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When old mates can't be trusted

Published in The Australian Financial Review, 2 August 2018

There can be no argument but that the present geostrategic environment is extremely challenging. Big and often disconcerting geopolitical shifts have been occurring, most of them faster and going further than almost any of us would have believed possible not very long ago. The five big ones in our own region are China's rapid rise, America's rapid comparative decline, India's long-awaited emergence as a major player, North Korea's rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons capability, and ASEAN's loss of a significant amount of its coherence and credibility at a time when both have never been more needed.

But overarching all these separate issues is a bigger one, namely that the assumptions which 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 hegemon 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 President 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 which 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 one of 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 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. I think the four key elements of that response can be summarised as "Less America. More self-reliance. More Asia. More global engagement".

Less America

Less America. Continued US engagement in the region is certainly highly desirable, and I am not in any way suggesting that Australia should walk away from the alliance, from which we unquestionably benefit in terms of access to intelligence and high-end armaments, and – however flimsy the ANZUS guarantee may prove to be in reality – the notional deterrent protection of America's massive military firepower. But less reflexive support for everything the US chooses to do is long overdue. "Whither thou goest, there I goest" might be good theology, but it is not great foreign policy for a country that values its independence and wants international respect. My own experience strongly suggests that periodically saying "no" to the US when our national interests are manifestly different, makes for a much healthier and productive relationship than one of craven dependence.

Neither we nor anyone else in the region should be under any illusion that the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat. While that was almost certainly also the reality under previous administrations, it has been thrown into much starker relief by Trump's "America First" approach, and it should not be assumed that anything would be very different in a post-Trump era. I think the reality is, as Hugh White has repeatedly put it, that "we need to prepare ourselves to live in Asia without America".

More self-reliance

More self-reliance. This certainly means being more of a diplomatic free agent: adding to our reputation and credibility with an activist foreign policy that is creative, proactive, value-adding and unconstrained by constant urge to look over our shoulder to Washington. But more than that, it does entail, in military terms, building defence capability that involves not only more bucks than we are usually comfortable spending but getting a bigger bang for each of them. It certainly means maximising our capacity to protect our shores and maritime environment (including the South West Pacific) from hostile intrusion, but also means having a capacity to engage in military operations wider afield if there is a good national interest (including responsible global citizen) reason for doing so.

While defence expenditure has been increasing, with both sides of politics committed to maintaining it at a credible 2 per cent – or slightly more – of GDP, given the size of our continent our capacity to defend ourselves against any really existential threat is limited. I am optimistic enough to believe that in today's world the costs and risks of waging war so wildly outweigh any conceivable benefits for any significant player that the likelihood of a major conflict in the foreseeable future is very low. But defence planning always has to be based on worst case assumptions, taking into account potential adversaries' capabilities, not just known intent, and in that context we are going to have to get used to doing more.

More Asia

More Asia. This to me has two dimensions: on the one hand, strengthening our relationships at all levels with key regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, as a collective counterweight to a potentially over-reaching China; and on the other hand trying to develop a more multidimensional relationship, not just a one-dimensional economic one, with China itself.

As much as I would welcome Australia developing an even closer relationship with ASEAN as a whole, I suspect that for the foreseeable future internal divisions, and the organisation's culture of extreme caution, make that unlikely, and that our efforts in south-east Asia should be focused on its two heaviest players, Indonesia and Vietnam, as well as our traditional partners Singapore and Malaysia. If some or all of we five countries were, for example, to mount regular combined freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), quite independently of the US, in the contested waters of the South China Sea, China would need to think very long and hard about any retaliation. While China manifestly does not want to provoke violent conflict anywhere, it is clearly intent on recreating as much of its historical hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern neighbours as it can get away with, and a united front of middle powers might be more effective in resisting this than relying on an increasingly erratic United States.

There are also, of course, less potentially confrontational ways of giving clear messages to China that the region is not prepared to lapse into tributary-state mode. For example there would seem to be considerable scope for maritime co-operation on search and rescue (MSAR) and humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) operations – including involving Australia, India, Japan, and the US, alongside ASEAN members – which would promote greater interaction between armed forces without triggering so many political sensitivities.

It was in this humanitarian context, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, that in fact the idea of the "Quad" was born – close military co-operation between the US, Japan, India and Australia. This is now, after a false start in this direction in 2007, being reborn as a more overtly strategic response to China's new assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. While this has not yet developed further than four-way talks between each country's admirals, with India remaining reluctant to have Australia join its annual Malabar naval exercise with the US and Japan, China paints it as having all the makings of a polarising alliance dedicated to its containment. While it is no bad thing, again, for China to get the message that over-reaching behaviour will be met with pushback, it would be prudent for the Quad to be seen for now – and characterised by its participants – not as a grand new strategic alliance, but rather as a mechanism for greater working level foreign and security policy dialogue and military-to-military interaction in a newly uncertain environment. And a mechanism for which the particular attraction for Australia is closer engagement with India and Japan, not just relying on the US.

