Conservatives and right-wing types, wherever and whoever they might be, need to face up to the reality of the emerging world order. We are entering an increasingly fraught and unpredictable age, and those who like to think strategically about any topic whatsoever are left with few dots to connect and little certainty when doing so. The events of past few weeks in Israel, which look as though they could erupt into even larger conflaguration at any moment, are only one symptom.
The clearest sign that things had changed was the catastrophic United States withdrawal from Afghanistan. There was a distinctly late-Soviet vibe about it, and not just because the Afghans were involved. America, the great world hegemon, pressed the panic-button and left utter chaos behind. And not just utter chaos, but many of their own citizens. The great power of our post-Cold War age was obviously waning.
This event can be coupled with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In a time when people believed future wars would be fought on computers and with robots, a conventional land war in Eastern Europe has provided a reality check. While neither of the direct combatants is among the great powers of the day, Russia has proven adept at ensuring its alliances include China, whilst Ukraine is the United States’ proxy.
The Ukraine War showed that geopolitics was back, replacing the optimistic foreign policy focus of economics that dominated the previous three decades. International relations and foreign policy is, in the end, a fight for space and resources. If one takes geopolitics seriously, then the idea of a world order is a mirage. There is no order per se; only blocs, which morph depending on the strategic desires of the members of those blocs.
Diplomacy will now be carried out in part with guns rather than merely with US dollars. The idealism that gripped much of the “End of History” elites in the West until 2016 still lags in some circles, but surely recent days in the Middle East have destroyed once and for all any optimistic view of international relations.
The appalling terror attacks in Israel by Hamas prove beyond doubt the old neoliberal world order is gone for good. The era of liberal hegemony at an international level was shockingly brief, given that economic growth and liberal democratic evangelism was meant to bring unheard of stability across the globe. The fact that this was a pipe dream is now laid bare.
In reality, access to resources is at the centre of any nation’s calculations about the present and the future. Ideology, be it liberalism, Nazism, communism, Islamism, nationalism, or civilizational ideologies on display in Russia and China, are only ever thin crusts on the surface of base self-interest. Nations need things — be it people, grain, oil, weapons, lithium, uranium, coal, drinking water, access to the sea; economic diplomacy is one way of getting these things. But successful economic diplomacy assumes that ships and planes can travel safely, carrying with them the goods nations need.
In a world that is increasingly unpredictable in military terms, economic diplomacy takes a back seat to military diplomacy, and military diplomacy sometimes means war. The war in Israel threatens, menacingly, to expand into a regional war, and who knows where that leaves us when Russia and Iran are friendly with one another. The foregoing analysis doesn’t even take into account President Xi’s version of the Sword of Damocles that hangs over Taiwan.
Where does this leave Australia? The alliance with the United States, which was celebrated this week by Joe Biden and Anthony Albanese, remains the cornerstone of our country’s foreign policy, and treaties like AUKUS make sense in a world where regional allies either remain suspicious of Australia or are just plain hard to come by.
Apparently there are submarines involved in the Anglophone AUKUS, but it is hard to imagine us ever seeing them or operating them. The real purpose of AUKUS is to further tie us to our natural allies. The United Kingdom is not a regional friend, but it is an old friend and a close one. ANZUS lies at the foundation of AUKUS, and a US alliance secures our geopolitical position in our region against threats from the north. Some things must remain stable in a world in flux and this is one thing that is unlikely to change, no matter who is in the White House.
In an increasingly unpredictable world, self-reliance must become a priority. At the moment, Australia is vulnerable both militarily and economically. We have only limited capacity to defend ourselves from military threats. Our economic situation is decent, but our ability to build things that we need is limited. We rely on supply chains that carry people and goods from overseas to an extent that should make us all nervous.
If movement in the Pacific or Indian Oceans, for example, becomes limited, then we face a prospect much worse than what we experienced with supply-chain issues during the pandemic. If our trade partners become embroiled in a war, then our sources of goods could be constrained. We surely need to start building things ourselves once again. We need to see much more “Made in Australia” tags everywhere.
THE ABOVE set of uncertainties presents opportunities for conservative policymakers. In the first instance, conservatives ought to be the most natural nationalists. “Australia first” industrial policies can’t be implemented across the board, but in an economically-constrained situation, Australia cannot survive off the fumes of our domestic service industry.
Improving Australia’s defence capability should also be an easy win for conservatives. Recruiting more personnel to become combat-ready should be one prong of the strategy, and moving to more self-reliance in terms of defence technology another. There has been great excitement in recent years about Australia’s medical innovation industry – the same should said about our military industry in years to come.
One final policy piece that flows out of the emerging geo-strategic environment relates to immigration. Australia has an inexorably immigrant character, which is not to be regretted. Many of our migrants love it here and want to join in mainstream Australia and embrace Australian values.
In an age where war and geopolitics are important, domestic coherence is necessary. Immigrants who have not, or do not, prove to be capable of joining in mainstream Australia should not be welcomed into the fold. Some things, like celebrating Islamist terrorism, are difficult to square with our political and cultural inheritance.
A level of wariness over certain kinds of international students would not be unreasonable, given the medium term strategic outlook in the Pacific region. Our universities might be merely surviving due to immigrant student populations. But a financial restructure beckons, in any case, and this could be an important, strategically-minded shift for conservative policy-makers.
Australia needs to prepare itself for the unexpected and unpredictable. That means moving to better control how we defend ourselves, what we make for ourselves, and who lives here. Geopolitics is back. Economics is relevant, but not foremost in strategic thinking for the new world order. Domestic policy needs to shift to reflect this, and conservatives should lead the way towards making Australia’s a stable nation in an unstable world.
Simon Kennedy is the Associate Editor of Quadrant. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and a Non-resident Fellow at the Danube Institute.