Foreign and Commonwealth Office Association (FCOA) Annual Lecture
London, 19 October 2018
The global geopolitical environment is changing rapidly and dramatically and, on the face of it, not for the better. I have tended to approach both international and domestic public affairs throughout my entire professional and public life as an incorrigible optimist – so much so that I gave that title to my recently published political memoir  – but lately I have been feeling very corrigible indeed. There have been two major, inter-related, sets of geopolitical developments making me, and I guess most of us here, more than a little nervous.
First, there has been the major shift in the global balance of power – above all away from the United States and toward China, but with a number of other dynamics also in play, including Russia playing the role of regional hegemon and global spoiler whenever and wherever it can –which leaves us, at best, profoundly uncertain whether there can be sustained that basic order from which most, if not all, of the world has benefited for decades. And it is not just the international order as we have known it that seems under stress, but more specifically the liberal international order with its commitment, at least notionally, to democratic institutions, respect for human rights and – economically – to free trade and capital movement.
Second, associated with this, there has been the retreat from multilateralism – starkly captured in President Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month with his catchcry ‘We reject the ideology of globalism and embrace the doctrine of patriotism’. And this at a time when global cooperation has never been more necessary if we are to deal with issues like climate change, health pandemics, unregulated population flows, international drug and sex trafficking, and arms control: those ‘problems without passports’, as Kofi Annan described them, which are beyond the capacity of any country, however big and powerful, to resolve unilaterally.
In describing now in more detail, as I will, these various developments, I want in each case to explore whether there are in fact any grounds to be less pessimistic about the future than most policymakers, analysts and commentators have tended to be. In this post-truth, post-rationality, post-decency, Trumpian world we now seem to inhabit, it is difficult to be optimistic about anything. There are some very serious challenges we have to confront. So what are they, and what are the chances of them being effectively met?
The Changing Balance of Power
China’s economic rise has been breathtaking in its speed and magnitude. In purchasing power parity (PPP) terms China is already the world’s largest economy, and destined to become much bigger still. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, the longstanding injunction of Deng Xiao Ping for China to ‘hide its strength, bide its time and never take the lead’ internationally has now been completely abandoned. China wants to be a global rule-maker, not just a rule taker. It is no longer prepared to accept second-rank status in international financial institutions: exhibit one being the creation, against intense US opposition, of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). And economic strength is now being parlayed into geopolitical influence on a massive scale across the Asian continent and its maritime surrounds through the Belt and Road Initiative.
China wants strategic space in East Asia, and is no longer prepared to play second fiddle to the United States. Militarily, while its expenditure and overall firepower does not match America’s, and catch-up globally will be a long time coming, there has been a very significant modernization and expansion of its capability, certainly along the East Asian littoral, and into the Indian Ocean. Most disconcertingly, some expansionist territorial claims have been pursued, most notably in the South China Sea, with the continuing creeping militarisation of the reef installations in the Spratlys.
As was pointed out in a recent speech by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, now President of the Asia Society Policy Institute and an acknowledged leading China specialist, ‘China’s rise as global power did not begin in 2018. That began 40 years before…[W]hat has changed under Xi Jinping has been the clarity of articulation of China’s strategic intentions, reflected also in the increased operational tempo of China’s policy actions around the world—militarily, diplomatically, and in its global economic reach. If the three pillars of strategic analysis are capabilities, intentions and actions, it is clear from all three that China is no longer a status-quo power.’
As China’s authority has been rising, that of the United States has been manifestly waning, notwithstanding the enormous economic and military power the US continues to have, the alliances and partnerships it continues to maintain, and the enormous weight of the soft power – the capacity to influence through attraction – that it has accumulated over so many decades. The Trump administration has squandered US credibility, not just in Asia but worldwide, at multiple levels. By tearing up the painstakingly negotiated and so far totally successful JCPOA with a nuclear weapon-less Iran and demanding that the world punish its leadership, while at the same time declaring his ‘love’ for the murderous and still very nuclear-armed Kim Jong-un on the basis of, so far, no substantive agreement at all with North Korea. By insulting and alienating his NATO partners, and making clear in multiple ways that he regards allies as expensive encumbrances rather than assets. By walking away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, trying to destroy the WTO, and showing less understanding than a junior high-school student of the economic benefits of international trade. And by walking away from the Paris Climate Accords and all the other assaults on multilateralism to which I will return.
