Lowy Institute

Foreign Minister Bob Carr has rejected the suggestion I made in a Lowy Institute Snapshot yesterday, that the South China Sea is the most unpredictable and dangerous dispute in our region and that Australia should be more active in helping work towards a solution. Here's what Senator Carr told Radio Australia's Stephanie March*:

I don't think it is in Australia's interest to take on for itself a brokering role in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  I don't think that is remotely in our interest, I think we should adhere to the policy we have got of not supporting any one of the nations making competing territorial claims and reminding them all that we want it settled, because we have a stake in it.

I don't for a minute advocate taking sides with any of the parties to the dispute; that would hardly be conducive to our playing a role in working towards a solution. But it does seem like a very timid and low-horizoned approach to a dangerous flashpoint in our region, particularly since in recent years we've had a great deal to say about the crises in Libya and Syria, which can have much less impact on us, and where we can have much less impact in turn. Senator Carr went on to say:

...we think a code of conduct is very useful and that is why we have taken a real interest in the work being done in ASEAN towards a set of ASEAN principals on the disputes registered in the South China Sea.

As I argued in the Snapshot, ASEAN's Code of Conduct is part of the problem. Beijing refuses to deal with any of the Southeast Asian claimants unless they abandon a search for a common position. To think that increasing the pressure on China to accede to an ASEAN-determined Code of Conduct will simply prompt Beijing to roll over and accept is a serious misunderstanding of how China works.

Worse, I have a suspicion that American support for ASEAN's Code of Conduct efforts makes them even less palatable to Beijing. By simply adding its name to the ASEAN-US position, Australia contributes nothing to resolving this dispute, and in fact marginally pushes a solution further away.

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Australia has in the past played a key role in helping broker a way out of regional and global stand-offs. One example was the confrontation over Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia, with Vietnam and the Soviet Union on one side and ASEAN, China and the US on the other. Foreign Minister Bill Hayden understood that this was a pressing issue for Australia, even if we didn't have a direct involvement. His efforts to bring Vietnam and ASEAN closer together were roundly criticised by ASEAN and China, but paid off in the end.

Australia's work in mobilising the Cairns Group was a creative and highly effective way of pushing the US, Europe and Japan past their logjam towards the conclusion of the Uruguay Round. Clever diplomatic partnering with Indonesia worked wonders in getting agreement for the APEC Leaders Meetings, and a decade later for the Bali Processes on People Smuggling and Terrorism.

Australia has a great deal of diplomatic experience and DNA to draw on. It's not about taking sides or sticking our nose in. It's about being creative when the existing dynamics aren't working, and helping to bring about a solution.

* These quotes went to air on Radio Australia's Connect Asia program this morning, but at time of writing are not yet online.


As tensions rise in the South China Sea, I argue in a new Lowy Institute Snapshots paper that finding solutions should be given the highest priority, with Australia well placed to play a brokering role.

in 'What's at Stake in the South China Sea', I liken the South China Sea to a 'geopolitical Bermuda triangle', where Asia's power dynamics are most concentrated and on display. Maritime tensions pit communist China and Vietnam against one another, unite usual enemies China and Taiwan, and draw the US into partnership with Vietnam. I've explained the basis of my arguments and findings in a short video:

This new research paper complements earlier work by Lowy Institute experts, including the 2011 report 'Crisis and Confidence', which warned of the risks of war in the South China Sea, and a recent speech delivered by Rory Medcalf at the 2012 South China Sea conference at CSIS in Washington, DC.


Sam's discussion of conservative internationalism has piqued my interest, and not only because I spent a few years interviewing members of the Howard Government about its foreign policy philosophy.

I think Sam's onto something, but I think it needs better definition. One of the first things a senior bureaucrat told me about the Howard Government's foreign policy was that I'd need to reverse engineer its philosophical approach from its actions because Howard and his ministers were not into making big defining statements of principle.

Sam defines conservative internationalism by way of an attitude of respect for 'the practice of diplomacy, hundreds of years old and with its own traditions, language, lore and rituals (which) by embedding interstate relations in a web of tradition...takes some of the edge off the Hobbesian contest for power'.

I would go a bit further and add that the conservative approach to international affairs is one that relies on time-tested practices and understandings to find the best possible balance between the independent prerogatives of the state and the limits on state behaviour needed to maintain a dependable and stable international system.

At its core, conservatism accepts and tolerates society's imperfections as inevitable. Above all, it is suspicious of those who fixate on the imperfections and ignore what works, advocating instead grand schemes of reform; who in pursuit of perfection are prepared to sweep away the good with the bad.

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What animates conservatism is a willingness to contemplate change only when it brings an absolute improvement in society; change must be carefully targeted so as not to disturb those valuable social institutions, accreted over time, that make society function. Grand schemes of reform more often than not raise expectations that can't be met, poisoning the ground for more pragmatic, incremental reforms and ultimately papering over problems and diverging positions with grandiose but ineffective institutions.

