Australia’s global rights carry global duties

| March 30, 2018

Australia has long benefited from the post-war rules-based international order. But the danger of eroding international norms demands Canberra rethinks its foreign policies rather than put this at risk.

Australia thrives in its security, economics and culture due to its openness and international engagement. Our predictable global and regional conditions help us with this, and decades of liberalisation in trade and closer international cooperation enhance it further.

We have a lot to lose if the global trend toward nationalism progresses to the point where the liberal or rules-based order erodes or collapses.

For a decade or so there has been a worldwide resurgence of populist and nationalist politics. In some cases this has been supported by democratic processes, in others by authoritarian means.

The outward forms vary, but from ‘Make America Great Again’ and Brexit to the growing assertiveness of Russia and China, to the emergence of populist strongmen in countries from Turkey to the Philippines, the trend is evident. The implications for international order are profound.

Australia itself is not immune to the nationalist temptation, but ours is a comparatively mild case. Our mainstream politicians are content to enjoy occasional poll-driven flourishes of nationalist, protectionist or exclusionist rhetoric, while maintaining an open and internationalist policy stance.

They can hardly do otherwise. Australia’s prosperity and security are dependent on trading relationships and security alliances. Australians have become used to the free movement of goods and services, people and ideas.

Isolationism is at odds with how we now live and who we now are. Millions of Australians depend on export industries, not just resources and agriculture but also tourism and education. We are daily consumers of imported products, both material and cultural. But more than that, about half of us were born overseas or at least have one or both parents who were.

Such a country is far too invested in its global links to willingly turn inward. The real risk for Australia is not at home but in the prospect of a breakdown of the complex, imperfect but broadly effective international architecture which has its foundations in the post-1945 settlement and has been developed ever since.

Even imperfect rules—rules that some countries infringe or ignore at times—are much better than unregulated, free-for-all competition; an anarchical global society of every state against every state, to the ultimate detriment of all and the likely destruction of some.

Rules and accepted norms are not just important in themselves. They are part of a deeper understanding that everyone’s interests are served by a culture of cooperation and negotiations, of consistent and predictable behaviour. This means that countries need to adhere as much as possible not just to the letter of agreed rules but also to their spirit.

Australia is not a major global power but it does have influence and resources at its disposal. It needs to find its voice and expand its diplomatic repertoire. We must recognise that we cannot convincingly preach adherence to international norms while spurning international obligations and making up its own rules when it chooses.

Treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is an obvious starting point. The Australian government’s attitude to the United Nations Refugee Convention is one of barely-disguised disdain. It has used its physical resources and its dominance over small neighbouring countries to imprison people for years to make the problem of refugees go somewhere else.

Likewise, Australia has dragged its feet on international climate change action and continued to promote the interests of fossil fuel industries. In this area Australia is not a minor player; it is one of the world’s biggest carbon exporters and among the highest per capita emitters.

The slashing of Australia’s overseas aid program is a short-sighted and retrograde move. We are among the wealthiest countries, and have had 27 years of continuous economic growth but we are sliding fast into the bottom half of OECD countries on the measure of aid to national income.

Our diminished aid program still does much good. Ongoing commitment to humanitarian action is welcome. But the cuts are significantly impacting on health and human security, especially in our immediate region. They set a poor example and undermine global efforts to address humanitarian crises and development challenges.

As a global community we are at an historic watershed. We face a big, binary political choice. We can seek widely shared security and prosperity through cooperation, agreed rules and adherence to international norms; or we can sink into the I’m-all-right-Jack mentality of protectionism and armed hostility, where rules and norms are ignored.

For Australia this is no choice at all. But does Australian diplomacy and our international persona, with its narrow focus on alliance politics and trade treaties, reflect this?

If we want to be on the right side of this moment in history, Australia must reset its policies.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.