As to the Trump administration’s response to China’s rise, the most charitable analysis until very recently has been that it has no real idea what it is doing here, any more than anywhere else, with the President himself making very clear that he was about postures not policies – impulse and instinct unhampered by anything resembling knowledge, mature judgment or intelligent strategic calculation. But – taking together the National Security and Defense Strategy documents released last December and January, the launching and intensification of the trade war with China, and now Vice-President Pence’s very toxic speech to the Hudson Institute earlier this month – we now have an emerging declaratory strategy that may be even worse than incoherence and indiscipline, viz. what is being widely described as the birth of a ‘new Cold War’.
While all this is very troubling I don’t believe the situation is irretrievable. Much of China’s behaviour is no more than can and should be expected of a rapidly economically rising, hugely trade-dependent regional superpower wanting to flap its wings and reassert some of its historical greatness after two centuries or more of wounded pride – certainly wanting to buy some strategic space for itself, certainly wanting the military capacity to protect its economic lifelines, and wanting an influence in global policy-making consonant with its strength. The ‘Thucydides Trap’ storyline is overdrawn. Thucydides did not say that war was inevitable between the rising Sparta and established Athens; it was a risk, not an inexorable trap. There is every reason to believe that China will not seek to usurp America in the global order, only to take its place alongside it, and that it could live quite comfortably in a global environment characterised by cooperative security – in which states primarily find their security with others, rather than against them.
Yes, China does want, as my ANU colleague Hugh White has put it, ‘to protect their own ideology and political system from outside interference, and to guarantee their own territorial security. And they want to reassert China’s status as a great power, and as the leading power in East Asia.’ If those needs are accommodated there is no reason to fear what White describes as a ‘harsh hegemony on their neighbours’. A soft hegemony maybe, but not one achieved by military force.
What is absolutely crucial, if things are not to end in tears, is that there be a return to the mindset on both sides of the Pacific – and particularly right now on the US side – that there is infinitely more to be achieved through cooperative power-sharing, within the framework of a rules based international order, than through confrontation. Just about the wisest words I have ever heard on this subject came from Bill Clinton at a private gathering at which I was present in 2002 (in Hollywood, but that’s another story…) shortly after he had left the presidency, remarks that unfortunately seem never to have been repeated by him publicly with anything like this clarity:
America has two choices about how to use the unrivalled economic and military power we now have. One is to use it to try to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity. But the other is to use that power to create a world in which we are comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block.
It is not only Trumpian ‘America Firsters’ who have been slow to appreciate the attractions of Clinton’s second choice. Even President Obama, admirable as he was in so many ways, was completely cloth-eared in saying in the context of the Trans-Pacific Partnership ‘we make the rules’: not China, us. But cooler heads in Washington, and there are still some on both sides, are now recognizing that talk of preserving US dominance, predominance or primacy in the world is counterproductive, and the storyline has to return to one of cooperative engagement.
The rise of China and relative decline of America are not, of course, the only big power shifts with which need to be concerned. The most dramatic single geopolitical development anywhere in the world in recent times has been the emergence of North Korea, resisting all non-proliferation efforts, as a more or less fully capable nuclear armed state. While Pyongyang is never going to negotiate away its chances of regime survival, I don’t think Kim Jong-un is irretrievably committed to the possession of nuclear weapons to achieve that. As a close observer of previous nuclear negotiations – as Australia’s foreign minister and in other roles – I do not believe that all the blame for their breakdown belongs with Pyongyang. And I have long believed that seriously committed, step-by-step trust-building negotiations, giving the DPRK real confidence that its national security and regime survival will be protected – negotiations of the kind now so effectively being advocated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and those in his present government – will bear real fruit.
How the US plays its role in all of this will obviously be crucial. President Trump, whatever his motivation, did the right thing with his circuit-breaking Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un. But the trouble is that with his manifestly superficial understanding of the issues, indifference to process, fragility of temperament, track record of total inconsistency, and being surrounded with advisers like John Bolton, it is hard for anyone to be confident that the ultimate outcome, which will necessarily involve protracted multilateral diplomacy, will be one of triumph or disaster.
