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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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But what does “rules-based order” mean?

Although the “rules-based international order” is central to Australian strategy, what exactly this concept means remains a work very much in progress. For Australia to achieve its objectives for the order, it will have to get more specific.

A hardy perennial

The importance to Australia of the rules-based order concept is clear from the warm embrace it has received from both sides of the political aisle ever since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd first used the term in 2008 – despite our rapid turnover of prime ministers since then.

Tony Abbott used the phrase less often in his time as prime minister, but only because he preferred different three-word terms, often speaking against “might is right” and in favour of being a “good international citizen” – a concept popularised by former foreign minister Gareth Evans.

Doubts about Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s enthusiasm for the rules-based order flickered after he attacked “negative globalism” in his 2019 Lowy Lecture. In that speech, Morrison – fresh back from the UN General Assembly in New York – also announced that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would undertake a “comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes”.

Support for the concept has been further tested by the more Hobbesian world revealed and accelerated by Covid-19. For hard-headed realists who always doubted the concept, this would be an ideal moment to eject it from Australian strategic discourse.

Middle powers such as Australia must do more to build a framework for managing US-China competition.

But in June, Foreign Minister Payne reported that the audit of multilateral institutions commissioned by Morrison had “affirmed that multilateral organisations, especially international standard-setting bodies, create rules that are vital to Australia's security, interests, values and prosperity”.

The next month, Morrison launched the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, describing a world that is “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly”.

Patterns of cooperation that have benefited our prosperity and security for decades are now under increasing – and I would suggest almost irreversible – strain.

Despite that strain, in August the Prime Minister voiced full-throated support for the “rebuilding of international society”. He took that term from the Anglo-Australian scholar Hedley Bull, saying Bull’s 1977 book The Anarchical Society remains one of the most influential works on global politics of the last 50 years. “I’ve got a copy on my bookshelf behind me,” Morrison said.

This was the first time an Australian Prime minister had publicly cited the work of Bull. The image of Australia’s “daggy-dad” Prime Minister gesturing towards his copy of Bull’s rarefied tome captures the resilience of the rules-based order concept in Australian strategy.

Multiple meanings

But what does “rules-based order” mean?

The unsatisfying answer is that the concept is used in official discourse to mean many different things, and they’re not always complementary. Although the term “rules-based international order” was only coined after the Cold War, Canberra typically dates it to the aftermath of the Second World War and the institutions and norms – centred on the UN – that were established then. It is often credited with having delivered 70 years of peace and security.

Other recurring propositions are that the rules-based order has both constrained the use of power and depends on US power; that it could shape China’s rise and be shaped by China; and that it must be saved and must change.

To be fair, Australian discourse has evolved across the last 12 years, and there have been some efforts at greater specificity. Indeed, although Payne’s speech in June was all about the rules-based order, she didn’t use the phrase once.

But Payne also missed an opportunity to be more precise about the focus of Australian efforts. Her list of “three fundamental parts of the multilateral system” that Australia will focus on preserving was so sweeping that nothing much was left out. She cited:

  • the rules that protect sovereignty, preserve peace and curb excessive use of power, and enable international trade and investment;
  • the international standards related to health and pandemics, to transport, telecommunications and other issues that underpin the global economy, and which will be vital to a post-Covid-19 economic recovery;
  • and thirdly, the norms that underpin universal human rights, gender equality and the rule of law.

Payne extended the concept by highlighting – correctly – the importance of often-overlooked technical bodies. They set ostensibly apolitical standards on “civil aviation, maritime transport, intellectual property, telecommunications, agriculture”. Unfortunately, there was little detail provided about her department’s audit of multilateral institutions, but Payne clearly recognised that these bodes are now frequent sites of ideological competition (chiefly with China, although she wasn’t that specific). She declared that “we must stand up for our values and bring our influence to bear in these institutions to … preserve the open character of international institutions based on universal values and transparency”.

Managing great power relations

Payne’s framing of the rules-based order as the site of ideological competition would accord well with a Biden administration in the US. But the rules-based order can also be understood, less ideologically, as a mechanism for managing competition between states with divergent values. The arms control agreements that helped keep war cold between the US and the USSR owed little to democratic values. The US and China don’t dominate global politics as did the US and the USSR during Hedley Bull’s time. In the modern era, Australia needs an international order than can bound US-China rivalry and forestall conflict.

Of course, managing great power relations is primarily a job for the great powers. According to Hedley Bull, the norms of the international order could be derived from the way in which the great powers managed their competition. But as he put it, great powers could “fulfil their managerial functions in international society only if these functions are accepted clearly enough by a large enough proportion of the society of states to command legitimacy”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (on screens) addresses the general debate of the UN General Assembly’s 75th session, 25 September 2020 (UN Photo)

This is even more true in today’s more multipolar world than it was in Bull’s time. Middle powers such as Australia must do more to build a framework for managing US-China competition. Michèle Flournoy, widely touted as a Secretary for Defence in a future Biden administration, has recognised at least one half of this problem. She told the US Studies Centre that:

We don’t have a real risk-reduction framework with China, we don’t have an “incidents at sea” agreement, we don’t have the kinds of measures that were put in place back in the days of US-Soviet tensions … this is not something that I think will be well received if it is just the US approaching China. I think a number of countries need to approach China together to say “look, the risk is too high, we need to agree on some standards, some norms, some procedures to reduce the level of risk and miscalculation.

