This week we launched the latest project to emerge from the Lowy’s Institute’s Australia’s Security and the Rules-Based Order project, a debate feature on America and the Rules-Based Order. It’s a textbook example of constructive public debate. Each of the six expert participants state their case plainly and respond directly to objections and counter-arguments. Mercifully, none of them are pre-occupied with definitions. 

It’s tempting to think of definitions as a pre-condition for debate. We have to agree on what we are talking about before we can argue the merits. But I think of it the opposite way: the debate is itself a struggle to work towards a definition. In this case, what does America think the rules-based order is for?

For some in the debate, the purpose is to entrench and even sanctify an American-led international system. Realists might put it less politely, that the rules-based order is a fig leaf, a polite fiction that masks the harsh realities of power. Others say the rules-based order can protect US interests as its power wanes relative to China, or that it can help democratic nations collectively defend themselves against China and other authoritarian rivals. 

But none of the participants explicitly argue for the rules-based order as a tool to expand American ideals and ideology, specifically into China. Patrick Porter makes the case against such a definition of the order (“Washington would be better advised to steer clear of grandiose doctrines and schemes to domesticate the world to its values”), but it’s not clear who he is debating. He mentions that President Joe Biden wants to call a “Summit for Democracy”, but like many of the participants in this debate feature, Biden couched that idea in essentially defensive terms. The aim seems to be to protect democracies against backsliding and foreign interference, not democratise America’s rivals.

A daily press briefing resumes at the US Department of State under the Biden administration (US Department of State/Flickr)

Biden may yet have expansive plans for democracy promotion in Asia, but the intellectual tide in Washington is against him. There’s a new conventional wisdom which argues that efforts to use free trade and the internet to encourage political liberalisation in China, ideas which were popular during the Clinton administration and even under George W. Bush, were hopelessly naïve and have failed utterly. 

I tend to think such judgments are still premature (the internet is the greatest information revolution since the printing press, and it is barely 30 years old), but that’s beside the point. More important is that Americans in power seem to believe it. In fact, it was entrenched in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, and two leading Asia advisers in the Biden team, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, have said much the same thing.

Raising the ideological stakes of the most important bilateral relationship on earth would only make America’s already precarious position in Asia worse. It should be aiming to lower the stakes.

In turn, this suggests that Washington foreign policy elites implicitly acknowledge the long-term sustainability and legitimacy of China’s authoritarian model. When it comes to liberalism and democracy, then, the US is in a defensive crouch rather than in an expansionary mood. That suits the times. Raising the ideological stakes of the most important bilateral relationship on earth would only make America’s already precarious position in Asia worse. It should be aiming to lower the stakes.

And so should Australia. Its foreign and security policy should be geared towards encouraging the US to think about the relationship with communist China not as an ideological contest or a struggle for supremacy, but as a permanent accommodation between two great powers in which China will have significant advantages – not only will it be economically larger, but it is also the resident power in Asia.

Australia is being forced to think about its security in a new way. Australia is no longer a rich nation surrounded by poverty, allied with the world’s only superpower, but a rich, relatively small country in a region of rapidly growing wealth, and home to a nation set to overtake the US by many measures of national power. 

But that’s not Australia’s biggest problem. So great are China’s advantages that Australia should prepare itself for the possibility that America may choose to give up its position in Asia rather than compete with China. That would leave us with the biggest foreign and security policy challenge of all: defending ourselves and our interests without the help of the United States.

Main image via Flickr user Thomas Hawk