It seems to me that the 'internationalism' in Sam's formula is very different from the way the word is usually used. While the conventional use of internationalism is a belief that most problems in international affairs can be resolved multilaterally, I think conservative internationalism is very different. It is an internationalism embodied by the great Austrian statesman Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich (pictured), who wrote:

Isolated states exist only as the abstractions of so-called philosophers. In the society of states each state has interests...which connect it with the others. The great axioms of political science derive from the recognition of the true interests of all states; it is in the general interests that the guarantee of existence is to be found, while particular interests – the cultivation of which is considered political wisdom by restless and shortsighted men – have only secondary importance.

Conservative internationalism is therefore opposed to progressive internationalism (a belief that international affairs can be perfected by idealistic multilateralism) and conservative unilateralism or isolationism, which believes that the best hope for the world is for countries to leave each other alone, attend to their own interests and keep interstate relations minimal and managerial. It is a pragmatic approach to international affairs which doesn't underestimate the power of established practices and institutions, but advances states' interests by working with rather than against established institutions and practices. If we are entering a new bipolar age, as I've argued before, this may be just the approach that can broker relations between the Atlantic and Asian realms.

That said, conservative internationalism's Achilles heel is how it copes with change: change to broadly held norms such as racial hierarchy and the rights to empire; change to the distribution of power; and changes in technologies of communication and destruction. With the basic logic of the international system transforming from beneath, what are the institutions and expectations to be preserved and which should be discarded or made anew? This was the challenge that bedeviled Metternich. How will the next generation of conservative foreign policy makers compare? 

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

14 of 14 This post is part of a debate on A new bipolarity

It's taken me too long to respond to Sam's thoughtful piece on the new bipolarity. His idea of 'conservative internationalism' really got me thinking and in the end has made me revise a major premise of my original idea.

In first observing the qualitative differences between how seriously Atlantic and Asian states take their commitments to domestic and international institutions, I'd simply accepted the argument of people such as Robert Cooper and Robert Kagan, that regions which take institutions seriously are all idealists. That is, they believe that in building these institutions, they are building a 'postmodern' world that will eradicate war and build a perpetual peace.

Now I'm not so sure. Harry Gelber's fascinating contribution to the debate, pointing out the common defensive intent of associations, from empires to regional blocs, in the face of rising powers suggests a deep pragmatism behind what Kagan and Cooper take to be wildly idealistic enterprises. As Europe contemplates its steady relative decline and Africa and Latin America their persistent under-performance, solidarity and rules that promote stability have become the order of the day.

Thus we can see a major motivation for Mercosur is the need for solidarity among South America's states in dealing with the US, initially but not only in negotiations for a Free Trade Area of the Americas. And take the Sirte Declaration, which paved the way for the establishment of the African Union, which proclaims a 'vision for a strong and united Africa, capable of meeting global challenges and shouldering its responsibility to harness the human and natural resources of the continent in order to improve the living conditions of its peoples.'

This is not idealism; it's conservative internationalism.

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Asia, on the other hand, is a region of bursting optimism and self-belief (to use Dominique Moisi's fascinating framework, the 'geopolitics of emotion'). Its states, at least the big agenda-setting ones, have no need for solidarity and rules that promote stability. They want to be left alone to make their own luck.

But there's a downside to conservative internationalism, as we observe Europe's travails over Greece. In this case, the commitment to institutions — repeated elections that solve nothing; the desperation to save the eurozone — has led to mounting crisis. Perhaps what Europe needs right now is a dash of Asia's cavalier attitude towards institutions and a heap of Asia's determination to make things work, whatever institutional commitments might say.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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In a really helpful critique of the new bipolarity, Andrew Carr argues that I'm overplaying the institutional differences between the Atlantic and Asian realms and points out that there is no shortage of institutions in Asia (though that figure of 700 meetings a year came as a bit of a shock to me).

I think we need to look a bit deeper than counting institutions and meetings. We need to look at what those institutions are committed to and what they do; once we do, the differences just become starker.

Atlantic institutions prepared to act

The Atlantic's institutions have undergone a profound qualitative change since the end of the Cold War.

In North America, the Organization of American States has acquired the right to suspend any member whose democratically elected government has been overthrown by force, through Resolution 1080 and the Protocol of Washington. In South America, Mercosur (through the Treaty of Asuncion) and the Rio Group have defined themselves as associations of democratic countries, stipulating that any member state in which democratic order is interrupted will be suspended until democracy is restored.

