The world is changing. Australia can be at the forefront of that change
In an era of profound international disruption an inwardly focused United States seems calamitous for Australia. But pessimists should look at the opportunities this turn of events brings for our country, not prognosticate about the worst that may come.
The first days of Trump’s presidency have legitimized the fears of his opponents — both in the US and abroad. His bellicose, anti-fact narcissism that worked so well in his campaign has only encouraged the President and his band of sycophantic yes-men to employ this style to governing.
In just 48 hours, the new administration not only declared war on the media, but also on objectivity, reason and hope. It began with Trump’s inaugural address: a fictional declaration of the end-of-times that felt more the work of Sharknado’s screenwriter that that of an incoming US president.
Trump’s rise — and his disdain for the existing international structure — signals to many the beginning of a ‘new world order’. But what does this mean?
Some believe there will be a ‘World Order 2.0- an update of our current system that tries to use our current framework to better adapt to new challenges and the reality of globalization. Others hope for a ‘progressive internationalism’ — a re-thinking the nature of our international economic framework to put the working class first on a global scale.
Some argue we are on the verge of a return to a classic Westphalian sovereignty — a framework that rejects multilateral collaboration and instead re-emphasises the unchallenged authority of the nation-state. This is favored by the Putins and Assads of the world.
In truth, no one knows the ultimate form a renewed international system will take. But in order for Australia to maintain its standing, it must steadfastly remain at the table to help shape it.
For countries like ours, long reliant on a predictable America for our security and prosperity, the first days of Trump’s administration warrant alarm bells.
But in moments of disruption, profound challenges do not emerge in isolation. They emerge lock-step with equally profound opportunities that hard-thinking policymakers should hunt for.
The institutional frameworks that govern the international system do require reform. These pillars of international order — the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and others — have reached, as some say, ‘retirement age’.
While they continue to do invaluable work, a perception that these entities can’t solve all the world’s problems, and embrace the emerging influence of new eastern powers like China, India, and the ASEAN nations has meant that globally, today’s structure is on the nose.
New institutions, and new mandates for the world’s existing institutions, will emerge in the next few years. While the US are still well positioned to drive this evolution, under Trump, it feels as if it is walking away from the table.
This leaves room for other powers to emerge as the drivers of a new world order.
The proliferation of major international institutions led by non-Western powers is already occurring. China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is one example; the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union another.
These other powers will relentlessly drive these structural changes so long as the US remains distracted, attempting to ‘lock-in’ their future influence for when the disruptive dust has settled — just as the US did in the post-war period.
Therefore, it’s essential that at this moment, Australia use the heft of its sizeable economic role in the world (the 12th largest economy) to fly the flag for democratic liberalism in an evolving international system. It is positioned to do so, particularly regionally.
Australia is truly an Asia-Pacific nation, uniquely positioned to embrace the opportunities of its geographic reality, while maintaining its own historic and cultural connection to the Atlantic world. With US interest in our region waning, Australia can pick up some of that slack — without the fear of stepping on Washington’s toes.
And, leadership changes aside, Australia’s political system is remarkably stable and largely predictable. Thanks to compulsory voting, elections are won or lost in the center. The fringe parties that have tried to capitalize on the UKIP/Trump style of ethno-nationalist populism are, thus far, too inept and fractured to truly enter the mainstream.
The result is that Australia is one of few major economies somewhat immune to major disruptive political forces distracting similar countries in the West. For this reason, Australia is well placed to drive positive, liberal multilateral agendas in the Asia-Pacific, and the world.
The world is changing, and US adversaries will capitalize on one of the largest own-goals in American history. Australia must be wary of the associated challenges, but ambitiously and creatively strive to maintain its place — and its values — in whatever world order emerges.