GARETH EVANS. How we should manage Donald Trump’s meltdown world (AFR 20/6/2018)

The assumptions that have sustained and underpinned Australian security and economic policy for decades are in meltdown. 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. Its maintenance has depended more than anything else on American belief in the liberal norms laid out in the San Francisco peace treaty and the Bretton Woods organisations. As the Trump administration conspicuously abandons those norms, that order is now unravelling with remarkable speed.  

Other factors have of course contributed to the current uncertainty. China, no longer content to benefit from the liberal global order without trying to reshape it, is now matching its spectacular economic rise with a determination to wield major political and strategic influence, regionally and globally. Russia under Putin, after a long period of post-Cold War quiescence, is using its Security Council and military authority to play itself back into the role of regional hegemony and global spoiler whenever and wherever it can. The European Union is divided and troubled. Few other intergovernmental organisations, including ASEAN in our own region, are punching at anything like their necessary weight.

But it is above all the United States that is now tearing up the order it did so much to create, with Donald Trump initiating trade wars, treating allies as irritating encumbrances, preferring despots to democrats, regarding multilateral institutions with contempt, and walking away from painfully negotiated international agreements – above all the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords – in a way that has left America’s word in doubt and its soft power in tatters. Even when this president does the right thing – as with the circuit-breaking Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un – it is manifestly with such superficial understanding of the issues, indifference to process, and fragility of temperament that it is hard for anyone to be confident that the ultimate outcome, which will necessarily involve protracted multilateral diplomacy, will be triumph or disaster.

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. Nor is it entirely unexpected that, after all its hectic – and perhaps too often under-appreciated – international commitment of recent decades, there should be a mood in the US for return to the kind of isolationism which prevailed earlier last century.

But what is new, and largely unanticipated, is America behaving neither as primary defender of the liberal international order nor as a state in inward-looking retreat from it, but rather what Robert Kagan has described recently in these pages [AFR 16-17 June] as a “rogue superpower” – “active, powerful” and “recognising no moral, political or strategic commitments … no sense of responsibility to anything beyond itself”. It may be that this characterisation is overdrawn. Or, if it is not, that the Trump ascendancy will prove an aberration, and normality will resume in 2020. But there is enough truth in it, and enough reason to believe that irremediable damage has been done to the world order as we have known it, for Australia to need to do some very hard thinking as to how we respond.

One approach to such a response, for which I have argued for some time, is “Less America. More Asia. More Self-Reliance”. Which means not walking away from the US alliance, with all the multiple benefits it has long delivered, but being much more circumspect about over-reliance upon it for our security. And putting more resources into defence, and acting as genuine diplomatic free agent – creative, proactive and not constantly looking over our shoulder to Washington. And strengthening relationships at all levels with key regional neighbours like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea – and trying to develop a more multi-dimensional relationship with China, especially by working with it in multilateral forums on global and regional public goods issues like the environment, development, peacekeeping and arms control. Inherent in this approach, which seems to be gaining some traction as the Financial Review’s Andrew Clark noted in his piece ‘New Reality of Surreal Times’, AFR 16-17 June, is the simple, but not soft-headed, proposition that every state’s security, prosperity and quality of life is best advanced by cooperation rather than confrontation, and that Australia should be a relentless campaigner for just that.

How Australia should react – in domestic as well as international policy – in response to the hugely challenging new global realities we are all now facing will be debated by a stellar cast of national and international decision-makers and analysts at the fifth annual ANU Crawford Leadership Forum starting in Canberra next Sunday, co-sponsored by The Australian Financial Review and the Business Council of Australia. This is the only national forum of its kind, bringing together on an invitation-only basis three tribes of leaders— from the public sector, business and universities and civil society – who all too rarely interact. Its deliberations could not be more timely.

Gareth Evans is chancellor of the Australian National University, a former cabinet minister throughout the Hawke-Keating governments, and president emeritus of the International Crisis Group.


Gareth Evans was Australia’s Foreign Minister 1988-96.

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6 Responses to GARETH EVANS. How we should manage Donald Trump’s meltdown world (AFR 20/6/2018)

  1. Avatar Hal Duell says:

    I agree that it is difficult for anyone to be confident of where the summit in Singapore will lead, but what it did do is bring Kim and North Korea in from the cold. It is now OK to speak with him, and that’s a big start.
    Hopefully Trump will do the same with Putin. And then others, including Australia’s Foreign Minister (our very own Nikki Haley) can stop all their belligerent posturing.

  2. I have had difficulty explaining to the Trump supporters that his avoidance of a nuclear war, if it is that, excuses his mendacious, offensive, unprincipled and belligerent attacks on good people and more importantly good causes. I now have Gareth’s quote which sums up the doubts and misgivings of intelligent but inarticulate beings like myself.

    “Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un – it is manifestly with such superficial understanding of the issues, indifference to process, and fragility of temperament that it is hard for anyone to be confident that the ultimate outcome, which will necessarily involve protracted multilateral diplomacy, will be triumph or disaster.”