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Europe also has formalised its commitment to democracy through the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, which amends Article 309 of the Treaty of Rome to allow the suspension of membership for any EU state that breaches the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

In Africa, the Organisation of African Unity's commitments to sovereign equality and territorial integrity, non-interference in domestic affairs and non-violability of borders have been replaced by the African Union's principles promoting the ability to intervene in genocide or crimes against humanity and to restore peace and security. The AU has also set out clearly through the Durban Declaration a clear framework governing democratic elections, while Article 30 of the AU Charter provides for the suspension of any member government that comes to power unconstitutionally. 

The Atlantic states go beyond just making commitments: they act on them. No government that has come to power by coup in Africa since 1997 has been allowed to participate in the African Union's ministerial or summit meetings. At various times Comoros, Cote d'Ivoire, Madagascar and Niger have been excluded. The AU has intervened to promote peace in the Sudan, just as the Economic Community Of West African States has in Liberia. 

In the Americas, the OAS convened a high level mission which determined that Peru's 2000 elections were illegitimate, leading to a suspension of its membership. Panama's membership has also been temporarily suspended.

Beginning with the Contadora Support Group, Latin America's states have become actively involved in resolving insurgencies in Central America, and an active suite of joint exercises, strategic dialogues and disarmament and arms control measures is well under way. NATO of course intervened in the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo.

Asian institutions missing in action

Here is a record that is starkly different from Asia's. While the 2007 ASEAN Charter makes repeated references to democracy, good government, the rule of law and human rights, there is no evidence that the grouping takes these commitments seriously. A coup and serious ongoing instability in Thailand didn't raise even a murmur of concern from the other members. That the Shanghai Cooperation Organization did nothing during Kyrgyzstan's bloody unrest surprises no-one.

On regional peace and security, Asia's institutions are also missing in action. While Africa's efforts in Darfur and Europe's in the former Yugoslavia are hardly paragons of success, at least they acted. Asia's institutions are not even allowed to discuss points of tension; I recently heard two Singaporean academics call the ARF 'Avoid Regional Flashpoints'. With Thailand and Cambodia shooting at each other over a border dispute last year, the failure of Asia's institutions couldn't be starker.

In a nutshell, the Atlantic takes its institutions seriously. Asia's institutions are a kabuki play, all movement and colourful shirts, while its states are free to arm, compete and conduct their affairs as they see fit.

Photo by Flickr user GanMed64.
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Ten years ago, Robert Kagan grabbed everyone's attention by declaring 'Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus'. It was, he told us at the outset of his article-turned-bestseller, 'time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.' As war clouds gathered over Iraq, Kagan argued that Americans were prepared to use force to uphold international order, while Europeans placed their hopes in institutions that would build a post-modern world where force was rare.

At the base of Kagan's analysis is an argument about power and psychology that has long intrigued me. He tells a parable about a man in a forest inhabited by a prowling bear: if the man is only armed with a knife he will probably lie low and hope to avoid the bear; but if the man is armed with a gun, he is more likely to go looking for the bear to eliminate the threat to his safety.

His point is that the more power you have, the more proactive you're likely to be in seeking out and eliminating threats to your safety. Hence Americans will find and eliminate threats, whereas weaker Europeans are more likely to try to either tolerate or placate threats using diplomacy and institutions. 'Great powers', he goes on to say, 'often fear rules that constrain them more than they do anarchy. In an anarchic world, they rely on their power to provide security and prosperity.'

It's here that any superficial applicability of the Mars-Venus divide to my Atlantic-Asian divide breaks down, because as I argued in my previous post, it is Asian states that are least willing to invest in institutions, and most insistent of their sovereign prerogatives.

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But Asian states don't have anything like the power lead over Atlantic states that would render Kagan's parable more broadly applicable. Yes, Asia's giants may be racking up year-on-year high growth and buying up big in the global arms bazaar, but their own internal feelings of fragility and weakness make the man-with-a-gun analogy a long way from apt.

I think the difference between the Atlantic and Asia is psychological, but it's not related to power differentials. I think it arises from differences in how countries in these two regions interpret their own histories. To the Atlantic states – Africa, Europe, Latin America – modern history reads as a tale of disappointment. For Europe, the last century has charted a trajectory of decline from the glory days when imperial Europe created the modern world. For Africa and Latin America, there is a widespread feeling of having failed to live up to the possibilities presented by their vast, bounteous continents. For each of these three regions, the responsibility lies within – volatile and venal domestic politics that leads to war and economic under-performance.

To Asian states, modern history reads very differently. It is a history of decline from former glory, but the crucial difference is that the decline coincides with (and is interpreted as having been caused by) a period of external colonial domination. Asian states read domination as both external (unequal treaties, direct imperial control) and internal (Western critiques of local customs, replacement of traditional social and political structures, complete reorientation of Asian economies). Most importantly, the ending of colonial domination has led, with a bit of a lag, to the resurgence of Asian societies.

