25 November 2020
The major economies of the G20 sought to reassert their global influence on Sunday by agreeing to cooperate on COVID-19 vaccine distribution, the reinvigoration of the world trading system and debt relief for poor countries.
While Scott Morrison joined other G20 leaders in supporting the proposed measures, Australia has already taken targeted initiatives on these issues by itself.
The G20, which just wrapped up its latest Leaders’ Summit, has not responded to the pandemic with the decisive, agenda-setting leadership it showed during the global financial crisis in 2008.
Its lacklustre leadership has been variously attributed to Saudi Arabia’s G20 presidency in 2020, the Trump administration’s equivocal approach to global institutions and a more general decline in international cooperation.
As a result, proposals have emerged for new or expanded peak bodies to complement or rival the G20. They include the expansion of the G7’s old industrial powers to accommodate three or four new members, including Australia, and the expansion of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership, of which Australia is already a member.
Decisive action is clearly harder to achieve in the G20 these days. But it is still in Australia’s interest for large emerging market countries like China, India and Indonesia to be fully included in the world’s boardroom, which is why the G20 was established.
A climate change?
Scott Morrison has used two flagship prime ministerial speeches to defend his government’s climate change policies and hint at the possibility of its adopting stronger measures in future.
He told the Business Council of Australia last week he did not want to use carryover carbon credits from the old Kyoto Protocol to meet Australia’s 2030 emissions targets under the Paris Agreement. He also said he hoped “to have more to say about this before the end of the year”.
At the G20 Leaders’ Summit on Sunday, he defended the government’s current climate policy, seemingly in response to calls for it to adopt a more aggressive emissions target. He also promoted its efforts to reduce plastic waste in the oceans and curb illegal fishing.
The government appears concerned that it has been wrong-footed on climate change by the recent commitments of key trading partners Japan and China to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and 2060 respectively. It will face additional pressure if the European Union and a US Biden administration decide to penalise exports from countries with inferior emissions policies.
The Morrison government’s use of carryover credits has become a liability for Australia’s international reputation, as many other countries oppose this loophole.
Perhaps in recognition of this, the Business Council of Australia has urged the government to adopt a carbon neutrality target for 2050 without using carryover credits if possible.
As global momentum towards firmer targets picks up, the Morrison government would be smart to avoid being an unnecessary laggard.
Lessons from Afghanistan
Last week, the findings of an inquiry into war crimes allegedly committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan was released. The report has prompted debate about the alleged actions of individual soldiers and the challenges of prosecuting them.
The public focus on these issues is not surprising, given the secrecy that normally surrounds the operations of special forces and the elevated respect they are typically shown by politicians.
But the role of several governments in committing soldiers to serial redeployments in Afghanistan and Iraq over two decades deserves equal attention in order to prevent future malpractices.
The Afghanistan operation started under a United Nations mandate to eliminate al-Qaeda sanctuaries, but it lost its sense of purpose over time. It should therefore not be surprising if some soldiers lost a sense of moral purpose.
Despite Australia’s efforts at economic development and peace-building, the operation came to be seen as being more about shoring up the US alliance than the peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan, where foreign interventions from Britain and the Soviet Union had failed in the past.
Policymakers are right to criticise war crimes, but they should also reflect on the risks of relying too heavily on the Australian Defence Force to meet diplomatic objectives that may be unachievable or unwarranted.