So far as China itself is concerned, it is critical – and I am glad to see last year's Foreign Policy White Paper spelling this out quite clearly – to approach the relationship in a spirit of multi-dimensional engagement. We should be trying to build mutually beneficial connections at multiple levels, not just see the country as a one-dimensional economic partner, crucial for our prosperity but to be treated warily and confrontationally on anything to do with security issues in the hope and expectation, almost certainly now misguided, that the US will do the heavy lifting for us on that front. None of this means becoming Beijing's patsy, any more than we should be Washington's: we should not hold back in making clear our own commitment to democratic and human rights values, and should be prepared to push back when China overreaches, as it has in the South China Sea.

But it does mean recognising the legitimacy of many of China's own security and economic national interest claims, including the essential legitimacy of the scale and ambition of the Belt and Road Initiative: with us being a little less anxious about its regional security implications, and being prepared – with appropriate commercial caution – to be an active participant in the enterprise. And it certainly means recognising the legitimacy of China's demand to be now not just a rule-taker but a participant in global rule-making. In that context, one of the most productive ways of building content into Australia's relationship may be to work more closely with China on the whole range of global and regional public goods issues – from climate change to arms control, from terrorism to health pandemics, from peace-keeping to responding to mass atrocity crimes – on which China has in recent times been playing a more interested and constructive role than has generally been recognised.

More global engagement

More global engagement. Being and being seen to be a good international citizen is itself a core national interest, one that should sit alongside the traditional duo of security and economic interests as sustaining themes of Australia's foreign policy. Looking back over the course of the diplomatic history, it's hard to argue with the proposition that Australia has been at its best, and our standing in the world highest, when we play to our national strengths and project ourselves on to the world stage as a country deeply committed to our common humanity and determined to do everything we can to make the world safer, saner, more prosperous and just.

In the contemporary world, every state's security, prosperity and quality of life is best advanced by co-operation rather than confrontation, and Australia should be a relentless campaigner for just that. There are many global public goods issues on which we could make a positive difference, using our own strengths as a capable, credible middle power and the strategies of international coalition building that are the essence of effective middle power diplomacy.

To take just one example, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, where we have played a major role in global agenda setting in the past with the Canberra Commission initiated by Paul Keating and the Australia-Japan Commission initiated by Kevin Rudd, but badly dropped the ball toward the end of President Obama's term. Had we then – along with South Korea and Japan, who could have been persuaded – supported Obama's move toward a "No First Use" commitment, the world might have taken a significant step toward reducing the salience and legitimacy of the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented, and the most immediate risk to life on this planet as we know it. There is an urgent need now to bridge the widening gulf between those who want to do nothing and those who clamour hopelessly impractically for global zero now, and Australia is genuinely capable of playing a global leadership role in that process.

Opinion polls sometimes suggest, like the Lowy Institute's in 2016, Australians are more or less evenly divided when confronted with a general question as to whether we should seek to play a more influential role in the world or just mind our own business. But when questions are put more specifically – e.g. whether our participation in the UN Security Council and G20 was worth the effort and cost – other Lowy findings in 2013 and 2015 show very strong, two-thirds or more, support.

My own strong belief is that Australians just don't accept that we are another also-ran, and that any government which adopts a posture which concentrates just on our immediate neighbourhood and more obvious bilateral relationships, and remains myopic about what is capable of being achieved if we engage in a whole variety of multilateral forums with the skill and stamina which has served us so well in the past, will be a government that will simply not be playing the confident external projection role which most Australians want.

Our track record over many decades overwhelmingly shows that Australia and individual Australians are decent and committed international citizens, independently minded – and with a real egalitarian streak, something which plays well with a great many other countries with our strong record, everywhere from peacekeeping missions to diplomatic forums, of neither sucking up to the powerful nor kicking down at the powerless.

Playing to that instinct of decency, focusing on co-operative problem solving, using all the energy and creativity that has traditionally been associated with Australian middle power diplomacy at its best, will be far and away the best way of ensuring in the years and decades ahead, in a region and world in which the tectonic plates are shifting and every possible kind of uncertainty abounds, that this great country of ours not only survives but thrives.

Gareth Evans was Australia's Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996 and president and chief executive officer of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group from 2000 to 2009. He was appointed Chancellor of the Australia National University in 2010.

This is an edited extract from the Inaugural Australian Studies Institute Lecture delivered at the Australian National University, Canberra, July 10, 2018.

This article was originally published in The Australian Financial Review