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The 2016 Defence White Paper describes a rules-based global order as a “fundamental strategic interest”. 

This project, supported by the Department of Defence’s Strategic Policy Grants Program, aims to lead a national debate on the rules-based order and its implications for Australian security and defence. It will connect the legal, political, and historical debates about the nature of the global order with the practical realities of Australia’s strategic environment. It will address how the order can evolve to meet new technological challenges and modes of warfare, including grey zone operations.

Cover image: Official U.S. Navy / Flickr

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Book review: “The false promise of liberal order”

Book review: Patrick Porter, The False Promise of Liberal Order: Nostalgia, Delusion and the Rise of Trump (Polity Press, 2020)

A familiar response to the growing global disorder has been to lament the demise of the liberal or “rules–based” international order and to call for its restoration. Patrick Porter is having none of it. In this compelling book – which is delightfully free of academic gobbledegook – he takes on the liberal order and its exponents. 

For Porter, the concept rests on bad history and so leads to bad policy. 

Much of the book is devoted to correcting the liberal order’s “strangely bloodless” history. Porter reminds us that “America’s most beneficial achievements were partly wrought by illiberal means, through darks deals, harsh coercion and wars gone wrong that killed millions.” In this telling, international norms are no more than a means to “legitimise the hegemon’s preferences”. But his purpose is not to decry the US, “the least bad hegemon”. Rather, he wants to open our eyes to the “inherently imperial” nature of world ordering and the necessity of “dark bargains with illiberal forces”. 

Some of the book’s strongest sections are Porter’s scrutineering of proliferating “panegyrics” for the liberal order. He punctures the inflated claims and weaving rhetoric of many US foreign policy luminaries. He reminds readers that a number of liberal-order advocates openly advocated American empire “before ‘liberal order’ returned to replace it as a less provocative euphemism”. 

More consequentially, Porter argues that America’s pursuit of the liberal order has made it excessively belligerent. The idealised narrative of liberal order has blinded policymakers to the insights of realism, leaving them “insensitive to the limits of power … presumptuous about how others see the assertion of power and heedless of how ordering abroad can inflict disorder at home”. The post-9/11 wars were, for Porter, features rather than bugs of “the Order”, as he comes to call it. 

This leads to ever more ambitious assertions. America’s pursuit of liberalism abroad has fostered illiberalism at home. Porter holds the Order responsible for the electoral victory of Donald Trump (all of Chapter 3), as well as the rise of Vladimir Putin and the crises of modern capitalism, global inequality and environmental degradation. 

Porter’s hard distinction between domestic and foreign policy already looks anachronistic as the world grapples with the public health, economic and strategic impacts of Covid-19.

As Porter extends this argument, the purpose of his history-telling becomes less clear. On the one hand, by revealing how American power is actually practised Porter aims to explode the myth of the liberal order. On the other hand, he seems to be invoking the same history to show the Order’s extraordinary clout.

Porter might have resolved this tension by, for example, distinguishing foolish post-1990 liberal internationalists from the wise realists of the Cold War. He doesn’t. Rather, he notes that the Cold Warriors were more ideological, Manichean and often overtly pious than advocates of the liberal order. Why these qualities made them better able to “recognise the reality of violent struggle and justify awkward coalitions” isn’t really explained. 

Similarly, I was unsure whether Porter saw the Vietnam War as an example of necessary realpolitik or – like the 2003 invasion of Iraq – excessive belligerence driven by ideology. Although “Vietnam is central to the argument”, as the author claims, the book lacks a judgment about the war’s strategic consequences. Rather, Porter focuses on the intentions of the “the architects of the conflict”. They “sincerely believed that it was a necessary act … to uphold many of the same imperatives espoused by believers in today’s liberal order”.

Porter concludes by arguing that the “Machiavellian moment” we are now in necessitates a sharper distinction between domestic and foreign policy. The later “cannot function as domestic liberal preferences writ large”. Rather, it should be “guided by an alternative moral standard, the reason of state”, which will require Washington to “flout rules, bend principles, betray populations and make dark bargains”.

But, by Porter’s own account, none of this sounds very new. And for all his contrarianism, Porter’s more specific policy recommendations appear to land somewhere within the Beltway. The US should seek to “contain a rising China, to divide China and Russia, and to reduce its footprint in the Middle East”. The need for the US to shift focus from the Middle East to China now enjoys rare bipartisan consensus, though many would question whether China’s “containment” is a realistic objective. Porter’s advocacy for a reverse Kissinger – countering China through a deal with Russia – is more radically realist but hardly new. The Trump administration has at least toyed with the idea of enlisting Russia to such ends.

