Commentary |
12 February 2021

Chaotic America means troubled world

The West pins its hopes on a rules-based liberal order. But that doesn’t work if the US standard-bearer is dysfunctional. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review

Madeleine Nyst
Madeleine Nyst

We’ve all seen the images and videos. Aided by smartphone technology, the rest of the world got a front-row seat when a violent mob assaulted police officers and forced its way into the US Capitol as part of an insurrection encouraged by former president Donald Trump.

As if we could ever forget the events of that day, it’s been front and centre again this week as Trump’s second impeachment trial began.

The democratic norms that people refer to when talking about the “rules-based order” were shattered as rioters – aided by their inciter-in-chief – attempted to disrupt the peaceful transition of executive power in the world’s leading democracy.

Countries vying for superpower status looked on with glee as America provided perfect fodder for their arguments against democracy.

The “rules-based order” – also referred to as the “liberal international order” – is not widely understood outside the corridors of power and academia, but it has been a broadly consistent theme in Western foreign and defence policy over the past decade, including in Australia. The rules-based order is shorthand for a global system, centred on institutions such the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, that imposes limits on how states operate and interact.

Emerging after World War II, the order was strongly anchored in the ideas of economic liberalism. Making it easier for states to trade with one another would encourage greater market integration and – it was hoped – make it less likely for countries to go to war.

But economic liberalism also had a strong domestic function – it decreased unemployment and resulted in the advancement of welfare states. As a result, upholding the international order became integral to ensuring domestic social and political cohesion.

Right now, America is like an Uber driver with a rating of less than three stars – no one wants to ride with you.

And herein lies a crucial point – without a strong domestic anchor, states cannot effectively uphold and advocate for the rules-based order.

But what happens when the country that has been the loudest proponent of the international order has its own domestic dysfunction laid painfully bare?

This question emerged as part of a new digital feature, released recently by the Lowy Institute, in which six experts debate America’s approach to the rules-based order.

Despite the rules-based order often being presented as a black-and-white concept – “we” do the right thing and uphold the rules, while “other” outlier states break the rules – in reality most proponent countries sit in a grey area, and will often break or manipulate the rules when it suits their interests. This hypocrisy is not lost on those who would seek to undermine the order – for example, China.

The fickleness of America’s approach to the rules-based order over the past four years under Trump reached a peak with last month’s Capitol riots. This event could not be explained away as taking place in some far-flung new democracy. Rather, it occurred inside the very heart of modern democracy.

The contradiction between America’s global ambitions and its domestic dysfunction was highlighted by several contributors in the Lowy debate.

Rebecca Lissner argues that any attempt by America to reassert itself at the helm of global leadership has to “begin with a recognition that America’s global leadership depends fundamentally on its domestic strength”.

Stacie Goddard writes that in “supporting a rules-based order, the United States needs to keep front and centre that there is no greater national interest than preserving and strengthening democracy at home”.

Shoring up domestic adherence to a rules-based order is crucial to being able to project oneself as a democratic and law-abiding power that deserves to be respected and emulated.

Tackling China and Myanmar

Take one of the greatest challenges facing America and Australia right now – the rise of China. If our approach to dealing with China is about not just forcing it to follow the rules but compelling it to want to work together to maintain the rules, then we need to demonstrate the effectiveness of the rules at home first. At the moment, the US is not exactly a shining model of successful governance.

The US and Australia were part of a group of countries that recently issued a joint statement in response to the detention of political leaders in Myanmar, warning against “any attempt to alter the outcome of the elections or impede Myanmar’s democratic transition”. Then, on Wednesday, the US announced sanctions targeting military leaders.

Given recent events, the irony of such a response is obvious. Where were the strong words from Canberra in the aftermath of America’s own insurrection?

Australia has made clear its intention to support the US and the rules-based order. But for other countries in this region – whose support is crucial to countering Chinese coercion and addressing global issues such as climate change and future pandemics – it’s not as clear-cut. Indeed, one of the reasons Australia has not come out strongly against the military coup in Myanmar is because it fears such action could drive the country closer to China.

America’s reputation matters. Right now, it is like an Uber driver with a rating of less than three stars – no one wants to ride with you.

Hopefully, under a Biden administration America can help remind its international partners of the benefits of playing by the rules and adhering to the norms and values of the rules-based order. First step: make sure your own car is in order.

Madeleine Nyst is a research associate at the Lowy Institute.