Their different readings of history have made Atlantic societies more fatalistic, and Asian societies more volitional. Atlantic societies' bitter histories have given them an overwhelming desire to curb the irrational internal and external forces that have caused decline and under-performance. Democracy, the rule of law, and rights internally, plus 'thick' institutions externally are the way they try to eliminate these forces. These institutions also provide a psychologically important symbol of being modern and progressing towards a better world.

Asian societies want none of these fetters. For them, whether democratic or not, the command power of the state is the expression and instrument of their resurgence. They are societies on the make which refuse to be constrained by others' expectations, and see no reason why anyone else should be either. They are convinced they are the future, and don't need institutional symbols to convince themselves.

Photo by Flickr user Princess-Lodges.

9 of 14 This post is part of a debate on A new bipolarity

In my previous post, I used a couple of data sets to show that Asian states spend less on institutions and are investing more on weapons than African, European and Latin American states.

I think this is important because it portends a new bipolarity in international affairs, if we use the concept of polarity as it should be used, rather than as it has been defined by the international relations discipline. Since the dawn of the Cold War, IR has defined polarity in terms of competing centres of initiative and consequence, the number of which determine how the world works. The assumption is that all poles, irrespective of institutional or ideological makeup, play the same game of power politics, with common understandings and expectations.

But we need to remember that the concept of polarity comes to us from physics, which defines it as 'the possession of opposite or contrasted principles or tendencies.' I think this describes the current divide between the Atlantic and Asia really well; each operates according to a different tendency in interpreting and reacting to international events.

I’m also keen to rescue my concept of the new bipolarity from another common usage in international relations – the realist-idealist divide. Hugh White suggests that if we look at the Atlantic and Asia using these terms, we'll see that states can switch from realism to idealism according to the circumstances.

But the new bipolarity is about more than alternating moods; it's about real commitments, institutions and philosophies that can't be switched on and off at will. We can see this if we stop for a moment to examine something really interesting that's occurred in the world over the past 20 years, but which few people seem to have noticed.

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Since the mid-1980s in Europe, the early 1990s in Latin America, and the late 1990s in Africa, whole groups of states have transformed the way they interact within their regions. In each of these groupings, there has been a steady transformation from Westphalian prerogatives, reasonably weak intergovernmental institutions, and an avoidance of domestic interference and criticism towards collective commitments to human rights, democracy and the rule of law, the integration of public opinion and civil society interests into regional institutions, and the strengthening of regional peace and stability mechanisms.

All three regions have inaugurated comprehensive democracy, human rights and rule of law charters, and rules of exclusion for those states falling short. All three have established or strengthened regional judiciaries, regional parliaments, and regional peace and security intervention instruments. And all three (unlike ASEAN, which included a declaration on democracy and human rights in its 2007 charter but has not acted on it) have demonstrated a rising willingness and expectation that they will enforce their collective commitments.

This is what brings Africa, Europe and Latin America together into an Atlantic community, despite their great differences in culture, wealth and history. And it's what divides the Atlantic community from the states of Asia.

The key difference between the Atlantic and Asia is that Atlantic states are much more willing to negotiate and uphold rules and institutions – internally through democracy, rights and the rule of law, and externally through 'thick' institutions of regional governance relating to trade and investment, and instability and crisis management. For Asian countries, state effectiveness is more important than internal or external rules. What's important is not the form of internal governance but its efficiency. Externally, Asia's institutions remain 'thin' too, in order to place as few constraints as possible on the state's prerogatives.

Volker Perthes suggested I'm just re-hashing Robert Kagan's Mars-Venus divide. Far from it: in my next post, I argue that Kagan's distinction doesn't fit, and try to explain why these Atlantic vs Asian differences have arisen.

Photo by Flickr user Kirill Levin.

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I’m delighted my thoughts on a new bipolarity provoked several people to respond. I found the responses really helpful, and have been deep in research and thought as a result.

I guess I'd class all of the responses in the 'nice idea, but I’m not convinced' category. Some people, such as Volker Perthes and Hugh White, agreed that there are differences in approach to international affairs, but disagreed that the differences were between two groups, one Atlantic, one Asian. Both argued that there are actually several different groups of approaches to international affairs.

I'd like to have another go at convincing them, and other silent sceptics. There are all sorts of distinctions and classifications that can be made in international affairs; the trick is to pick the one(s) that are significant – in the sense that they shape the way the world works. Both Volker and Hugh argue (though for different reasons) that the important distinctions are regional ones. For Volker it's based on 'cultures' of international relations; for Hugh (and Peter Layton) it's about 'strategic re-regionalisation' and 'regional security complexes'.

I don't think regions are the key to the way the world works, certainly not for the big questions of war and peace and our capacity to address the big issues faced by the planet. On these questions, it is an Atlantic-Asian divide that will have a big impact.