This book is a welcome corrective to idealised accounts of the liberal international order, and it forced me to think harder. But it didn’t displace my view that international relations, although based on power, are shaped by norms. Nor was I persuaded that seeking a more rules-based order necessarily precludes hard trade-offs, or vice versa. Indeed, Porter’s hard distinction between domestic and foreign policy already looks anachronistic as the world grapples with the public health, economic and strategic impacts of Covid-19. For a middle power such as Australia, extending the role of norms – especially liberal ones – remains a necessary and viable foreign policy goal.

World order in the time of coronavirus

The liberal order faces its greatest crisis since the end of the Cold War. Liberalism is in retreat around the world. The United States is led by a president whose America-first realpolitik contradicts the very idea of rules-based governance. Europe has seen the rise of “illiberal democracies”. Authoritarian regimes have not only become more numerous, but also more repressive. The system of international agreements is under enormous pressure, while multilateralism has rarely seemed in poorer repute.

The “rules-based international order” has become increasingly devoid of substance. It is no longer clear what the rules are, who sets them, what moral authority underpins them or who follows them. But if the liberal order is in crisis, there is little sign of a new world order emerging in its place. There is instead a growing strategic, political and normative void – a new world disorder.

The response to coronavirus has shown that, more than ever, nations operate according to narrow self-interest, not international norms or shared values. The impact of globalisation is felt in the interconnectedness of problems, but not of solutions. The limitations of the great powers, the United States foremost among them, have been brutally exposed. Coronavirus has become a metaphor for the collapse of global governance.

It is time to dump the realist delusion that international politics revolves around the great powers. For the truth is that they have seldom been more impotent.

Amid the panic and confusion, the reaction of many in the West has been to blame a rising China and a resurgent Russia, who are charged with acting in flagrant defiance of international norms: threatening their neighbours, exporting authoritarianism and subverting democracy. And indeed, there is much to deplore about recent Chinese and Russian actions. A far from comprehensive list includes China’s mass incarceration of Uighurs, Beijing’s influence operations overseas, the People’s Liberation Army’s illicit activities in the South China Sea, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, its role in aggravating the Syrian Civil War, and Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

Nevertheless, China and Russia are not responsible for the crisis of the post-Cold War order, even as they have taken advantage of it. The real causes lie within the West itself, the most important of which is the failure to live up to the principles underpinning this order. The Trump White House, in particular, has laid waste to international rules, conventions and values. A new normal has emerged – an American exceptionalism with few moral and political constraints.

The contradictions between liberal principle and illiberal practice have been aggravated by calamitous policymaking. The war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, and the NATO intervention in Libya have been practical as well as moral failures. They have revealed a damning level of ineptitude, encouraging China and Russia to feel not only self-righteous, but also empowered. The West has never appeared so ineffectual or limited in its capacity to shape global governance.

Today, it is even debatable whether a unitary “West” still exists. Transatlantic relations have sunk to their lowest point since the Suez crisis of 1956, while Europe is more divided than in decades. The principles that have sustained the modern West – the rule of law, transparency, accountability, the separation of powers – are increasingly questioned. Its very identity and purpose are in jeopardy.

Western governments have reminded us of their failings in response to the coronavirus. Besides the United States, which has achieved world-worst results, four European countries – the United Kingdom, Italy, France and Spain – have registered among the highest death tolls. They have been found badly wanting on the most critical national and international challenge in decades.

If the West is to demonstrate to the world and its own people that liberalism is the way forward, it will have to deliver much better on the fundamentals of security, development and well-being. This applies across the board – from public health management, news and information, the upgrading of civilian and military technologies, to boosting research and education. All this will require greater policy and financial commitments than ever before.

It also demands a different mindset, one that aims to be better at what we do, rather than just complaining about the iniquities of others. The West triumphed in the Cold War because it proved that liberal democracy was more effective and more humane than the command-administrative system of the USSR. A similar burden of proof exists today.

Looking at the bigger picture, we need to be more flexible in our thinking about the international system. This means recognising, among other things, that US global leadership in its post–Cold War form is over. America can – indeed, must – be an agenda-setter, but it will have to work much more closely not only with its allies, but also with a diverse range of partners. A new type of global leadership, more consultative and less self-regarding, is long overdue.

