Australian Outlook

The Year Ahead

19 Feb 2021
By Allan Gyngell AO FAIIA
Allan speaking at the AIIA Welcome event.

This has been such an extraordinary period. And what we are facing next in foreign policy is so difficult that we will need all the resources we can muster to shape it.

I remembered a wise Japanese proverb I heard recently from Japanese Ambassador Yamagami Shingo – an inch ahead is pitch dark. So instead of telling you what will happen in the next 12 months, I’ll talk about what needs to happen and the environment in which we will be operating.

The Australian Institute of International Affairs exists because of the discussions that took place among Allied delegates to the Paris peace conference after the carnage of the first world war and their conviction that we needed to ensure that the communities in our different countries were better informed about international issues and more able, as a result, to participate in and shape the debate and discussion about foreign policy.  We are at a similar point now.

Like in 1919, we are again at the end of one form of international order – in this case, the only order contemporary Australian foreign policy has known. It was established by the winners at the end of the Second World War, and suited Australia perfectly. It was based on liberal values like Australia’s own, structured around multilateral institutions, on which Australia was represented, and underpinned by the dominant power of the United States. American support for open international trade helped drive unprecedented global growth, while its network of alliances in Europe and Asia provided a stable security framework.

Its disappearance had several causes, but from Australia’s perspective, the two countries of most importance to it strategically and economically, the United States and China, both ceased to be status quo powers.  The United States judged that the investment it had made in the existing order was no longer delivering it the returns it deserved. And China, the second largest economy in the world, was no longer willing to act as a stakeholder in a system designed by others. It wanted the order to reflect better its own growing power.

As a result we’re experiencing what the Defence minister, Linda Reynolds, described in November as “The most consequential strategic realignment since the end of World War Two.”

Short of war, there is always an international order of some sort, so we are in the very process of creating what comes next. We’re not doing this in the deliberate way it was done after the first and second world wars, but incrementally and piecemeal.  Whether the outcome will be like the order the peacemakers of Paris came up with – which crumbled within years into another conflict– or the more stable order that came later, will have the deepest consequences.

And we couldn’t be facing this challenge at a more difficult time, in the middle of the largest pandemic since, as it happens, the year of that peace conference in Paris. COVID -19 is already having a huge impact on foreign policy and diplomacy.

Many diplomats can’t leave their houses and are communicating via Zoom with colleagues from their own embassies and officials from their host countries. Throughout 2020, we’ve seen the way meetings between political leaders, even large multilateral events, have become increasingly virtual. I expect we will eventually learn some useful lessons for the way we conduct foreign policy from aspects of this experience, but what is clearer at the moment is its drawbacks and dangers. We are being reminded of why diplomacy is important and how it works.

In his speech at the State Department recently, President Biden spoke about “the leadership of diplomats of every stripe, doing the daily work of engagement.” We are missing that – the insights policymakers gain from personal encounters and private discussions over coffee. You can’t get much understanding of the way your interlocutor thinks by staring at her over a small screen, particularly if it is someone you don’t know.

As a recent small example, I wonder whether the split in the Pacific Island forum over the appointment of the Secretary General would have happened if leaders have been meeting in person rather than virtually. I also think the dynamics of the Australia China relationship would have played out in different ways if our ministers had had opportunities to meet each other in international forums.

One of the results is that this has been a time of contraction in the international system at the precise moment we should have been opening up. The pandemic privileges what is known and what currently exists. It reinforces our desire to be with people who are known to us through the closing of borders, the return home, hanging out with family, and masking ourselves against strangers. You can see some of the striking international parallels to our personal behaviour in aspects of Australian foreign policy, such as the refocus on the Anglosphere.

This will generate a particular problem at the multilateral level. Like so many other issues confronting us, from climate change to the control of lethal autonomous weapons, the pandemic requires international cooperation if we are to bring it to an end and address its social and economic consequences. But multilateralism in its current form has passed its use-by date. The model we have – large, centralised, slow-moving bureaucracies with universal membership, but dependent largely on consensus to make progress, won’t take us through to the mid-21st century.  We see the problems in organisations ranging from the WTO to the WHO.  But in current circumstances where can we find the energy and effort needed to respond?

The answer will come, as it always must, from the part of statecraft we call foreign policy, and from diplomacy, which is its operating system.  The members of the board of the AIIA, our state branches, and our CEO and National Office staff all hope that the institute will contribute, as it has been doing now for 90 years, to this critical debate.

This text is adapted from a speech given at the AIIA National Office by AIIA National President Allan Gyngell AO on 16 February 2021 at the reopening of the refurbished AIIA National Office.

Allan Gyngell is Honorary Professor at the College of Asia and the Pacific, the Australian National University, and National President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.