In 2017, Australians had to acknowledge that the global order that had shaped the world since the end of World War II was over. Not challenged. Not changing. Over.
The old order never functioned perfectly but its central objectives were always clear. Its normative values, set out in documents such as the preamble to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were economically open and politically liberal. Effective multilateral institutions with universal membership would knit closer ties. And security would be underpinned by US leadership and a network of American alliances. That world’s no longer there.
The year began, appropriately enough, with the inauguration of US President Donald Trump in January. The new administration’s early and easily disprovable claims that this event had been witnessed by record crowds suggested that we were dealing with a different sort of American president. If Australians harboured any residual doubt, it was banished a week or so later when, in an unprecedented leak, we learned the details of the first telephone call between President Trump and Malcolm Turnbull. The familiar, comfortable conventions of such conversations between close allies were spectacularly absent.
Twelve months later, we’re in danger of normalising Trump’s approach and behaviour. We really shouldn’t. When the US president is admonished by a spokesman for the Conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom for tweeting fake anti-Muslim videos from a British far-right fringe group, you know something serious has happened to the Western alliance.
Australian and American interests have often differed before, but what’s new this time is the divergence of values. President Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, designed to support the open trading system which the US itself created. His support for the rule of law has been ambiguous at best. He has criticised close allies and failed to defend the values of democracy.
The US State Department has been drained of people and is led by a secretary of state who looks as though he would rather be anywhere else. In multilateral institutions, the United States is simply abandoning the field. The administration has withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement and from UNESCO. It is bringing the dispute resolution system of the World Trade Organization to its knees by vetoing appointments of new judges.
No doubt a more familiar sort of American government will take office in three or seven years, but the United States has been fundamentally altered by this experience. The high water mark of American liberal internationalism has passed.
Equally significant changes took place in China. The Communist Party Congress in October cemented Xi Jinping’s position as the party-state’s strongest leader since Mao. The year marked the clear end of China’s cautious policy, formulated by Deng Xiaoping, of “hiding its brightness and biding its time”. You can’t do that when, by some measures, you are already the largest economy in the world.
China moved out to shape the world, establishing new institutions like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and promoting its geo-economic plans through the Belt and Road Initiative. President Xi asserted Chinese leadership on climate change and, less plausibly, open trade. This was also the year we had to abandon any expectations that, as it grew, China would gradually democratise and become more like us.
One of the areas where Chinese influence was growing fastest was Southeast Asia. New challenges were thrown up in our immediate region as several Southeast Asian governments, including the Philippines and Cambodia, took on unpleasantly authoritarian aspects. Even in Indonesia, the Chinese-Christian former governor of Jakarta was jailed for two years for blasphemy.
The year 2017 was also the year in which North Korea became a fully fledged nuclear power and no one knew what to do about it. Twenty rocket tests, including of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and new nuclear warheads, brought Pyongyang close to having the capability to threaten the continental United States. The strongest ever UN sanctions and provocative tweets from President Trump did nothing to reduce Kim Jong-un’s dangerous potential to spark a war.
In Europe, Britain finally triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and began the painful process of disengaging from the Continent. The negotiations were led by a Prime Minister Theresa May, who had sought a new electoral mandate but instead ended up with a hung parliament. Simultaneously weakening the European Union, the United Kingdom and the trans-Atlantic relationship, Brexit will lastingly damage Western institutions.
Everywhere, it seemed, conventional politics were being tested. In Europe, the French election was won by an insurgent outsider, Emmanuel Macron, in a run-off contest with the previously marginal National Front. Secessionist forces in Catalonia threatened the unity of Spain, the Eurozone’s fourth-largest economy. Even Germany, the sober centre of the European Union, was without a government at the end of the year, a sign of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s diminished authority.
In the Middle East, there was some good news as Islamic State (IS) forces were pushed back in Iraq and Syria. But the new 32-year-old Saudi Crown Prince sharpened divisions by asserting Sunni interests against Iran and Shi’a forces in Yemen, Lebanon and Qatar. In December, President Trump abandoned long-standing international policy to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Hopes that the new US administration might be able to bring off a ‘Nixon to China’ moment on Israel-Palestine peace seemed fanciful.
The struggle against terrorism continued with Australia providing training and intelligence support to Philippine forces fighting IS-aligned insurgents in southern Mindanao. But overwhelmingly the victims of terrorism were in the Middle East; in Tehran, Baghdad, Kabul, Syria and Egypt, where 305 worshippers were murdered in an IS attack on a mosque in Sinai in November.
Too often out of sight in Australia were the 135 million people the United Nations reported to be in need of humanitarian assistance and protection in places like East Africa, Lake Chad, Yemen and Syria. Closer to Australia, 600,000 Rohingya Moslem refugees from Myanmar sought sanctuary in Bangladesh.
No wonder, then, that the Australian Foreign Policy White Paper which came out at the end of the year described a contested and uncertain world in which the stakes have never been higher for Australia.
Australia itself was changing, too. Census data released in July showed that 28 per cent of the Australian population had been born overseas, a figure higher than at any point in the past 120 years. After English, the languages most frequently spoken in Australian homes were Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese and Vietnamese.
And we learned something else important about Australia during the year. In July, the journal Nature reported that luminescence dating studies of artefacts found in a rock shelter near Kakadu had pushed back the date of human settlement in Australia to an astonishing 65,000 years.
That’s enough to put even Donald Trump into perspective.
Allan Gyngell AO FAIIA is national president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.