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Beyond Trump

The view from the United States

Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?

This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

In defence of democracies

As we move further into this century, the United States and its democratic allies must take a more competitive approach to upholding and defending liberal-democratic values in the Asia-Pacific and beyond. We need to create a democratic bulwark in the face of rising authoritarianism, not just with China.

China is seeking to shape global governance in illiberal directions. Its vision, as China scholar Melanie Hart notes, is “a system based on authoritarian governance principles in which nations negotiate issues bilaterally instead of following common rules and standards. From a liberal democratic perspective, if Beijing succeeds in bringing about that vision, the world will be less free, less prosperous, and less safe.”

The region’s democracies need to understand and accept the ideological dimensions of this competition and see our own collective advantage more clearly. Our values are our distinguishing feature. They underpin our long-term resiliency – making our governments more accountable to citizens. And they remain attractive to people around the world, from Hong Kong to Tehran, from Baghdad to Santiago, from Beirut to Damascus. The desire for greater individual freedom will continue to generate tensions within authoritarian or corrupt states. More importantly, without sustained high-level US and coordinated international pressure to advance universal rights and democratic freedoms, authoritarian governments will only push the boundaries of control further. There is an intense ideological dimension to this competition that cannot be ignored. And while US strategies to shape democratic outcomes through force or otherwise have fallen short, especially in recent history, the United States has been successful in providing a stable and secure environment for a more democratic Asia to emerge. Shifts towards authoritarianism in places such as Thailand and the Philippines do not overshadow a democratic and peaceful Japan, a prosperous and vigorous South Korea or a strong and globally capable Australia.

Defending democracy does not mean that US strategy should aim to change Beijing’s fundamental political orientation (history has also shown that we are not good at this sort of thing). But without more rigorous cooperation and coordination with its fellow democracies, China will step in to shape the order it wants at our expense. It is therefore imperative that we act to preserve our way of life and our personal freedoms, ensuring that democracy in Asia does not contract further and proving that might does not become right. This will require collective action among the region’s democracies to preserve personal freedom of expression in the digital domain, to generate greater economic balance in relation to China, and to uphold the rule of law and push for the peaceful resolution of international disputes.

Regardless of whether Trump wins or loses the election on 3 November, the changing security, economic and political dynamics in the region, and the tough questions they give rise to, will continue to loom over US policymakers and allies. They will need to be addressed. And, crucially, the United States and its allies will need to address them together, and to define a common vision of an Asia-Pacific in which their values and prosperity can withstand changes to the existing order, now and into the future. 

This is a 522-word extract of a 3722-word essay by Kelly Magsamen. Get your copy of AFA8: Can We Trust America? to read the complete piece along with contributions from Michael Wesley, Felicity Ruby and Brendan Taylor.

Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?

This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs 8: Can We Trust America?. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.