As the international order has been assailed from all sides, its importance has become clearer to Australian leaders, important enough to overcome Australian suspicion of such abstract-sounding notions. But the time has come to turn that understanding into a more concrete, and more public, plan of action. Working with like-minded countries to defend democratic values is one part of the job. But to produce an order that can forestall catastrophic US-China conflict, Australia will have to work more with larger groups, including many differently minded countries.

Smart China choices

Australian commentators often appear eager to paint Australia’s China choices in stark binaries. “The money or our sovereignty: China leaves us no choice” is one representative headline.

Continued bilateral escalation could prove them right. But both states have an interest in trying to get the most out of mutually beneficial cooperation – especially on trade and investment – even as the relationship’s adversarial edge grows sharper.

It’s not just Australia and China. In the more competitive post–Covid-19 world, all countries are facing tougher decisions about how to interact with one another. The most successful states will find ways to balance the benefits of continued international engagement with the protection of public health, economic resilience and national security. Countries that tilt too far in one direction or the other will fall behind. China’s bid to rebalance looks to be its new “dual circulation” strategy.

As Australia and China compete to get the most out of their bilateral relationship, Canberra should produce better decisions than Beijing is able to.

How can Australia get the most out of the bilateral relationship? Canberra needs to do more than simply “step back from anything that looks confrontational and wait until a more cooperative atmosphere evolves” as former foreign minister Bob Carr advises. But insisting on “reciprocity”, as former prime minister Tony Abbott recommends is not the answer either. The relationship is unavoidably asymmetric. China dwarfs Australia on almost every economic and military metric. And Australia can benefit from unreciprocated Chinese activity – including the inflow of Chinese investment, students and tourists.

Rather, Australia should play to it asymmetric strengths. Aside from its wider network of partners and allies, Australia’s core advantage is its democratic political system. It won’t be possible for Australia to avoid hard trade-offs in its relationship with China, especially between economic and security interests. But transparent and contestable processes should produce the best balance. As Australia and China compete to get the most out of their bilateral relationship, Canberra should produce better decisions than Beijing is able to.

China’s response to Covid-19 has, admittedly, showcased its extraordinary capacity to implement government edicts. But it has also demonstrated the shortcomings of Beijing’s top-down decision making. China has kicked a series of own goals, first by suppressing initial reports of the coronavirus and then by pushing out aggressively on fronts from India to Japan all at once.

Like ambitious great powers before it, China will keep making bad decisions as it seeks to reshape the world. Beijing is even more likely to do so, because many of its preferred tools are difficult to wield. Geo-economics – the use of economic power for strategic purposes – is hard to practice. Because the international economy is fluid, cause and effect is not always linear. Because economic interdependence is mutual, it can be hard to leverage. And new technologies – which China is trying to dominate – are inherently unpredictable. History suggests that those who develop new technologies benefit less than the inventors.

Faced with this blundering giant, Australia should be judicious about attempting to counter Chinese moves. Canberra should take advantage of China’s mistakes where possible and, at the very least, avoid interrupting them.

Optimal decisions require rigorous analysis. Decision makers should be leery of threat inflation and alluringly simple templates, such as the claim that once you understand the pattern of behaviour by the People’s Republic you will see it in operation everywhere. Exaggerated claims that China’s Belt and Road Initiative is driven by “debt trap diplomacy” don’t hold up to scrutiny and – being easy to refute – hand Beijing an easy propaganda win. In practice, the Belt and Road Initiative is likely to produce a mix of beneficial infrastructure, white elephants and genuine strategic threats to Australia.

Unable to afford playing whack a mole, Australia needs to focus limited resources on countering the most serious threats. The poorly-funded and technically-insecure Huawei-funded data centre in Port Moresby is, for example almost certainly neither “built to spy on PNG” nor an example of debt trap diplomacy. China’s construction of an airport on Manus Island could be a threat to the neighbouring naval base. Or it could be an example of China mistakenly devoting resources to military infrastructure that could be used to counter it.

The massive state resources China is pouring into cutting edge technologies – including biotech, wireless networks, artificial intelligence and big data processing will produce great inefficiencies and major breakthroughs. Australia’s exclusion of Chinese telcos from participation in our 5G networks was based on world class analysis. But the blanket ban should be the exception rather than a guideline for future Australian engagement with Chinese technology. In the 5G case, it was not possible to mitigate the security risk. Australia will need to work hard to find ways to avoid denying itself the benefits of future Chinese technology. That will entail acceptance that risk must be managed rather than eliminated in a more technology-dependent world.

The government is, wisely, applying a national security lens to decisions that were previously viewed as purely economic, including through major reforms slated for the Foreign Investment Review Board. But the risk of over-correction and opacity is ever present. The best decision requires the best analysis. Part of the solution is to boost the level of technical expertise inside government. But Canberra should also seek more expert input from outside government. Transparent and contestable decision-making is central to Australia’s competitive edge.

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.


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