A much less dramatic geopolitical development, and one which has regional rather than global implications, but which is still quite troubling, is the deteriorating coherence and credibility of ASEAN. Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, ASEAN has been one of the world’s great conflict prevention success stories, transforming a region of extraordinary cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, with a very long history of discord and deadly conflict, into a genuine community where, as has been the case with the European Union, not only is war between any of its member states effectively unthinkable, but what might once have been very drawn out and acrimonious non-lethal disputes are now for the most part resolved without any tears at all.
But sustaining these achievements and building further upon them, ASEAN faces several big challenges. It has found it extraordinarily difficult to maintain cohesion in the face of a newly confident and assertive China only too happy to create, or re-create – if it can do so without violent conflict – some kind of hegemonic, tributary relationship with its southern neighbours. In particular, with at least two of ASEAN’s members, Cambodia and Laos, now being effectively wholly owned subsidiaries of Beijing, it has proved impossible to reach consensus on any kind of substantive, collective reaction on the South China Sea issue. If South East Asia is to push back against the creeping Chinese hegemon, its two most powerful players – Indonesia and Vietnam – are going to have to play a more active and assertive role.
It is also necessary to acknowledge, unhappily, another challenge to ASEAN’s credibility, internal in character, but with serious external implications. That is the evident deterioration in the quality of member state commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It has always been something of a tightrope act balancing ASEAN’s traditional, and understandable, desire to continue to give primacy to state sovereignty and non-interference against the need to address unacceptable violations of universally recognised civil and political rights. But ASEAN members cannot be blind to the extent to which in recent times internal developments in so many states have really been putting at risk the ASEAN brand. The ongoing retreat from democracy in Thailand, the resistance to accountable governance in Malaysia, the growing impact of intolerant Islamism in Indonesia, the failure by contrast to protect Muslims in Myanmar, and the extraordinary tearing up of the rule of law in the crusade against drug offenders in the Philippines have all raised international alarm bells.
There are some larger regional consequences in all of this. ASEAN has tenaciously fought for its place as the geopolitical hinge between East and South Asia, playing an important ‘strategic convenor’ role for the whole Asia-Pacific region, and indeed now whole Indo-Pacific, in the operation of the key regional economic and security dialogue and policymaking structures. In doing so, it has over the years repeatedly finessed – and done so with reasonable success – issues like Cambodia’s authoritarian leadership, Myanmar's struggle with democratic transition, Vietnam's stubbornly anachronistic one-party state, and even impeccably incorruptible Singapore's regular misuse of defamation laws to neutralize political opponents.
But the question that ASEAN leaders must now ask themselves is just how much more tarnishing of the South East Asian brand, by how many of its members simultaneously, the region can afford while still fully realizing its aspirations for economic growth and political influence. It is always tempting to claim that what happens behind sovereign borders is nobody else's business. But that is no longer true in today's interconnected world. Some states may be big and powerful enough to get away with behaving otherwise, but winning respect for behaving well is a much stronger foundation for economic and political success.
Still focusing on power balance issues in my own part of the world, if the US is a declining presence, India is a growing one. In the last twenty years there has been a dramatic surge in India’s economic development, to the point where it is now has the potential – provided a sustained program of structural reform continues – to surpass the US economy for size, by mid-century if not 2030, in purchasing power terms, and to become, after China, the world’s second largest economy. With India now making its own major contribution to the shift of global wealth – and eventually power – eastward from the Euro-Atlantic, and with trade volumes between East Asia and South and West Asia growing much faster than, and now far outweighing, those across the Pacific, the concept of the ‘Asia Pacific’ as the new centre of world gravity, which has been central to most of our thinking in recent years, is losing its resonance in favour of ‘Indo-Pacific’.
