What’s wrong with the postwar US-led world order? The answer is: not as much as what’s right with it. Australia is a founding member of the existing order and we have more than our share of the world’s good things. The order has worked for us.
But it also has worked for most of the world, delivering stability, prosperity and peace. There have been violent conflicts at the peripheries, but only rarely between major powers. Aggression between states has been reduced significantly. The realm of democracy and human rights has been enlarged. Hundreds of millions of people have lifted themselves out of poverty.
The problem is not the quality of the order but its sustainability.
The order is under challenge because of the diffusion of power across the international system. As other nations rise – in particular China – America’s margin of superiority shrinks. Washington certainly has less ability to dictate events now than it did in the unipolar moment at the end of the Cold War.
Even more important than the loss of power by the US and the West is their loss of resolve. The US and its allies still represent more than half of world GDP and military spending, which is not to be sneezed at.
But for a decade Washington has stepped back from its traditional role, unwilling to pay the price and bear the burdens of leadership. The Obama administration inched back from the world; the Trump administration has quit entirely.
President Donald Trump is not agnostic on the benefits of the world order Washington established after World War II; he is a zealous unbeliever. He thinks the order is a scam.
US Attorney-General Bill Barr says Trump has not committed crimes under US federal law. But Trump has committed crimes against the international order –and against US self-interest.
For an Americophile, it is awful to hear US national security adviser John Bolton speak approvingly of spheres of influence, or to hear State Department policy planning director Kiron Skinner say that Washington is “preparing for a clash of civilisations” with China.
Australia and its allies are stakeholders in the existing international order. Unfortunately, the nation that created the order does not, under its present leadership, fully subscribe to it.
If we are stakeholders in the order, then we ought to be responsible stakeholders.
How should countries such as Australia buttress the existing order, so as to extend its life and preserve as many of its positive features as we can?
We should put a name to its challengers – whether they reside in the White House or Zhongnanhai.
We should be exemplars in following international rules and observing international agreements, such as the Paris climate accord. A recent UN report has indicated that a million species may be at risk of extinction because of climate change. The health of our planet is a first-order issue for the international order.
The idea that a country such as Australia, with so much to lose from climate change and so much to gain from new energy technologies, would walk away from an accord to which we put our name, thereby trashing our reputation for reliability as well as our long-term economic interests, is mad.
We should deepen our connections with other like-minded countries. At the regional level, that means doing more practical things with powers such as India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea.
We should not neglect China; on the contrary, when our interests overlap with Beijing’s, we should pursue those interests energetically. But we must never shrink Asia to the dimensions of one country, even one as important as China.
At the global level, we should do much more in concert with like-minded countries, often in the absence of the US.
And, most important, we should invest in our defence forces and diplomatic services, which enable us to contribute to international security and prosperity.
Certainly, the world is changing. The international system has changed and it will change further. Competition will increase. Power will continue to shift. New technologies will alter the game further.
But it is not in Australia’s interests to accelerate this process. We should take a conservative approach, seeking to extend the effective life of the order, nudge capitals towards incremental rather than revolutionary changes, and preserve the best features of the existing order in whatever system comes next.
In the end, of course, world orders are not made by middle powers. They are built – and broken – by great powers. I hope the US rediscovers its resolve to lead an open international order, rather than a protection racket.
History is not made only by vast impersonal forces but by individuals. Historians who spend their lives in the archives know that events are contingent, not preordained.
This fact gives us cause for optimism. Trump is doing great damage to the order. However, much of what he has done can be undone by his successor.
The US will not snap back completely when Trump leaves. Permanent damage has been done. But the next president can bring Washington a long way back.
This would be good for America –and for the rest of us.
Winston Churchill famously said democracy was the worst form of government “except for all those other forms that have been tried”.
The US-led world order is the worst form of world order, except all those other forms that have been tried.
Michael Fullilove is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute. This commentary first appeared in The Australian.