Rules-based global order: be alert and alarmed

By Richard Menhinick*

It’s time for Australia’s leaders to wean themselves off the overused and increasingly meaningless expression, ‘rules-based global order’. Australia’s strategic policy establishment is captured by the allure of this phrase.

The 2016 Defence White Paper was full of it and the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper followed suit, although it was a little more nuanced, perhaps due to the uncertain trajectory of the United States. Our prime minister and foreign minister, among others, still manage to utter the term in just about every speech, doorstop or media opportunity where foreign or defence policy is mentioned. But why?

The Defence white paper described the rules-based global order as ‘a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules which evolve over time, such as international law and regional security arrangements’. Josh Leslie points out in The Regionalist that this order isn’t one that China supports.

This is the essential issue for Australia. My view is that the reason this phrase has been developed and is now used continuously by our leaders is that whereas we were once on the side that was in the ascendency, that’s not the case now. Uncertainty and challenges for Australia are increasing as the ‘Asian century’ unfolds and the US behaves increasingly erratically. There’s now an urgent need to emphasise what was previously self-evident.

Until recently, the US-led global order was a bulwark of globalisation, liberal democracy and prosperity. This system evolved from victory over tyranny in World War II. It was reinforced by the postwar dismantling of European colonialism and then the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Australians today, however, should be concerned about our nation’s determination to cling to an expression that smacks of ‘hope against reality’, at best a holding position and a defensive strategy.

We can argue over who will have ascendency ultimately in the Indo-Pacific, what the Indo-Pacific is and how Australia should respond. However, the real problem for us is that our defence and foreign policies need to be re-crafted to offset fault lines in Western foreign policy.

An international system is only effective if it’s seen as fair to the vast majority, including those who disagree with our point of view. The key is that every nation has legitimate interests from its perspective. It’s increasingly true that US-led Western interventions, coupled with partnerships, billion-dollar arms sales and alliances with countries in the Middle East, are unhelpful. Australia shares some blame for this.

This is especially true when viewed from the perspective of many living in the region whose underlying societal conditions are splintered. In their eyes, their suffering is caused as much—if not more so—by Western nations’ policies than by those we are aligned against.

Entrenched Western alliances and interests are often not values-based. In this we all too often share discomforting similarities with those we oppose. It’s safe and comforting to focus on Russia, North Korea, Syria, Ukraine or Iran while glossing over the tragedies of Yemen, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq, just to name a few. People suffering in these countries have a vastly different view of the rule of law than we do. There’s little doubt that Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are bad, but the leaders of Saudi Arabia or even Turkey are hardly liberal democratic icons. Our adherence to rules that we make, ignore or circumvent to suit ourselves should give us pause for thought.

Written with the wholesale destruction that was World War II firmly in mind, Article One of the Charter of the United Nations focuses on maintaining international peace and security, conforming with the principles of justice and international law, developing friendly relations among nations and achieving international cooperation in solving international problems.

The problem for Australia is two-fold. First, this isn’t actually the rules-based global order that we talk about. Second, countries such as China, among others in the Indo-Pacific, who don’t adhere to the US-led model, know this. Our weakness will become increasingly obvious as nearby countries become more dominant economic and military powers and affect our own national security.

It’s high time that our adherence to an increasingly weak set of rules became based more on the principles outlined in the UN Charter, as uncomfortable as that may be. That will require compromise with people we may not like or agree with to achieve pragmatic outcomes within the UN framework—not, as we have become used to, a selective interpretation from a decreasing position of strength.

It’s time to be alert and alarmed.

* Richard Menhinick had an extensive career in the Royal Australian Navy, including commands at sea, ashore and on operations. He has also worked in strategic analysis and policy formulation.

Republished with permission of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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