Diplomatically, while long under-resourced and punching at less than its weight, India has been in recent times more effective, including in defusing the potentially very combustible territorial dispute with China in the Bhutan border area. Militarily it has always had plenty of capability, with the potential to develop an immense amount more, and has shown a growing interest in maritime security cooperation in the context of the long-dormant Indian Ocean Rim Association, and sub-groups like the trilateral dialogue with Australia and Indonesia. It is likely to continue to be more cautious about giving any new content to the idea of a quadrilateral grouping with the US, Japan and Australia in a way that could be seen too overtly as a China-containment enterprise. And it may well be more interested in developing a separate sphere of influence of its own in South Asia and the Indian Ocean than intruding on Chinese dominance of East Asia and the Western Pacific. But there are clearly a number of ways in which a growing India will have the power to impose some limits on Beijing’s expanding influence in the broader region.
It is impossible to discuss questions of changing power balance, and the risks associated with them, certainly here in Europe, without addressing the question of Vladimir Putin, and the combative, uncompromising Russia that he has moulded around him. Dealing with him has manifestly not been easy. We have a man whose instincts are authoritarian, grievance-driven and confrontational; whose domestic political support base seems to grow stronger rather than weaker the more he runs with those instincts; and whose international behaviour – built on those foundations – has been ringing an increasing number of alarm bells, the primary exhibits being Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, the support for Assad in Syria and regular misuse in that and other contexts of its Security Council veto power, the toying with new nuclear weapons options, the cyber intervention in the US Presidential election, and the outrageous Skripal poisoning and Netherlands spying affairs.
Consistent themes in the Russian file have been intense hostility to the US, a desire to see the collapse of NATO and the political weakening of the EU, and an overt commitment to restoring a Russian sphere of influence not only embracing Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, and the former Central Asian republics, but the Baltic countries as well – all of which has seriously spooked a number of members of the transatlantic Western alliance. And Moscow’s significantly increased coziness with an also increasingly-assertive China has been beginning to spook a number of countries in my own region.
Not a bad few years’ work, when you think about it, for a country with a population one-third that of the European Union and much less than half that of the US, and a struggling economy with a GDP not much more than one-third that of Germany – and in fact just about the same size as Australia’s!
While I am not suggesting Russia’s behaviour in recent years has been in any way excusable, the beginning of wisdom in managing international relations in difficult situations has always been to understand where your opponent is coming from, including psychologically, and to identify whatever common ground there might be on which to lay the foundations for more cooperative action. It doesn’t hurt in these cases– though it is like pulling teeth for most leaders to do this – to acknowledge where appropriate that at least some of your opponent’s grievances may have some credible foundation. With the benefit of hindsight one can argue that the West bears some responsibility for Russia’s present hostility with its post-Cold War triumphalism, its failure to act on the logic of ‘common security’ by seriously exploring the inclusion of Russia itself in an expanded NATO in the totally changed post-Cold War environment, and the challenges to Moscow (also, I should add, being felt in Beijing) inherent in America’s own nuclear-related posture, in particular on missile defence and conventional prompt global strike capability.
You hardly need me to tell you that the question of how to respond to all this is not at all easy, given that head-on military confrontation is not a course that anyone wants to take for fear of the consequences careering horrifically out of control – and surely no one will take other than in the wholly unlikely event of a direct invasion by Russia of a NATO ally in the Baltic or elsewhere. Probably the only available course is to ensure that your collective defensive capability is such that you can confidently deal with any military threat contingency, and otherwise just wait things out, noting that Putin’s continued domestic popularity is not immutable, not least as his economy remains so inherently weak and vulnerable. And take comfort, again, from the fact that however many nuclear weapons Russia possesses, its economy is no bigger than Australia’s! A superpower this is not.
The retreat from multilateralism
Concerns about the changing global balance of power become all the more sharp in an environment where there is less commitment to multilateral problem solving, and less confidence in the capacity of a global rules-based order to constrain those who are big and strong enough to think they can act unilaterally. The post-Second World War global order – an open, rules-based system underpinned by a robust network of security alliances, and by effective multilateral institutions in which rules could be agreed and norms reinforced – is the only one we have known in our modern history. And it has sustained and underpinned not only Australian and UK economic and security policy for decades, but that of most of the world. But right now that order seems close to meltdown.
