Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made a significant statement earlier this month which got less attention than it deserved in a modern era which could scarcely be more troubled.
In Singapore for the annual International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue, Turnbull sought to redefine Australian foreign-policy interests to accommodate new realities in the Asia-Pacific, notably China’s rise.
While it would be wrong to suggest Turnbull was seeking to distance Australia from its custodial ally, the United States, his words provided a touchstone for what might become a more nuanced policy towards the region - and China in particular.
"It’s not clear [Malcolm Turnbull’s] and other voices among America’s friends and allies are being heeded.” - Tony Walker
Importantly, Turnbull seemed to be cautiously sketching out a more independent role for Australia in a world where old certainties are being discarded and new realities are descending upon us, whether we like it or not.
In perhaps the most significant passage of his speech and noting the pace of technological change in the modern era, including heightened risks of cyber-attacks, he had the following to say:
“In this brave new world we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests. We have to take responsibility for our own security and prosperity while recognising we are strong when sharing the burden of collective leadership with trusted partners and friends.”
Turnbull went on to note rather than the “hard power of fleets and armies’’ American global leadership rested on the “values it embodies.’’
In this latest period Australia and its “trusted partners and friends’’ have reason to question America’s adherence to the sort of values which have guided its foreign policy roughly defined by the phrase “liberal internationalism’’, including support for democratic movements and human rights.
Such impulses have served as the cornerstone of American global leadership under Democrat and Republican presidents since the Woodrow Wilson era with detours along the way, including backing for authoritarian regimes in Latin America and elsewhere.
But for the most part America could be relied upon to pursue policies which would contribute to the common good, including aligning itself with – and leading - a broad values consensus among its friends and allies.
Clearly, that consensus is in danger of fracturing on issues like climate change, trade liberalisation, managing a Middle East power keg and best means of dealing with rogue states like North Korea.
America’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership – a project aimed at consolidating trade liberalisation in the Asia-Pacific and creating some sort of regional counterweight to China’s inexorable rise – represented an early shock for Australian policymakers.
This is notwithstanding the fact the move had been well-telegraphed by incoming President Donald Trump. However, Canberra had hoped, even assumed, when in office he would reconsider.
Such expectations proved to be naïve.
More recently America’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, initialed by virtually all UN member countries, including Australia, constituted a significant shock to global governance.
Again, Trump followed through on campaign undertakings in which he had described concerns about global warming as a “Chinese hoax’’ designed to disadvantage American commercial interests.
America’s disendorsement of the Paris agreement groups it with Syria and Nicaragua among countries not signing on to a protocol which took years to negotiate in place of Kyoto.
In fairness to Trump the US Senate rejected Kyoto in 1997 and in 2001 President George Bush announced the US would not even voluntarily implement its provisions. In other words, America has a longstanding suspicion of such global agreements.
Trump supporters have been insisting American decisions on issues like TPP and the Paris Agreement should not be regarded as signaling America’s withdrawal from a global role: to the contrary.
In the conservative National Review, David French observes despite shocks to a western alliance brought about by early decisions of a new administration America remains “indispensable to the national security of every single one of its allies”.
“America,’’ French says, “is arguably even indispensable to the economy of every single one of its allies. So long as America remains in NATO, keeps its treaty obligations elsewhere, and maintains its economic strength, it is and will be the leader of the free world, and world’s dominant global power.’’
This Washington-centric view has some validity, except insofar as it tends to downplay American values as a vital component of its global leadership; what is sometimes referred to as ‘soft-power’’.
In his Shangri La speech Turnbull addressed this issue head on when he said peace and stability in our region “has been enabled by consistent US global leadership”.
“While that leadership would not have been possible without the hard power of fleets and armies, its greatest potency has come from the value which it embodies,” he said.
“Through all the twists and turns of history, the United States has stood for the values on which its great republic was founded: freedom, democracy and the rule of law. That leadership, that commitment, those values, are more important than ever.”
Thus Turnbull made a plea to Washington not to turn its back on its history and its global obligations. It’s not clear his and other voices among America’s friends and allies are being heeded.
This is having the effect of loosening bonds which connected the US to its closest partners – in Europe, in North America, and, potentially, in Asia.
In Canada this week, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland delivered what might come to be regarded as a defining statement about Canadian relations with an unpredictable US administration.
What she had to say was not dissimilar in content from Turnbull’s Singapore remarks but her characterisation of the choices facing her country in the new era were most certainly sharper.
These reflect not only the liberal internationalism of the Justin Trudeau Liberal government but the discomfort of a neighbor and fellow NATO member over administration contortions regarding its commitment to NATO itself and the North American Free Trade Agreement, of which the US, Canada and Mexico are parties.
“The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership, puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course,’’ Freeland told the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa.
“For Canada that course must be the renewal, indeed the strengthening of the post-war multilateral order.’’
In Singapore, Turnbull had this to say specifically about Australia’s alliance obligations in a section of the speech which reflected similar sentiments to those expressed in Ottawa.
“Our alliance with the United States reflects a deep alignment of interests and values but it has never been a straitjacket for Australian policymaking: it has never prevented us from vigorously advancing our own interests and it certainly does not abrogate our responsibility for our own destiny,” he said.
Some might question Turnbull’s insistence Australia has never been constrained by its alliance obligations but that aside his remarks are not inconsistent with a maturing debate about the next phase in Australian foreign policy.
Allan Gyngell, the former head of the Office of National Assessments, wrote an astute book – Fear of Abandonment, Australia in the World Since 1942 - in which he argues Australia’s best interests are no longer served by simply hunkering down in the embrace of great and powerful friends, thus avoiding an opportunity to expand the space in which it operates, increase its options and maximise its choices.
Gyngell quotes Peter Varghese, former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who observed in 2015 Australia tended to see power belonging to others: it had traditionally been more comfortable in the slipstream of others.
In view of convulsions in America, uncertainties inherent in its leadership, countries like Australia and Canada need to ask themselves what is the most prudent course to expand prudently the space in which they operate.
Gyngell supplies an answer in paraphrasing Varghese: “In a world whose largest components are propelling themselves erratically in uncertain directions, the slipstream will be a dangerous place for Australia to linger.’’