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Defending multilateralism and the rules-based global order: Australia’s role?

Posted By on February 27, 2019 @ 12:36

This essay is from ASPI’s just-released election special, Agenda for change 2019: Strategic choices for the next government. The report contains 30 short essays by leading thinkers covering key strategic, defence and security challenges, and offers short- and long-term policy recommendations as well as outside-the-box ideas that break the traditional rules.

Multilateralism and the post-World War II institutions that Australia has benefited from are under increasing threat. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has noted that the world is suffering from ‘trust deficit disorder’, as societies become more polarised and people lack confidence in political establishments, institutions and the rules-based global order.

The rules-based global order has underpinned Australia’s approach to defence and foreign policy over the past 70 years. But our investment in that order relies heavily on the leadership and engagement of the US—and that can no longer be assumed.

The challenge

There are currently more than 68.5 million displaced people globally—a record number, by the UN’s estimates. Civilians continue to bear the brunt of conflict in places such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Yemen. Terrorism remains a pervasive and global threat. One of the key multilateral tools for managing conflict—UN peacekeeping—remains ill-equipped, and peacekeepers are frequently under attack.

Against this backdrop of conflict and violence, the world is struggling to manage its interconnectedness. The UK is struggling to agree on a plan for its exit from the EU. Populism and identity politics are increasingly taking precedence over global cooperation, as demonstrated by Trump’s ‘America First’ approach. Yet some of the pressing security challenges confronting us in the 21st century—climate change, pandemics, mass migration, impunity from the rule of law, and the emergence of the cybersphere and space as offensive platforms—require collective, global solutions.

The Trump administration has shown little interest in engaging substantively in the multilateral system, instead withdrawing US membership and funding from various UN bodies. At the same time, China, and to some extent Russia, are capitalising on the vacuum of American leadership to shape the global order, often with flagrant impunity.

The challenge for the incoming government is this: how can Australia continue to shape the global order and strengthen multilateral institutions in the absence of US leadership?

Quick wins

The next government should seize the opportunity to be bolder on strengthening the rules-based global order and the values that guide Australian policy. At first glance, this requires the government to be more responsive and outspoken on human rights abuses. The government dragged its feet in responding to the arbitrary detention of several Canadians in China. The subsequent detention of an Australian academic at the time of writing highlights why we can’t afford to be silent on these issues. Such actions defy our interests and values and set ugly precedents.

We also have a platform as a current member of the UN Human Rights Council to draw attention to acts of impunity, whether it’s attacks on our citizens, the mass arbitrary detention of Uyghurs in China or the actions of the military in Myanmar. But that also requires long-term policy settings across government that prioritise upholding human rights (within and beyond our borders) and tangibly demonstrate our commitment to protecting civilians, which isn’t necessarily the case at present. Human rights have historically lacked priority when there is an opportunity for populist or security gains. However, even for the most cynical defence strategists, the example of Xi Jinping’s China— which affects others’ citizens and millions of its own—shows that protecting human rights merges with our strategic and security interests.

Sustained cooperation with ‘like-minded’ countries will be essential in these efforts. For instance, Australia benefits significantly from close cooperation with Canada and New Zealand (as part of CANZ) in the UN system. We should continue working with those countries, and others such as the UK, Japan, France and Germany (to name a few), to call out human rights abuses and express support for the rules-based global order. Cross-regional mechanisms such as MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia) can support efforts to build a broader constituency of supporters for multilateralism.

Our renewed engagement with the Pacific also provides some prospects, provided Australia remains a consistent and principled partner. Many Pacific countries are often under-resourced to launch effective advocacy on issues in multilateral forums. Cooperation can be mutually beneficial, but that’ll require us to listen to our Pacific neighbours on issues of interest (such as climate change) and ensure that such cooperation is not only mutually beneficial but sustainable.

The hard yards

Engagement with a cross-section of countries in support of the rules-based global order will also be critical as the government starts to consider our future campaign for a UN Security Council seat in 2029–30. That may seem a long time from now, but in the cycle of UN elections it isn’t, particularly if the race becomes competitive. And although our previous term on the council was positively praised, we stepped back from our commitments to a number of countries that supported our election, particularly in Africa. We’ll need to make up lost ground with a number of key blocs of voters, including in Africa and the Caribbean. We should begin appointing envoys to show we’re serious and identify how to enhance our bilateral relationships with countries that we usually neglect between candidacies.

In the longer term, Australia can no longer take for granted US support for the rules-based global order. That will mean that resources and energy need to be devoted to encouraging and shaping US engagement. It’s to Australia’s benefit for the US to remain committed to the UN and multilateral organisations, rather than simply disengaging from them or withdrawing funding.

But it’ll also mean that Australia needs a more nuanced approach to engaging with China. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the second largest assessed funder of UN peacekeeping operations and among the top 10 troop contributors to UN peacekeeping, and an increasingly assertive user of its military power (in the South China Sea, for example), the Chinese state is one of the most influential actors in the international and multilateral system. That provides it with significant leverage to shape the direction of peacekeeping and multilateral institutions, in a vision which may be the antithesis of Australian values.

Breaking the rules

The laws that have been put in place to protect civilians in armed conflict are slowly being eroded. Australia should take the lead in developing a national framework on the protection of civilians, drawing on our past leadership and advocacy on the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the protection of civilians in UN peacekeeping. The UN secretary-general has called upon member states to develop national policy frameworks on protection of civilians. We already have guidelines for the ADF and Australian Federal Police, so why not build on that and work with other countries to do the same, in much the same way that we’ve developed an international cyber engagement strategy and action plan on women, peace and security?

And if we’re to think a bit outside the box, why not revisit our commitment to UN peacekeeping? This year marks 20 years since Australia deployed to INTERFET. But we’ve continued to step back from UN peacekeeping over the past two decades due to concurrent operations in the Middle East (prioritised because of our alliance with the US). We should seek to deploy limited time-bound contributions that can make a difference to missions (such as medical units; helicopters; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities; and units to counter improvised explosive devices). In addition to increasing our institutional knowledge and operational experience, this would enable us to enhance our defence partnerships with other countries that are seeking to engage more substantively, such as Fiji, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Finally, addressing future threats to peace and security will require more substantial engagement in multilateral discussions to set norms, regulate technologies and ensure that international law is effectively applied to new domains where peace is threatened. Australia has an interest in regulating the use of cyber offensive measures, artificial intelligence and the use of space for warfare. But multilateralism has to continue to work if that’s to be effective. Building trust, and supporting the evolution of those institutions that have served Australia so well over the past 70 years, will be critical to those efforts.

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[1] Agenda for change 2019: Strategic choices for the next government: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/agenda-change-2019

[2] has noted: https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2018-09-25/secretary-generals-address-general-assembly-delivered-trilingual

[3] UN’s estimates: https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

[4] remains a pervasive and global threat: https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2018-12-06/un-global-counter-terrorism-compact-coordination-committee-remarks

[5] has called upon: https://undocs.org/S/2018/462