First, some statistics that I think show that Africa and Latin America are closer to Europe than Volker and Jim Terrie believe, and that give some real definition to the 'Asia' that Peter questions the existence of. I looked into two data sets that would distinguish the Atlantic from the Asian outlook: how much states spend on international institutions, and how much they spend on weapons.

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The results are pretty clear. I averaged the contributions made to the UN budget as a proportion of GDP for African, Asian, European, and Latin American states. Despite having an average per capita GDP three times as big as Africa's, Asian states' contribution to the UN budget as a proportion of GDP is less than 50% bigger than African states'. And although Asia's average per capita GDP is slightly higher than Latin America's, Asia's contribution to the UN budget is only four-fifths the size of Latin America's.

So African and Latin American countries are much more committed than Asian states to funding the UN, irrespective of their own wealth – an attribute that brings them closer to Europe than Asia.

As for arms spending, according to SIPRI, between 2000 and 2011 Asia's arms spending doubled; compare that to Africa's 55% rise, Europe's 21% increase, and Latin America's 58% growth. In other words, Asian states are arming at nearly twice the rates of Africans and Latin Americans, and five times the rate of Europeans.

In my next post, I look at why all this matters.

Photo by Flickr user michaels photo album.


I was somewhat surprised to read Brendan Taylor's matter-of-fact statement that the South China Sea isn't really a vital interest for any of Asia's great powers, except perhaps for China. I'm not so sure about this, for two reasons.

First, the South China Sea is emerging as the Achilles heel in China's 'peaceful rise' strategy. Ever since Zhou Enlai announced that the South China Sea was a 'core interest', its claims to that waterway have stood as a warning to other claimants that perhaps China's regional dominance may not be as benign as Chinese leaders say it will be. Even more alarming for Southeast Asian states than the actual clashes between China and the Philippines and Vietnam is the growing evidence that Beijing has been able to split ASEAN's diplomatic solidarity on the issue.

Why would Asia's other great powers be interested in this? Because the reaction to China's rise and claims by its neighbours, however small, will play a vital role in the future strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific.

If Beijing can convince its neighbours that its growing wealth and military power are benign, it will have advanced a long way towards dominance in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But if its neighbours remain wary, twinning their closer economic integration with China with tighter defence relations with America, India, Japan and each other, Beijing will simply not have the elbow room to pursue broader dominance.

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In other words, America and Asia's second-tier powers need a wary Southeast Asia in order to contest and hedge against China's rising power.

Second, as Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes argue in Red Star Over the Pacific, the South China Sea is a vital arena in the growing naval competition between the American and Chinese navies. They argue that Chinese strategists see the South China Sea as a breakout point from the first island chain into the broader Pacific. It is the only place within the first island chain with the expanse and depth to baffle the American and Japanese navies' capacity to bottle in the Chinese navy.

And in a fascinating comparison of imperial Germany's maritime geography and that of China, they argue convincingly that China has the strategic advantage in naval competition in the South China Sea. This makes the South China Sea an area of great interest and worry to the US and Japan.

Photo by Flickr user Storm Crypt.

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In part 1 of this series, Michael describes one side of the new bipolar divide, the 'Atlantic community', which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa. Part 2 describes the other side of the divide, Asia.

The new bipolarity is very different from that of the Cold War. This divide is not one of opposing coalitions clustered around all-powerful poles. It features strong interdependent links rather than a chasm of rivalry and fear between its two components. The new polarity is of a different type, with two different communities of states divided by a widening gulf of perceptions and expectations about global institutions, international norms, and the basic ground rules of international affairs.

These are not competing or even non-trading coalitions; rather they represent two steadily diverging conceptions of how the world works. Whereas the Atlantic community holds fast to a teleological belief in the steady improvement of international relations, a resignation to playing out a cycle of rising, declining and competing powers is pervasive in Asia.

This new divide may be less dangerous than its predecessor, but it will be no less determining of global affairs. The Atlantic and the Asian mindsets will struggle to find common ground in global institutions and on the big planetary challenges that face us. It will be a recurring dialogue of the deaf between idealists and arch pragmatists. It is hard to see how institutional solutions will be arrived at in negotiations between one group of countries committed to internationalism and another group sceptical of internationalism.

The Cold War ended with the victory of one side and the implosion of the other. The new bipolarity can't be resolved in this way because the two sides aren't competing – in fact they're not even speaking the same language. Whereas the preponderance of global production and minerals lay on one side of the Cold War divide, allowing the West to construct a quasi-global order, this time around production, resources and legitimacy are much more evenly spread between the Atlantic and Asia. The new bipolarity will likely be more enduring than the Cold War version.

Perhaps the biggest challenge posed by the new bipolarity will be to the global leadership of the US. America will be torn between the Atlantic and Asian realms. Its sympathies and predilections lie very much with the Atlantic community, whose ideals reflect and extend FDR's postwar internationalism and which still looks to Washington for leadership. But America's pragmatic interests lie in Asia, where it faces the most serious strategic challenge since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the best prospects for the recovery of its economy.

