Before COVID-19, the world was already experiencing heightened disruption. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, China’s growing assertiveness, rising nationalism and the increasingly competitive relationship between the world’s two great powers had dramatically destabilised the global order.
Then came the novel coronavirus pandemic. This is a new scale of disruption that could further unravel or even destroy the rules-based system we have known since World War II. There has been a shocking loss of life, with more to come. Statistics and graphs go some way to capturing the devastation, but the images of overwhelmed hospitals, mass graves and fearful communities speak universally and powerfully. It is a shared experience of grief.
The breadth of economic harm is almost unprecedented. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts the worst global recession since the Great Depression. The IMF has made an extraordinary shift from its pre-COVID expectations of positive per-capita income growth in 160 nations to predict negative growth in 170. A surge of financial crises across the globe has already begun.
The vulnerability of the world’s poorest people is patent – they will suffer more fatalities, increased poverty and greater instability. The United Nations World Food Programme is warning of an unprecedented hunger emergency, with “multiple famines of biblical proportions”. Over 265 million people will face acute hunger by the end of this year.
Our capacity to respond is affected not only by the weaker economic positions of the G20 nations and shakier balance sheets among corporates, banks and households going into the crisis, but also by a lack of global coordination.
This is the stark truth that we must confront. In the midst of the worst crisis humanity has experienced since World War II and a severe economic downturn of unknown proportions, the international community has been unable to muster anything close to the requisite cooperation. Nations have been too mired in mistrust to generate a sense of common purpose. Competition and disinformation abound. Unlike in the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007–08, this catastrophe appears to have reinforced a macho strain of nationalism, and confrontation rather than cooperation. The cost of this collective failure will be measured in deaths and suffering.
COVID-19 will reshape our lives, our country, the global economy and the world. How much and for how long is unclear. Policymakers cannot afford to be passive. Our economic and public health responses couldn’t wait for perfect information; they had to recognise the imperative to act and the grim consequences of inaction.
We now need to bring a similar sense of urgency and purpose to Australian foreign policy. Australia’s response must begin by examining some key questions. What does this pandemic mean for the global power balance? What does it mean for multilateralism and our region’s stability? How should we prepare for the increasing international disorder? In short, how do we protect and promote our national interests in the COVID-19 era?
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, observes that COVID-19 has brought into “sharper-than-ever relief” the characteristics of the pre-pandemic world: “waning American leadership, faltering global cooperation, great-power discord”.
For Australia, these trends comprise fundamental challenges. Our strategic environment has deteriorated, risks have heightened, opportunities narrowed, and protecting and promoting our national interests is going to be much harder.
The world now needs an articulation of principles for a multilateralism that works for the post-COVID era and for the global challenges that lie ahead – including maintaining an open, rules-based trading system, resisting protectionism, upholding and strengthening the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and ensuring strong and effective development and financial institutions. The Atlantic Charter – drafted during the peak global disruption of World War II – reminds us of a time when great powers articulated such principles. Today, we need others to step forward. Australia can and should be at the forefront of crafting the operating principles of the post-COVID world.
We cannot lose sight of the impact of the pandemic on our immediate region, and we must be prepared to invest financially and intellectually in its stability and recovery. We need to invest in the building blocks of our partnerships, particularly in South-East Asia and the Pacific, including development assistance, diplomatic resources and economic ties.
We should cultivate new, informal associations of countries with common interests, forming compacts on pressing issues where global consensus is elusive. By building shared foundations – on issues as diverse as maritime security, clean energy, trade, infrastructure, health and governance – Australia can also strengthen its status as a regional leader and partner of choice.
These tasks– renewing the multilateral system, deepening partnerships in South-East Asia and the Pacific, and navigating a more volatile US–China relationship – are not simple. All require a more active foreign policy and a deeper investment in our diplomacy – and the recognition that Australia needs to be more self-reliant in protecting and promoting our interests.
The necessity for greater self-reliance imposes corresponding disciplines on our politics. Nationalism, xenophobia and even extremism are on the rise. There are some things which must be beyond politics, and our collective response to these should demonstrate that. We must always recall the lessons of the 1930s. Humanity has seen what happens if we allow nationalism and xenophobia to take hold.
This crisis will demand the maturity to set aside domestic partisanship. Public interventions and rhetorical grenades designed to gain attention or tactical advantage serve little purpose, and distract from the far more challenging task at hand. Put simply, we don’t have time for “negative globalism”. We need to think about thirty-year horizons, not three-year election cycles.
The global disruption in recent years has already generated sharp domestic debate about foreign policy. It will be even more difficult to confront change of the magnitude we now face. It can generate resistance and denial.
Our external circumstances since the end of World War II have been comparatively benign. This has been a period characterised by stability and growth, in which our principal security partner was the dominant global power, and the multilateral system largely served our interests well. But much has changed. COVID-19 will intensify this. Navigating this world will require not only sound judgment and creativity – it will also demand a new foreign policy ambition. It will require us to accept and fully exercise our agency. It will require consistency and discipline.
Most of all, it will require leadership.
Read notes on “The End of Orthodoxy”.