A New Global Architecture by Dennis Altman

Director of the Institute for Human Security Dennis Altman

Director of the Institute for Human Security Dennis Altman

This week Parliament finally debated Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. For most Australians our commitment there is a consequence of the American alliance, and as doubts about the war increase in the United States, Australians will be forced to rethink some of the basic assumptions of a largely bipartisan view of global politics.

Hugh White’s recent essay, 'Power Shift', suggested that the rise of China challenges Australia to reassess its relations with the United States. White is too cautious to suggest that foreign policy is merely a matter of choosing between two super powers, as if there were no other options. But many commentators read his essay as an attack on the American alliance, which has become the cornerstone of mainstream Australian thinking about the outside world.

It is unclear what sort of global structures and tensions will emerge over the coming decades, a more complex question than the apparent decline of the United States and the inexorable rise of Chinese economic, political and military power. Almost certainly our foreign relations will involve dealing with a number of significant nation states and growing trans-national crises, and both are central to understanding Australian security.

However one measures it, the world that emerged at the end of the Cold War, in which the United States was clearly the only super power, is rapidly changing. In Australia this has been largely discussed in terms of the growing importance of East and South Asia to our economy, with occasional nods to the ongoing centrality of Indonesia as the closest significant power.

This discussion misses the complexity of global shifts that are seeing American dominance replaced by a set of shifting patterns as a number of countries, not only China and India, jostle for greater global influence. The gradual displacement of the old G7 grouping by the G20, of which Australia is a member, is symbolic of an emergent world order that is as yet poorly understood.

Consider whom the Prime Minister will sit beside at the next G20 meeting in Korea, itself a significant political and economic power. Our old allies and adversaries—the United States, Britain, China, India and Japan, will be there of course. But so too will the leaders of Turkey, Indonesia, Mexico and Russia among others.

These countries all have ambitions to the sort of “middle power” status of which Kevin Rudd likes to speak, and increasingly diplomatic and economic links are being forged between various combinations of these states of which we are not necessarily a part.

There is virtually no expertise about half the countries of the G20 in our universities, and current funding patterns make this situation unlikely to change. If the government’s bid for a Security Council seat leads to greater Australian understanding of a number of emerging states the effort would be worthwhile in itself.

At the same time new global issues demand greater cooperation between governments to respond to challenges such as climate change, infectious diseases, food and water scarcity, uncontrolled population movements and transnational crime.

But increasingly international development is shaped by multilateral decisions around issues such as trade, debt relief and peace keeping. Strategic thinking, as many military analysts now acknowledge, requires us to think beyond either conventional or guerrilla wars to ways of building global, institutions capable of dealing with global problems.

Australia is constantly torn between historical and cultural ties to the North Atlantic world, and its geographic situation between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Ironically while we are becoming more ethnically diverse than ever our politicians seem to have turned inwards, with a Prime Minister and Opposition Leader who seem largely disinterested in the complex shifts in global power.

The looming defeat of the western mission in Afghanistan should remind us that entrenched poverty, corruption and inequality are the greatest threats to stability, but also suggests that these problems do not have military solutions. Yet greater global cooperation will involve new powers, whose views of the world are different to those of our traditional allies. It will take great skill and flexibility for Australia to manage these changes.

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