America will struggle to come to terms with the new realities in Asia, because it will approach them with an Atlantic mindset. Its expectations about what it can do, and how it does them, will need constant readjustment in Asia. Whether it can juggle two different approaches to international affairs will be a major challenge for the US in the twenty-first century.

Suggestions, comments and critiques on all three parts of this series are gratefully accepted.

Photo by Flickr user Aaron Molina.

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In part 1 of this series, Michael describes one side of the new bipolar divide, the 'Atlantic community', which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa.

On the other side of the new bipolar divide is Asia, a collection of countries driven by a set of preoccupations completely different from those of the Atlantic community. This is a region – it cannot be described as a community in any meaningful sense – undergoing rapid change in power relativities.

Over the past decade, Asia has evolved from a region in which no state was large and rich enough to contemplate dominance to a region in which one state, China, is large enough, and rapidly amassing wealth and power sufficient to make its dominance imaginable among its neighbours. As a consequence, there are few pretensions towards a non-competitive, post-modern pattern of international relations in Asia. As the Atlantic community steadily disinvests in its armed forces, Asia's states are engaged in a prolonged and determined arms build-up.

Asian institutions have always been less ambitious than Atlantic institutions, in that their adherence to Westphalian norms of non-interference and consensus has been uncompromising. Despite the proliferation of regional institutions in Asia, none have been permitted to address the region's multiplying points of stress and tension among its jostling powers. In a region in which power competition is rising, institutions are becoming even less relevant.

While Asian elites may at times mouth support for norms such as the Responsibility to Protect, few would admit that it is an operative expectation in their part of the world. The prospect of an international coalition intervening to prevent a massacre in, say, Burma, are vanishingly small.

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In Asia there is a pragmatic approach to internal governance; as long as the regime is effective in maintaining a stable country, regime type makes little difference. Witness the disgust of many regional leaders when Thailand's constitutional crisis disrupted the December 2008 East Asia Summit meeting. Their consternation was not directed towards the prospects of democracy in Thailand, but towards the ineptness of the then government in dealing with the protests. Even those Asian states that many outside Asia look to as future champions of democracy – such as India and Indonesia – have been silent on regime type in other countries.

Colonial and Cold War ties are meaningless in Asia. Vietnam rarely looks to France for anything other than assistance in restoring grand colonial architecture, and its burgeoning strategic relationship with the US shows how weakly Cold War memories influence current policy. Consequently, there are no natural and accepted leaders in Asia. Each of its powerful states would arouse suspicion and resistance were it to propose leading a coalition of countries; in this situation, collective action is often most effective when proposed by smaller countries.

The focus of Asian states is on pressing contemporary issues in their region. The overarching strategic picture is dominated by responses to China's rising power, as the second-tier states surrounding it build closer ties with the US.

Meanwhile China is working assiduously at countering any ability or willingness to contain it. Simmering disputes in the East and South China Seas are, on the one hand, problems needing immediate management, and on the other, confrontations that will shape the future of the region's maritime trading order. The Arab uprisings seem very far away, while the issue of Iran's aspirations sees non-proliferation concerns tempered by pragmatic considerations on access to and the price of West Asian energy.

Don't touch that dial – part 3 of 'Back to Bipolarity' will be along soon.

Photo by Flickr user Old Sarge.

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Back in February, Sam drew attention to University of Colorado Professor Roger Pielke's observation that blogging is a great way of critiquing, extending and refining new ideas:

(Blogging) is a remarkably powerful tool for refining ideas, for collecting intelligence, for making contacts. I get routinely better feedback critique from ideas, arguments, I put out on my blog than I do in the peer review process.

Well, as a lapsed academic, I'm intrigued enough to give it a go.

On a recent trans-Pacific flight, I tapped out some impressions I'd formed while attending a Council on Foreign Relations conference, which brought together the heads of 20 think tanks from around the world to discuss global governance. I call the piece 'Back to Bipolarity?' because it is an argument that the world has split into two different communities of understandings and expectations about how the world works.

I'd like to test these ideas before I put them together into a journal article, by presenting them on The Interpreter in a three-part series, and asking specialists from around the world to respond. In particular, I'm going to encourage some of the other participants in the 'Council of Councils' conference to critique my impressions. Suggestions, comments and critiques from you, the reader, are also gratefully accepted: blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org .

On one side of the new bipolar divide is an Atlantic community, which includes the Americas, Europe and Africa. The Atlantic community places great hope in the progress of global institutions and norms such as the Responsibility to Protect, and believes strongly in the prospect of building a non-conflictual, 'post-modern' international system by way of regional and global institutions.