  3. Avatar Michael Hart says:

    Mr Evans is mistaken on a number of counts. The events unfolding or the dissolution of the status quo of western influence and dominance following in lockstep with the United States dominance cannot be viewed in the context described nor the motivations implied of either China or Russia, nor of the behavioural idiosynchrasies of the current American President.

    What is happening is not a reorganisation of some grand political international chessboard nor can it be understood in terms of positions based on theoretical notions of state or international politics but the direct outcome of actions and policies of the Western World over the last century. This is what the age of limits looks like, uncertain, confusing and stubbornly unresponsive to views and policy developed in an age of abundance and opportunity.

    The planet is now responding to the limits of its capacity to absorb pollution from industrial activity over a century and a half by changing. The base temperature is rising, the chemical balance of the oceans is changing and along with it the stability of the climate it once had. This is a new planet and it will become increasingly hostile to humans over a very short period of time, one generation.

    Nations and masses of people are now responding to the continued failure of international and state institutions and the Western world to respond to climatic change, resource limits, environmental degradation and simple good governance. The states fail, the land fails, violence is endemic and people move seeking peace, shelter and security and the opportunity to live and eat without fear of deprivation of either life or sustenance. Millions and millions of people are now displaced from their homelands, Palestinian, Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Africans from all over Africa, Mexicans, going home is not an option, home is wrecked and the lands no longer support them because of degradation and or climatic change, or simply government has become a front for gangsters and criminals cartels, narco or simply corporate. That pressure and those problems will not cease but get worse. It’s what happens when societies collapse, the institutions fail too they fail because they don’t work, nobody believes in them any more and the problems they have to deal with are insurmountable and unsolvable by capitalism, markets and money.

    The reality is much more harsh and uncomfortable to consider, the age of Western dominance and control of the earths energy resources, mineral resources, agricultural resources and water resources is finished. The Western epoch of dominating, science, technological innovation, industry, finance and agricultural surplus is over. It is over and finished because all these things were obtained by force and extracted as plunder and required an educated and liberal society to sustain.

    Australia is on the wrong side of history, not least because we have few of these things and have failed to consider our own interests but preferred the comfort of having others make those decisions for us but most importantly because we here in Australia like the greater white European- American countries fail to recognise the historical basis for Russian or Chinese pragmatic views about a whole range of matters relating to their need for security and independence nor are we capable of letting go false enmities and views about either of these countries. What we are also really seeing is the spectacular failure to escape our own peculiar antipodean form of xenophobia. After all how long have the Australian political class been beating the drum of the Russians are coming, the Chinese are coming, well they are not, they have better things to do.

    We have allowed ourselves to be blindsided by our adoration of things American and European to the reality of Asian culture, norms and interests and similarly of things Russian. We mistake the past bold and adventurous political experiments of Russia and China to improve the lives of what were once poor, agrarian, feudal and undeveloped societies as somehow equating to deficiency in character and illustrative of moral terpitude. Well lets look more carefully at the character of those capable of learning from those lessons, learning from their mistakes. Do those societies seek to abandon the care of their citizens health to the rapacious unfeeling market? Do those societies invest incredible amounts of precious public money in building and using weaponry and armaments? Do those societies suffer from rampant violence and firearm ownership? Opiod epedemics, privatise the care of the elderly and not support and fund the education of their youth? Do these Countries routinely invade and destroy sovereign nations without international approval, refuse to participate in international legal systems or engage in mass rendition of citizens from other countries?

    The Russians failed spectacularly and have had to painfully and with some considerable cost rebuild a modern but Russian version capitalist nation and so did the Chinese, by stint of hard work and intellectual prowess rebuilt the communist model from the inside out to the Chinese state it is today. The results and changes in both nations are obvious to any body who cares to take a careful look. By any comparison Australia is an insular, inward looking backwater, a nation who sold of its promising enterprises, failed to support its innovative and clever people but preferred to build houses and mine minerals when raising livestock failed to deliver. Despite mining all the minerals and ores that are used to make stuff, we make nothing, Despite having the longest distances in the world to transport stuff, we build no ships, develop and build no railroads or railroad equipment and rely upon imported aircraft to get us about. Despite having the most critical need for good telecommunications we demolish the only decent attempt we may have had to have the facilities to do this, we scuttled the NBN.

    So please explain to me as one humble observer how endless debate about how to preserve a failing world order can possibly be of any benefit to anybody in the future, how about trying to understand that the future is going to be very very difficult and as for policy, well how the hell we are going to do that in a democratic and sane fashion?

    • Avatar Hans Rijsdijk says:

      It seems to me that this response fits in perfectly with the ideas espoused by Gareth Evans. We need others to keep this world save and habitable; start with your neighbours if your far friend is diverting from the course.

  4. Avatar Garry Woodard says:

    Might I suggest that when Sunday’s gathering in Canberra addresses the meltdown world so vividly described by Gareth Evans its first task might be to look inward and ask whether the physician can heal himself, how, as Maxim Liyvinov asked metaphorically, one can have a foreign policy when the Ministry stands opposite the Lubyanka.

  5. Avatar Evan Hadkins says:

    Good grief. When has the US recognised moral commitments that aren’t entirely compatible with their own interests?

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