The German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, in his article titled ‘The Return of the Repressed’, spoke of how the current international system is undergoing a period of interregnum. This term, coined by Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, denotes a period where an old order is in the process of dying yet a new one has yet to emerge, which is marred by deep instability, insecurity and a “great variety of moribund symptoms”. While Streeck’s application of the term focuses on capitalism, it could easily be used to describe the status of the liberal international order that has underpinned global interactions since the end of World War II.
It is clear that interregnum is occurring: the US’ relative decline in power and the Trump administration’s preference for a confused, inward-looking ‘America First’ policy, the rise of revisionist powers that are increasingly seeking to fill the power vacuum left by Washington, and a growing skepticism in the order itself manifested in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the international rise of populism all suggest the demise of the liberal order. Yet, as nations like Australia still rely deeply on the preservation of that order, the question emerges of how well Australia is suited to navigate this instability and ensure the values and norms that have underpinned this order continue to be pursued regardless of its demise.
Australia was and continues to be deeply committed to the maintenance of the liberal international order. It is not just hard-wired into policy and politics, it has also simply just been ‘there’ as a part of our engagement with the world for almost the entirety of an independent Australian foreign policy. This concept of an infallible international order dominated by economic liberalism, human rights and social progressivism therefore continues to sit at the very centre of Australian strategic thinking and policymaking. Even with the growing reticence of the US towards upholding this order, Canberra has continued to hope that the order’s values are not only upheld domestically but internationally. This is especially true in the case of two of the order’s central tenets, economic liberalism and human rights. Australia, along with other nations that rely on the order, have emphatically supported multilateral trade institutions like the WTO and trade arrangements like the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Additionally, Canberra’s prominence in human rights advocacy as a member of the UN Human Rights Council suggests that, regardless of the absence of the US, Australia and other like-minded partners are poised to uphold many of the current order’s central elements.
Streeck recognises that, while the existing interregnum will be dominated by instability, what a new order will look like, or whether it will be similar or antithetical to the current one, is unknown. While Canberra is clear in supporting the values of the existing order – the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper mentions strengthening the international order twice in the Ministerial Foreword alone – it does not seem to be prepared to adapt to a new order, rather opting to “continue strongly to support US global leadership”. Because of Washington’s relative decline, Australia cannot rely solely on the US to uphold the international order and its set of values and norms. Instead, Australia must do more on its own and with other nations to ensure that, during the interregnum between world orders, the core norms and values of the existing order are respected and upheld.
Australia has already laid the groundwork to protect these values by engaging with like-minded partners, such as Canada and Japan, in resurrecting ventures like the Trans-Pacific Partnership – now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – that was abandoned by the US. However, Washington’s hesitance to ‘decline gracefully’ means Australia must do more than just revive abandoned projects. It must aggressively champion the ideals of the existing order that are under threat during the interregnum, such as freedom of navigation and human rights. Additionally, by collaborating and coordinating with other nations who rely heavily on the current system like India, Japan and Vietnam, and by pushing to strengthen and constructively reform multilateral institutions, Australia will help to ensure the values it depends on in the current international order are respected and acknowledged as a new order emerges.
The interregnum that Streek highlights is here, and it is accelerating rapidly. Australia must acknowledge the decline of the current order and ensure that its values continue to be respected irrespective of the absence of the US. Interregnum shouldn’t just be a marker for chaos and instability – it should be an opportunity for Australia and similar nations to work together and ensure that, in a period of great precariousness, a more stable transition of orders ensues.
Euan Moyle is a second-year Master of International Relations student at the University of Sydney. He holds a Bachelor of International Studies from Macquarie University, and has also studied at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Euan has previously served as an intern with the Lowy Institute, a research fellow with Young Australians in International Affairs, and was invited to participate in the 2018 United Nations Graduate Study Programme in Geneva. Currently, he serves as a geopolitical risk analyst with online publication Foreign Brief. His core research interests include Australian foreign and security policy, the Pacific Islands region, international development and human rights. Euan is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.
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