Indeed, it has been Africans and Latin Americans at the forefront of extending post-modern norms: witness the African Union's rejection of non-intervention in favour of a norm of 'non-indifference' in its July 2000 Constitutive Act, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's call for a norm of 'responsibility while protecting' in her address to the General Assembly in September 2011.

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Among the Atlantic community there is much greater attention to the type of internal governance of states than to the effectiveness of internal governance, irrespective of type. The influence of 'international opinion' (which really means Atlantic community opinion) carries great weight in the domestic politics of the Atlantic states. It was the influence of Atlantic community opinion, for instance, that dissuaded Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo from contesting an unconstitutional third term in 2007.

Colonial and Cold War ties remain strong influences on the cohesion and common purpose of the Atlantic community. It has three spear-carriers: the US, France, and the UK. These three countries, collectively or separately, are looked to for leadership in times of crisis, such as civil war or genocide in West Africa. Leadership by any other country, such as South Africa or Brazil, is looked at askance in the Atlantic community.

The Atlantic community tends to focus on problems that threaten either its security or its ideals. The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East challenge both: by threatening to disrupt Middle Eastern and Atlantic basin energy flows, by raising the prospect of large refugee movements, and by highlighting the forces of democracy and illiberalism in the Arab world.

Iran's nuclear ambitions similarly challenge the integrity of a global norm and the strategic stability of the Middle East. The crisis of the euro likewise has become all-consuming, challenging both the dream of regionalism and the reality of Europe's continuing influence and prosperity.

Stay tuned – parts 2 and 3 of 'Back to Bipolarity?' will follow.



In a really interesting response to my keynote to the Universities Australia conference this month, Melbourne University Professor Antonia Finnane asked an important question: does 'Asia' really exist? She writes: 'Historically, Asia has served as a catch-all phrase for societies that were literate but not Christian: hence its application to places from Turkey in the west to the Philippines in the east. It may be approaching its use-by date.'

There is no question that the earth's largest continent is home to a greater variety of cultures, languages and religions than any other. Expecting some kind of uniformity of thought or approach among societies as diverse as Japan and Jordan is a futile enterprise, as the now defunct 'Asian values' school shows.

But to retire the term to the realm of geography only strikes me as premature. 'Asia' has always meant something more than a common geographic location, for those living on that continent and for those living on other continents.

From classical times, 'Asia' was a reminder that there were non-European societies that were highly developed and literate, based on totally different worldviews from those of Christendom. It was this knowledge that breached the Church's claim on the monopoly of truth long before the arrival of the Renaissance. Later, 'Asia' – or at least the catch-all phrase 'the Indies' — came to symbolise wealth and exotic spices. During the colonial era, 'Asia' came to be used by some of the continent's societies to define what they didn't want to be – Japan's Meiji reformers, for instance, were galvanised into action partly by the desire to avoid the fate of supine 'Asian' societies such as India.

'Asia' became a talisman to those who dreamed of ending the colonial era. The great anti-colonial thinkers and activists, from Jose Rizal to Rabindranath Tagore to Sun Yat Sen, drew inspiration from anti-colonial movements in other countries on the continent. All were energised by Japan's victory over Russia in their 1905 war.

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Later, during the Cold War, there was a considerable pan-Asian element to the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement, and the simultaneous adoption of five principles of peaceful coexistence by its leaders, India, China and Indonesia. And, the claims of the Asian values school aside, there was more than a little transnational admiration and copying of the economic models that produced the Asian economic miracle.

Far from becoming defunct, 'Asia' is becoming ever more relevant as a source of self-evaluation for the societies occupying that continent.

'Asia' has come to mean the epicentre of the great convergence that is redefining the world economy and the global power balance. It is in Asia's big societies where the rapid gains in productivity are occurring. A genuinely Asian economy, with distributed manufacturing centred on China and energy links tying together East, South and West Asia more and more tightly, is already in place. Suddenly, to be 'Asian' is to be part of this century's success story, to be among a continental community of optimism and growing clout.

The renewed sense of 'Asianness' also has its dark sides. Now that there is one Asian country (China) big and potentially wealthy and powerful enough that others can imagine it dominating the region, old suspicions and animosities have begun to arise. These are distinctively Asian suspicions, because many of them pre-date the colonial era. They relate to very old rivalries over prestige and hierarchies of civilisations and religions. There is a very Asian underpinning to the new dynamics of power competition across that continent.

Image (courtesy of Wikipedia) is of a Japanese propaganda poster dating from 1904 or 1905, and shows Tsar Nicholas II waking from a nightmare of the battered and wounded Russian forces returning from battle.


If Australia has a narrative thread that runs through its post-colonial history, it must be the unfolding story of how it relates to the vast continent to its northwest. Almost from the time of the arrival of the First Fleet, Asia has tugged at the connections and self-images that Australia has forged for itself. Whether it was shiploads of iron ore to imperial Japan or container vessels of wheat to pre-recognition China, Asia has wanted what Australia has in abundance, with an insistence that overrides Canberra's strategic or diplomatic priorities.

