Australian foreign policy has never had to deal with a world like this. For sixty years the international system seemed to be moving towards a world that was ever more integrated. The path was never smooth, but whatever its twists and pitfalls, the destination seemed clear. Driven by the ambition and power of the United States, the overwhelming victor of World War II, a new international system was created in which multilateral institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank would help secure peace and prosperity. New states in Asia and Africa threw off their colonial bonds and joined the global community. Later in the twentieth century, the technologies of the information revolution made possible the investment flows and supply chains of economic globalisation, helping to bring some of the largest of those states into the global economy.
But by the close of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the journey’s end seemed more uncertain. Terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001, followed by the two great policy catastrophes of the early millennium – the invasion of Iraq and the global financial crisis – disrupted the politics of Western societies. The technological innovations that had promised to bind the world together as a global village had instead generated economic upheaval and sharpened divisions, allowing new allegiances to be built across national boundaries and introducing a complex cyber domain into global strategic competition. Small Salafi-jihadist groups fortified by a theology of martyrdom showed that terrorists could – with little or no weaponry or training – threaten the security of citizens and massively shift the allocation of a state’s resources. Millions of refugees and displaced people trying to escape the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa strained the sense of solidarity in Western countries.