It is also time to dump the realist delusion that international politics revolves around the great powers. For the truth is that they have seldom been more impotent. They have shown little capacity to address the enormous and complex challenges facing us, such as the current pandemic, accelerating climate change and persistent global poverty. The future of global governance will instead bring greater input from middle-level powers (such as Australia) and smaller states. It will involve non-state actors to an unprecedented degree. Multilateral cooperation will become more, not less, important.

Decision-making will certainly become more complicated. But, paradoxically, the scale and universality of the dangers we face may help to concentrate minds and unite efforts. More than any event in recent history, the pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of international approaches to problem-solving. It has shown that our interests and problems transcend national boundaries, and so must our responses.

Five Eyes: Blurring the lines between intelligence and policy

The public aura around the decades-old “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing partnership between Australia, the US, UK, Canada, New Zealand has expanded rapidly since the name was first publicly acknowledged. In 2014, an Australian prime minister publicly referred to the “Five Eyes” for the first time. In 2016, the name first appeared in an Australian Defence White Paper. And in 2020, meetings between ministers from the five countries for, respectively, Defence, Foreign Affairs and Treasury, were first identified as “Five Eyes”. 

That looks like a natural evolution. Intelligence sharing fosters trust and provides the participants with a common operating picture. That creates a solid foundation for collective action. 

But labelling these meetings as “Five Eyes” is mistaken and possibly counterproductive. It unnecessarily limits their membership and risks blurring the critical distinction between intelligence and policy.

Intelligence sharing works when both sides can trust that information shared is raw and uninfluenced by policy preferences.

To be clear, members of the Five Eyes should keep coordinating policy. Ministers for Homeland Security and Immigration have been doing this through the “Five Country Ministerial” for several years. This cooperation can be especially beneficial when action depends on intelligence insights, for example when it comes to the attribution of malicious cyber behaviour

But new international coalitions – aiming to balance China, defend the rules-based order and coordinate post Covid-19 economic and public health policies – should be as broad as possible. Describing groupings that have these goals as Five Eyes unnecessarily restricts their membership.

The Joint Australia-Canada-UK-US statement on Hong Kong was hailed by many commentators as auguring a new era for Five Eyes (despite New Zealand’s absence). The collective approach added weight. But it would have had much more weight with the addition of a non-Anglo ex-colony.

Periodic proposals to expand the Five Eyes – by adding countries such France, Japan, Germany or South Korea – are missing the point and engendering disappointment. Five Eyes countries need to share more intelligence with trusted partners. And according to some reports, larger groups have been formed for particular purposes. But seeking to graft new members onto the existing Five Eyes agreement is simply unrealistic.

Characterising policy summits as Five Eyes gatherings also risks blurring the policy-intelligence distinction. The objectivity that is essential to good intelligence can be compromised when intelligence agencies get involved in policy debate. That’s why the directors of the CIA and US National Intelligence don’t vote in US cabinet meetings. Australia’s 2017 Independent Intelligence Review reaffirmed that “the need for intelligence assessments to be independent of policy-making … remains an indispensable requirement”.

That separation of intelligence and policy is as important internationally as it is domestically. Intelligence sharing works when both sides can trust that information shared is raw and uninfluenced by policy preferences. It works best when the agencies sharing are seen to be policy-neutral and able to engage frankly. 

While diplomatic meetings typically aim to find areas of agreement, intelligence meetings are just as often seeking disagreements. Disagreement produces better judgments. And separating analytic differences from policy disputes can better focus policy engagements. 

Forging a common approach to a problem as complex as 5G technology has been extremely difficult. It would be even harder if the governments involved suspected that the technical and intelligence assessments they shared were being shaped by policy goals.

As a new consensus on China takes shape in capitals, the ability of Five Eyes intelligence agencies to speak truth to power – and if necessary, to challenge that consensus – will become ever more important. To compete effectively with China, countries such Australia need an objective and nuanced view of the threat, as well as frank assessments of the impact of Western policy choices – especially when those assessments don’t gel with policy of the day.

Photo via Flickr user Wil C. Fry.

Australia lays down the law in the South China Sea dispute

Australia has entered the renewed diplomatic fray about China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, clarifying, if not entirely resolving, Canberra’s previously vague legal position on the strategically important and contested waters.

The timing is significant, following the declaration last week by the United States, which branded China’s resource and jurisdictional claims across most of the South China Sea as “completely unlawful”. Washington also accused Beijing of bullying smaller Southeast Asian maritime nations and threw its support behind the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal ruling that favoured the Philippines’ position. China was quick to accuse the US of exacerbating an already tense situation.