The United States under Donald Trump seems hell-bent on tearing up much of what it did so much to create, not only by diminishing confidence in its alliance commitments and the stabilizing influence that has always been associated with them, but by its withdrawal from or assault on a raft of multilateral institutions from the WTO to UNESCO and the Human Rights Council, and from the ICC to the ICJ; by its walking away from painstakingly and painfully negotiated international agreements, above all the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords; and by showing no interest whatsoever in doing anything to advance other global and regional public goods.
But it is not just the US that has been generating anxiety. There has been a hail of vetoes in United Nations Security Council in recent times, from Russia and to some extent China on the Syrian issue in particular. Russia’s disruptive role has been self-evident, and China has raised real questions about its commitment to international law by thumbing its nose at the and the Hague Tribunal decision on the application of the Law of the Sea Treaty in the South China Sea. And many multilateral organizations have been struggling to maintain traction. ASEAN is just one of the regional organizations punching at nothing like its necessary weight. The European Union – often said to be an organization with multilateralism in its DNA – is, as you know much better than me, divided and troubled, with Brexit a depressing indicator of how little of that DNA seems to remain at least on this side of the Channel.
All that said, the picture is rather more mixed than may appear at first sight. For a start, much of what we are seeing is not really new. For as long as I can remember the United States has never been in the business of ratifying treaties about anything, partly because of internal problems with the Senate, but also its disposition not to take international constraints seriously. The sense of exceptionalism—that the multilateral order is all fine and good provided that the United States is exercising a controlling influence over it—has been around for a long time. It has not been unknown in the past – as I have good cause to remember as a long-serving foreign minister and international conflict-prevention NGO head – for the US to be insensitive to allies’ concerns, to justify consorting with dictators as necessary realpolitik, to be keener on international law in principle than in practice, and indeed to exhaust all available alternatives before doing the right thing.
Equally, multilateral trade agreements have been very difficult since the effective collapse of the Doha round negotiations some ten years ago. And in the context of arms control and disarmament, the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, the primary multilateral actor in this space, has been a complete dead letter since the conclusion in the early 1990s of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the last time it had a working agenda on anything.
While recognizing that frustrations have existed in the past does not do much to ease them now, there are more grounds than usually acknowledged for greater optimism about the survivability of the multilateral order to which the main players are committed. We see it in the context of the response to health pandemics, which has been outstandingly professional, the response to the most recent Ebola outbreak being an example. We have seen it in peacekeeping operations with the United Nations, with now more than 110,000 peacekeepers out in the field, compared with an average of about 20,000 a year during the 1980s. That represents a significant degree of buy-in to the multilateral order, with China, interestingly, being an enthusiastic participant. In the context of the climate negotiations, it is the United States that is the outrider, with the rest of the world very much continuing to buy into a multilateral approach to curbing emissions.
I am even reasonably confident that we can do better than we have done in recent years in forging a multilateral response to the harrowing human rights violations involved, above all, in genocide and other mass atrocity crimes, which the world has failed so often and so dismally in the past to prevent. The international community did respond to the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica and Kosovo in the 1990s by unanimously embracing the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle at the 2005 World Summit. And even though R2P has been deeply disappointing in its effective application in the context of Syria and some other hard cases as well, there remains an enormous in-principle commitment – clearly evident in every year’s General Assembly debate – to getting this right; and there has been some very effective, albeit largely unheralded, work done in atrocity prevention and general institutional preparedness.
Back in 1975 it was possible for Henry Kissinger to say to his Thai counterpart several months after the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh: ‘You should tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way.’ As cynical as our political leaders sometimes remain – and as a long-time politician myself, I know a fair bit about that culture (diplomats of course are different...) – I cannot imagine too many of them today, even in the Trump administration, feeling able to talk like that.
