Liberal internationalism: hard days, hazy daze
13 Nov 2017|

The core belief system of Australia’s approach to international affairs for 75 years is the cause that can barely speak its own name.

Whisper it softly: ‘liberal internationalism’, an aspiration big enough to encompass democracy and rule of law, open markets and free trade, individual liberty and human rights.

The Turnbull government’s imminent foreign policy white paper will have liberal internationalist molecules throughout its DNA. Yet the arguments the white paper has with itself about the state of the world will reflect the troubles afflicting liberal internationalism.

Labels and understandings drive what matters, and this vital two-word label is suffering.

Internationalism stands in the dock with its mate globalisation, assailed by nationalism and mercantilism and all the opportunities—masquerading as troubles—of a world growing ever closer.

The liberal label is beset by hostile fire from the right and left wings and a less-than-convinced centre. US Republicans love liberty but disdain liberals as soft socialists and European cheese–eating surrender monkeys. To dodge such smears, US Democrats won’t own to being liberals.

Liberal internationalism stands condemned because of its supposed association with economic neoliberalism. Neolib nostrums that dominated the final quarter of the 20th century—deregulation, privatisation and market forces—are derided as failed bizonomics. Neoliberalism is rendered in Oz-speak as ‘economic rationalism’, and its great Australian champion, the Productivity Commission, has run up the white flag on all things neo with its Shifting the dial review, arguing that without equity and fairness there can’t be economic efficiency. Fancy that—markets mediated by politics.

Australia’s affection for liberal internationalism began at that moment of existential crisis in 1942 when we abandoned Pax Britannica and went looking for new ways. That arc is a theme in the latest (12th) volume of the Oz-in-the-world series from the Australian Institute of International Affairs; the book’s title, Navigating the new international disorder, can do double duty as the unofficial title of the foreign policy white paper. A fine chapter by Andrew Phillips offers three phases of the arc:

Liberal internationalism Mark I, 1942–72: Embracing the US (and its values) as the security patron, while Australia joined efforts to create a new global order at the United Nations. Australia argued for the right of states to deliver full employment—and to ensure social stability through White Australia. Phillips comments, ‘Australia’s moral universalism remained limited by its dedication to a domestic political order that presupposed racial homogeneity as a prerequisite for social harmony and national security.’

Liberal internationalism Mark II, 1972–2001: Human rights norms erased the last vestiges of colonialism, while the old economic order of ‘embedded liberalism’ gave way to neoliberal globalisation. The Australian response was two ‘master shifts’ to multiculturalism and our neolib version, economic rationalism.

Liberal internationalism in crisis, 2001–present: Rapid changes in the security and economic spheres feed into ‘a broader ideological crisis of liberal internationalism’. Phillips judges: ‘Neither jihadism nor authoritarian nationalism stand as credible competitors to liberal internationalism in offering an alternative foundation for global order. Nevertheless, the persistence and even intensification of these challenges equally confirms the return of ideological contestation as a central feature of world politics.’

The crisis of liberal internationalism translates into Canberra’s talk of uncertain and dangerous times; this says more about Oz uncertainty than about the state of the world. We’ve lived through vastly more dangerous times. The Canberra perception, though, isn’t just the tyranny of the present—it’s the frightening sight of Australia’s conceptual framework shaking and shedding bits.

The Canberra sense of hard days peering through a hazy daze was striking in last year’s defence white paper, fretting loudly about the need for international rules. The policy document used the word ‘rules’ 64 times—48 of those in the formulation ‘rules-based global order’.

The word that didn’t appear once in the defence white paper was ‘liberal’—quite an omission for a Liberal government. The defence hardheads understand that China is all for a rules-based order, but Beijing isn’t interested in an American-designed liberal order.

Other parts of Canberra do push back on the need to preserve and defend the liberal order. Hence, the proposition from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop that China can’t rule because it’s not a democracy: ‘The importance of liberal values and institutions should not be underestimated or ignored. While non-democracies such as China can thrive when participating in the present system, an essential pillar of our preferred order is democratic community.’

Ah, the ordeal of ordering orders. What we prefer and what we get …

Be amazed if the foreign policy white paper says much about the China–democracy equation. Still, it’ll want liberal rules—this is the diplomats’ take on our policy DNA, not the defenceniks.

The sense of uncertainty ran through Malcolm Turnbull’s Asia–Pacific speech before he headed to the Asia summits:

  • The multilateral trading system faces greater challenges than at any time since its creation in the 1940s to ‘contain protectionism and enforce international rules … The siren songs of populists, advocating protectionism as simple quick solutions, have gained considerable support’.
  • ‘Rising major power trade tensions—tensions between assertive state capitalism in China and populism in the United States’ could undermine the WTO’s rules-based system.
  • The global rules are fraying, opening the way for large states to use arbitrary barriers and coercion.
  • And quoting French President Emmanuel Macron: ‘Democracy needs to recover its ambition.’

The declarations have a tinge of desperation. For liberal internationalism, the haze thickens.