the benefit of both parties and the broader international community with which we work.
  • Second, we must accept that we do live in a disrupted world—the world as it is—and approach its challenges with confidence and optimism to create the world we want for ourselves, our children and their children.
  • Third, we must work with the US as it is—a nation of enormous agility, energy, generosity, invention and vitality.
  • Fourth, we need to work with the US to build our mutual capacity to strengthen the resilience, stability and prosperity of our region, underpinned by an internationally observed rules-based order.
  • And fifth, we need to apply the operating principles of the ANZUS Treaty—consultation (article 3) and action (article 4)—across the entire bilateral relationship, and not restrict them simply to our defence relationship.

The US, of course, has a global dimension to its national power, especially its economic and military power, that reflects its extraordinary national power. Australia’s interests are global, but our power evidently is not. The fundamental question for all nations is how they intend to employ their national power in pursuit of their national interests.

We need to engage on interests. A US emphasis on national economic sovereignty, or protection, for instance, as distinct from leadership in generating a fair global economic system, is a significant development. As a mature, reliable and contributing partner with the US, we need to voice these kinds of issues, as much in the interests of the US as in our own interests.

Labor’s second policy approach is acceptance that we live in a disrupted world. Across Asia, the Americas, the Middle East, Africa and Europe, disruptive forces are at play. Unpredictable political groupings, re-emergent nationalism, the increasing challenge to democracy as the most effective form of political participation, global terrorism, worsening economic inequality and the growing challenge to the international rules-based order—these are the elements of global disruption.

The US has contributed to the disruption that now characterises the global political environment. A year on from President Trump’s election, what kind of world is emerging and what kind of country America is becoming has not become much clearer, and how we might transcend personality politics in both the US and Australia has not become any easier.

I again make the point, as I made then, that our relationship with the US is deep, longstanding and institutional, and is not a function of the personalities of our respective leaders.

China’s newfound economic strength and assertiveness have also contributed to the age of disruption. As we have seen with China’s extraordinary rise, economic power can now have a strategic effect independent of military power. What remains uncertain is the consequence of China’s military strength growing to match its economic strength as its strategic ambitions are realised over the coming decades. This ‘double whammy’ form of disruption—the separation of economic and military power and then its recombination—will largely define the region in which Australia and the US have strategic interests for the rest of this century.

For Australia, the best way to manage disruption on a global scale is to engage actively in constructive internationalism, in what Gareth Evans proposed 25 years ago as ‘good international citizenship’. This means that we must contribute to creating global and regional public goods. These include managing climate change; arms control; protecting and advancing human rights; working to manage and reduce the global refugee crisis; preventing and responding to global terrorism, drug distribution and criminality; and many other global issues.

Our third policy approach is to work with the US as it is now, not as it might once have been, or as some of its naysayers claim it’s going to become. The US has a lot on its plate at present. The reality is it is one of the most vibrant societies on earth, as energetic and full of potential as it has ever been. It is constantly transforming itself as it capitalises on its enormous human, social and physical capital resources.

The fourth policy approach is to build our mutual capacity to strengthen the resilience, stability and prosperity of our region, underpinned by an internationally observed rules-based order.

As reflected in Labor’s FutureAsia strategy, our region matters to us. It also matters to China. And it matters to the US. I have said elsewhere that as we look west and north to Asia, we see a landmass and a series of archipelagos bookended by Asia’s two historical cultural influencers—China and India—and including the great economic powerhouses of China, Japan, South Korea and India. We also see a group of 10 nations—the members of ASEAN—that have invested continuously for over 50 years in building and maintaining regional stability.

And our final policy approach is to apply the operating principles of the ANZUS Treaty across the entire bilateral relationship.

Our defence relationship is both historic and significant. But it is not truly separable from the structures that define the entire bilateral relationship. Our purpose here is not to securitise our bilateral relationship. Far from it. It is to generate the depth and robustness that the relationship needs if it is to realise the opportunities that the age of disruption brings with it.

To achieve these objectives, Labor intends to broaden and deepen the relationship at a government-to-government level and, equally importantly, to work with our think tanks and universities to expand Track 2 links between our two countries.