Australia’s language has been more circumspect, sticking closely to legal rather than behavioural issues. But it won’t be lost on China that Australia has chosen to make its own statement just ahead of next week’s AUSMIN meeting. In a note verbale dated 23 July, Australia’s mission to the United Nations clarified Canberra’s legal position, explicitly rejecting maritime claims by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that Australia views as inconsistent with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Australia has long advocated that maritime disputes should be resolved in accordance with international law. Following the 2016 ruling, Canberra had called for Beijing to respect the ruling and simultaneously amplified its rhetoric on the “rules-based global order”. Despite this, Australia had been somewhat vague in its legal stance on the South China Sea, avoiding a clear articulation of its position on the PRC’s specific South China Sea claims.

This note verbale goes some way in providing clarity. A key element is Australia has made explicit that it rejects the PRC’s claim to “historic rights” in the South China Sea in accordance with the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal ruling.

Australia’s alignment with the US puts it in the potentially awkward position of being more stridently opposed to the PRC’s claims than the maritime Southeast Asian states that have a direct stake in the disputes.

Yet Australia has also rejected PRC claims that were not tested in this arbitration. Since the ruling, PRC experts have relied upon other spurious legal justifications for its South China Sea claims beyond the use of its well-known “historic rights” within the nine-dash line argument. This includes the “Four Shas” (four sands) strategy, which attempts to make a legal case by constructing straight archipelagic baselines around the land features in the Pratas, Paracel, Spratly and Macclesfield Bank groups, claiming this amounts to part of China’s economic exclusion zone and continental shelf. Yet, China's position does not accord with the land/sea ratios set out in UNCLOS, hence Australia’s rejection of the Four Sha outlying archipelago claim, including “any claims to internal waters, territorial sea, exclusive economic zone and continental shelf based on such straight baselines”.

Australia also clarified that it does not view artificial islands as “islands” for the purposes of claiming maritime jurisdiction, a distinction made very clear in UNCLOS. Both the US and Australia have remained neutral on the issue of who owns the land features, preferring instead to focus on the maritime claims. Yet, Australia has pushed back against the PRC’s often bombastic and unequivocal claims that its sovereignty of land features is “widely recognised by the international community”.

Notably, like the US statement, Australia does not comment on the Arbitral Tribunal’s reasoning on how natural land features should be classified as islands, rocks, low-lying, or submerged elevations. This might be explained because both Australia and the US make economic exclusion zone claims on the back of land features that may not meet the Arbitral Tribunal’s threshold for classification as an island. Australia, for example, claims a 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zone around the isolated Heard and McDonald Islands in the southern Indian Ocean – over 4,000 kilometres south-west of Perth – described in one report as “rocky and desolate”. 

Yet Australia’s advocacy in the South China Sea reflects another small win for international law and represents an evolution of its normative approach to the South China Sea. This approach has sought to defend maritime rules without further destabilising the region, putting naval vessels or personnel at risk or damaging trade relations with Beijing.

How the PRC will respond to this intervention will be fascinating to watch. The statement runs the risk that the PRC will punish Australia through economic coercion tactics, but this already appears to be a feature of Sino-Australian economic relations in 2020

It was reported last week that an Australian Defence Force joint task group consisting of five warships had “unplanned interactions with foreign warships throughout the deployment [which] were conducted in a safe and professional manner”. This was rather sensationally reported in the media as a confrontation between Chinese navy and Australian warships in the South China Sea. Perhaps the more significant but less captivating story here was that the Australian fleet were joining American and Japanese counterparts in the Philippines Sea for joint training exercises in another sign of maritime cooperation among so-called “like-minded” states.

Australia’s warships were not in contested areas. Canberra has so far resisted calls from the US to participate in Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPS, although it recognises the right to conduct them exists and has left open the possibility of conducting them in future. In Australian debates, however, FONOPs are very narrowly interpreted as transiting within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands, in contrast to the variety of activities the US undertakes across the globe as part of its freedom of navigation program.  

Part of the challenge for Australia has always been matching its rules-based rhetoric with its operational policy. Speaking loudly without a stick has seen Australia described as a “paper cat”. Australia’s alignment with the US puts it in the potentially awkward position of being more stridently opposed to the PRC’s claims than the maritime Southeast Asian states that have a direct stake in the disputes. A key question now is what Australia will be willing to do in its operations to defend the legal position it has articulated in this statement.


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