While I have been painting a picture of the present global geopolitical environment which is not wholly bleak, I do have to acknowledge that things could get quite a lot worse than they are now. Trump could be with us for not just another two but another six years, trailing both bilateral and multilateral wreckage all the way, to the point where US credibility will be hard put ever to recover. Maybe with one or two positive achievements along the way, including defusing North Korea, but only on the principle that enough monkeys playing randomly with enough typewriters might produce a Shakespearian sonnet. US funding for the whole UN system could be withdrawn, plunging it into crisis. US relations with China could plunge into a hot war economically, with ugly global ramifications; and certainly into a Cold War in security terms, quite possibly accompanied by a new nuclear arms race where China would no longer be a passive bystander, with others as a result tempted to join in. A number of flashpoints around the Asian region could quickly come close to ignition: Taiwan, China-Japan and China-India foremost among them.
Further afield there is obvious potential for further eruption in the Middle East involving one or more of the major players Iran, Israel, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Any one of a number of simmering situations in Africa could explode again. In Latin America Venezuela is already close to complete meltdown, and Brazil is on the verge of electing a leader whose language – for once it is no exaggeration to say – really does echo Hitler’s. In Europe, apart from the prospect of Britain’s Brexit brain-fade proving both irreversible and unmanageable, the shift to alarmingly illiberal democracy in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere could easily gather further pace, and Macron’s intelligent and attractive attempt to create a new brand of civilised third-way politics could collapse. And history has shown us all too often how what seem at first sight to be purely internal issues can have very destructive external consequences.
The really critical issue is how much we have to fear these and other possible developments deteriorating to the point of outright war between any of the significant players. Some of you will no doubt think that I am now being not only incorrigibly optimistic but incorrigibly naïve, but what gives me more confidence than anything else that the competition between the US and China – or any of the other troubling dynamics we are now witnessing, including Russian adventurism – will not in fact lead to outright war, is the sheer unthinkability in this age of aggressive war as an instrument of state policy.
It has taken us centuries to learn that there is not only no nobility, but no national interest benefit that could possibly outweigh the costs in human life, immiseration and economic catastrophe of deliberately going to war. But I do believe that penny has finally dropped – with memory of the horrendous 20th century still etched in most leaders’ consciousness; with what we all know to be the huge destructive capability of present day technology (quite apart from nuclear weapons); and with the extraordinary degree of global economic interdependence between all the major actors through bond-holding, interlinked supply chains and all the rest, on a much greater scale than anything that existed between Britain and Germany before World War I.
That doesn’t mean that war, including nuclear war, cannot happen as a result of human or system error or miscalculation, with the risk of that now compounded by cyber sabotage. It can. And the frailties of human psychology – pride, perceived humiliation, ambition for power – can always create risks against which other states need to retain deterrent capability. Individual leaders do still matter, despite all the other underlying dynamics, interests and values at work, and history has shown us over and again that things can go catastrophically wrong, within and between countries, when the wrong people come to power. And we know all too well that when it comes to this crucial ingredient of leadership, there is an awful lot of pure chance in play.
So complacency would be wrongheaded. But so too would be defeatist pessimism. The crucial point is that in international relations, as in life itself, outlooks can be self-reinforcing. Pessimists see conflict, horror and sheer human idiocy of one kind or another as more or less inevitable, and adopt a highly wary and competitive approach to the conduct of international relations. But for optimists of all stripes and colours, what matters rather is believing in and nurturing the instinct of cooperation in the hope, and expectation, that decent human values will ultimately prevail. My own strong conviction is that if we cease to believe in the possibility of a safer, saner and better world, and the utility of working for it, we are never going to inhabit one.
Just wishing, of course, won’t make it so. While optimism may be self-reinforcing, it is not self-fulfilling. When things that matter get depressing and difficult, however disappointed and frustrated we may be, there is no alternative but to try actively to remedy them, in every way one realistically can. You don’t get to change the world simply by observing it. You have to get out there and work for change. You have to go on believing that what each of us do – as ministers or government advisers or NGOs or experts or simply concerned individuals – can and will make a difference.
Maybe it’s too late for those of us here whose futures are behind us to make much direct difference. But there’s always the next generation. We can write, we can teach, we can mentor, we can influence. Maybe each of us can do at least something, in our own way, in our own countries, to apply and leverage our experience, in a way that helps create a cohort of responsible and committed future leaders of whom we can be genuinely confident and proud. In the interests of our children and grandchildren and generations beyond, I certainly hope so.
 Gareth Evans, Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir (Melbourne University Press, 2017)