Australia’s strategic policy: what’s plan B?
26 Mar 2018|

There’s a problem now with Australia’s strategic logic. It isn’t a criticism of previous strategic guidance documents that they failed to anticipate seminal events that affected the international environment: the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union; the 1998 nuclear tests by India and Pakistan; 9/11 and the subsequent long war on terror.

Few anywhere predicted these events. But there might be less an excuse for recent Australian white papers ignoring the fragility of the liberal international order.

In  2016 the RAND Corporation embarked on the Building a Sustainable International Order project.  Sponsored by the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, it was initiated because the international order was already ‘perceived to be at risk’. The project’s first publication, Understanding the current international order, identified the risks as reactions against the appearance that the international order was designed to ‘perpetuate U.S. hegemony’, economic crises, and ‘slow growth and growing inequality’.

The 2017 report, Measuring the health of the liberal international order, which it defined as ‘a complex mix of formal global institutions, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization; bilateral and regional security organizations; and liberal political norms’, added ‘populist movements around the world’ to the threats.

Although ‘the order remained relatively stable’, the authors judged that geopolitical and ideological factors remained a concern, and that ‘several major trends have begun that, if carried to a more extreme conclusion, would undermine the coherence of the order’. The project judged that key elements of the order were in ‘jeopardy’ and that the ‘the operation of the postwar liberal international order will have to undergo significant revision if it is to remain viable’.

This year the final project report, Testing the value of the postwar international order, concluded that US interests and security are best served by ‘equitable multilateralism’, albeit still under US leadership. ‘A highly unilateralist, nationalist approach,’ it announced, ‘would risk undermining cooperation on key security issues and doing serious damage to the global economy.’

Both the 2016 Defence White Paper and the more cogently argued 2017 Foreign Affairs White Paper were premised on the same assumptions. Australia’s vision was ‘for a neighbourhood in which adherence to rules delivers lasting peace, where the rights of all states are respected, and where open markets facilitate the free flow of trade, capital and ideas’.

To fulfil this vision, it was necessary to ‘broaden and deepen our alliance cooperation’ with the US. Moreover, the government expressed its determination to ‘advocate for an open international economy’ and ‘stand against protectionism and promote and defend the international rules that guard against unfair trade actions and help resolve disputes’.

The central strategic judgment was that the US had built and sustained the liberal international order ‘not only in its own interest, but also to create public goods and a global system in which other countries can prosper’. That, to a large extent, has been true. However, it’s no longer possible to maintain this position.

Now the liberal order is under serious pressure. President Donald Trump’s rolling rejection of the fundamental tenets of the postwar international order may prove as dramatic a revolution in US foreign policy as the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan were. Trump has rejected equitable multilateralism in trade, on climate and over security—with the EU and Pacific trade agreements, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran deal. His foreign policy approach, anchored in militarism, nationalism and unilateralism, is fraying the alliance that underpinned the international order. His lack of commitment to liberal norms and his abandonment of democracy promotion is another deviation from past policies.

In addition, basic institutions of the post‑World War II international order are less effective. The UN has proved to be an inadequate vehicle for resolving the Israeli–Palestinian dispute—despite a series of UN Security Council resolutions—and in averting disasters like Srebrenica and Rwanda. It seems impotent in the face of the humanitarian disasters playing out in Yemen and Syria.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has proved toothless against China’s violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the South China Sea. In the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China has established a rival to the World Bank.

Australia’s strategic eggs all seem to be in one basket. Yet the guarantor of the ‘peace and stability’ that is essential to the maintenance of ‘the rules-based global order’ on which Australia relies is no longer committed to the order. Inconsistencies are already beginning to emerge as a consequence.

Australia has joined with 10 other nations in a revived Trans-Pacific Partnership, in line with its multilateral free trade policy and a strengthening of the rules concerning international trade in the region. However, Australia’s refusal to join the EU and other nations in a World Trade Organization challenge to Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminium seems an abandonment of strongly stated principle.

It’s an incongruous move that seems designed to weaken rather than strengthen the rules-based order deemed essential to Australia’s future security and prosperity. It would take considerable sophistry to paint it otherwise.

Australia has undoubtedly been one of the beneficiaries of the post-war, rules-based global order and the opportunities provided by multilateralism and free trade. To prioritise actions that support and foster the continuation of that situation in strategic and foreign policy is sound. Still, it has been wisely said that ‘hope is not a strategy’.

It seems as though Australian strategic policy has lacked the imagination to confront the possibility of the failure of the post-war international order, even as the real threats to it appeared plainly evident to others. Now, as elements of that order crumble, Australia has no coherent alternative to simply hoping against hope that the past will persist into the future.

In short, we have no plan B.