A new chapter in this narrative began a few years ago. It started with the global financial crisis, which pitched America and Europe into the prolonged doldrums alongside Japan, leaving the global economic stage to a collection of surging emerging economies, most significantly in Asia.

At around that time, China became Australia's largest trading partner, taking our security and prosperity interests potentially in different directions for the first time in our history. And on top of all that, the US elected a man determined to weave the narrative of a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia into American foreign policy: the 'Pacific presidency' that delivered the US 'pivot' back to Asia.

Last year I argued that economic linkages and strategic competition were forging a new 'Indo-Pacific era' that will see the centre of global production, exchange and strategic competition run much closer to Australia's northern shorelines than ever before. This will make even our small decisions the subject of jealous scrutiny among a collection of Indo-Pacific great powers. The onus is on us, I argued, to become much more interested and knowledgeable about Asia, so that the choices we have to make are informed by society-wide, knowledge-rich debates and discussions.

On 28 September 2011, the Prime Minister delivered an important speech on Australia-Asia relations, in which she announced the commissioning of a White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century. This is an important initiative, but hugely challenging for the Task Force led by Ken Henry. The Prime Minister has asked Dr Henry and his team three basic questions:

  1. What's actually happening in Asia, where is it leading, and what are the implications for Australia?
  2. What are the opportunities to be seized and the challenges to be managed in this process?
  3. What are the broader foreign policy and institutional mechanisms that Australia can suggest, lead and/or participate in to manage this era of strategic change?

Each of these questions is worthy of a White Paper in itself, and each will call forth a range of different responses. Already Dr Henry and his team have collected over 300 submissions and engaged in broad consultations.

The Lowy Institute is delighted to host this blog feature on Australia in the Asian Century, supported by the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet, in the interests of making this a genuinely broad discussion about Australia's relations with the continent of Asia. Over the next four months, it will host frequent contributions to the discussion of the White Paper's central themes from across Australia and around the world. The evolving debate will be closely followed by Dr Henry and his team.

I encourage you to follow and contribute to this important conversation in our national narrative.

Photo by Flickr user Pranav Bhatt.


At the risk of sounding pedantic, the centralised foreign-policy-making system Andrew refers to in his post was not created by Prime Minister Rudd, but rather was inherited from his predecessor John Howard.

In a chapter in the latest Australia in World Affairs collection, I describe this as the rise of a 'presidential' system of foreign-policy-making in Australia. Globalisation and transnational threats have broadened the foreign policy remit to include most departments of state, while creating complex interlinkages among issues.

Howard's logical response was to progressively strengthen coordination mechanisms to guard against contradictory responses, lapses in communication, and embarrassing or dangerous security leaks. The experience of leading the INTERFET operation in 1999 further deepened the need for clockwork-like coordination across government. Between 2002 and 2009 the international and security policy staff in PM&C increased by 290%.

Howard was also determined to play a central role in national security policy-making. On coming to office he strengthened and regularised meetings of the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSCC), as well as establishing powerful supporting bodies within the bureaucracy as a single hierarchy of advice and decision. The creation of the position of National Security Adviser gave the PM single-point delegation of all security policy decisions, without having to rely on his Ministers or their Departments to transmit his wishes.

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Perhaps the greatest change was Howard's development of relationships of trust and loyalty with all of the significant agency heads: Howard instituted the regular attendance of agency heads at NSCC meetings: the Secretaries of PM&C, Foreign Affairs and Defence, the Chief of the Defence Force, Directors-General of ONA and ASIO and the Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police.

For the first time, agency heads participated in discussions – though not decisions – of the NSCC. Never before in Australian government has a Prime Minister had such regular and unmediated access to agency heads, and never had the Prime Minister's policy deliberations with his Ministers been so augmented by the views and direct advice of the heads of those Ministers' departments.

The presidential system responded to two of Howard's preferences: the need to establish his personal leadership on national security; and his determination to surround himself with people he knew and trusted. This was the system Rudd inherited, and it suited his inclinations to personally direct Australian foreign policy down to the ground. Rudd kept in place all of the structures of Howard's personalisation of policy advice, including by leaving in place the advisers that Howard had so trusted.

Where it all went awry was that Rudd had a Bill Clinton-like attitude to process; and his personal involvement meant that key decisions in foreign policy got lost among all the other key decisions in his in-tray.

Australia is not the only Westminster-system government to have moved to a presidential system of foreign-policy-making. In May 2010 the British Government announced the establishment of a National Security Council of Cabinet, to be chaired by the PM and attended by senior Ministers and agency heads; a new National Security Adviser role was also created. It seems the pressures towards foreign policy presidentialism are compelling; the jury's still out over whether they produce better foreign and security policy.