Digital Snapshot

by Katja Theodorakis


Digital Snapshot #17/21

15 June 2021

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.


It has been a big week for multilateralism, diplomacy and partnerships, it appears – with several important summits on the international agenda and big rhetoric by world leaders to mark the occasions.  G7 host, Brexit-Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson had pitched the G7+ (Australia was among several countries invited to the expanded version) under the vision of a new “alliance of democratic states”. Likewise, on his first Europe trip as US President, Joe Biden was expected to use the G7 Summit, subsequent EU-US and NATO summits as well as a number of  bilateral talks (including with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Queen Elizabeth II) to send a clear a signal of consensus – that the West was once again speaking as one voice. Likewise, in a foreign policy speech on Wednesday last week, ahead of his trip to the Summit, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has given a sweeping foreign policy speech which outlined a vision of enhanced cooperation amongst liberal democracies, identifying five ‘areas of advocacy’ where “liberal democracies should be stepping up with coordinated action”.

Do these and other signals (such as eg Germany’s ‘Coordinator of Transatlantic  Cooperation’ recently commenting that ‘transatlantic relations are again developing in the right direction’) possibly point to a new course of enhanced cooperation and refreshed internationalism?

Particularly the EU-US summit is hoped to set the course for repairing the damage caused by former US President Donald Trump’s transactional course that snubbed EU allies through punitive trade duties. Critical observers, many with long-standing diplomatic experience, have been pointing out the dangers of modelling a new European foreign policy on disenchantment with the US, prevalent amongst some EU member states over the past years. These have become more urgent, as some recent commentary illustrates 

“We must explain to people why an alliance with the US is far more attractive for Germany and Europe than neutrality or even rapprochement with Russia or China. We must vigorously and persistently campaign for the transatlantic partnership – and ensure that German and European foreign policy does not take on a skewed, anti-transatlantic tone.” ‘It’s Time to Reshape the West!’ Peter Beyer, writing for the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in April 2021
The EU must shape the post-coronavirus world in line with what Europeans think binds them together – a belief in human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. By living up to what Europeans want and what they aspire to, the EU and its leaders can demonstrate the value of the project in a post-Western world.” ‘Crisis of confidence: How Europeans see their place in the world’, by Susi Dennison & Dr Jana Puglierin, European Council on Foreign Relations, June 9, 2021

The EU must shape the post-coronavirus world in line with what Europeans think binds them together – a belief in human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. By living up to what Europeans want and what they aspire to, the EU and its leaders can demonstrate the value of the project in a post-Western world.” ‘Crisis of confidence: How Europeans see their place in the world’, by Susi Dennison & Dr Jana Puglierin, European Council on Foreign Relations, June 9, 2021

Biden’s trip is hence expected to demonstrate that Europe continues to be an important and trusted partner for the US.

While Morrison’s speech covered a broad range of topics, such as trade and economic recovery (touching briefly also on the controversial topic of climate change), its main thrust was a foreign policy vision based on a stronger consensus with other liberal democracies, with the five themes constituting of Supporting open societies, open economies and our rules-based order; Building sovereign capacity, capability and resilience; Cooperating on global challenges; Enabling renewed business-led growth and development, and Demonstrating that liberal democracies work.”

The Australian PM, drawing on war analogies as a favoured rhetorical tool, likened the need for an urgent consensus to that of the immediate post-WWII period:

Our challenge is nothing less than to reinforce, renovate and buttress a world order that favours freedom.

Meeting this challenge will require an active cooperation among like-minded countries and liberal democracies not seen for 30 years.  (…)

As Mathias Cormann often reminded us… West Berlin shone bright in an otherwise desolate economic landscape he would say. It was one of the most compelling arguments for freedom that ultimately tore the wall down.

Zeroing in on economic coercion – interpreted as a veiled criticism of China’s trade sanctions –  the Australian PM specifically made an appeal for greater cooperation between liberal democracies through tougher enforcement of the rules and tools available through institutions such as the World Trade Organisation. As expected, the speech sparked backlash  – most prominently from Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan where the speech was given, who admonished the PM ‘to be more careful in his language around China’, which he referred to as Australia’s ‘biggest customer’).  Regardless, for Morrison the issue of China was arguably a central concern at the G7, including China’s stance on trade, imposing restrictions on Australian products in retaliation for Australia pushing back on China.

Morrison’s speech was heralded as forward-looking, even visionary – dubbed the ‘positive globalism’ speech in reference to his “negative globalism” speech of November 2019, which – interpreted by some as a nod of support to President Trump – set out a much gloomier, inward-looking foreign policy vision. The extent to which Morrison’s latest speech sets out a new agenda for cooperation is of course up for discussion, and the proof will be in the actions to follow – but for now, just by comparing it to his earlier ‘negative globalism’ take on the world, one can indeed note a discernible change in tone and outlook. It was expectedly very well received by the Biden Administration,

And if those big visionary statements and signals weren’t enough to make us ponder about a new course, Australia and Germany have also just agreed to upgrade their bilateral relations to a “strengthened strategic partnership.”  Through a joint statement on June 10 after 2 + 2 Security Policy Talks, the Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs of both countries announced that “Australia and Germany promise broader strategic alliances and joint support for multilateral systems and their institutions”. The Partnership lifts the bilateral relationship to a new level and is intended to intensify cooperation between the two countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

Germany and Australia are strategic partners with joint global responsibility. Lifting our partnership to a new level comes at a time of increased strategic convergence and mutual solidarity and assistance.

Our shared values, the COVID-19 pandemic and the responses to it, as well as the challenges to international rules, norms and institutions, underpin and inform the strategic dimension of our partnership.

We share a deep commitment to universal human rights, a rules-based international order, free trade, resolute climate action, effective multilateralism, freedom of navigation and overflight, and open, inclusive and resilient societies.

We will jointly promote a more peaceful, secure and safer world, democracy, the rule of law, global education and gender equality.

Overall, it signals commitment to work together more closely with partners like Australia–on security, economics, trade and technology. Moreover, the announcement comes after Germany released a White Paper on Multilateralism several weeks ago (English version to follow), in which it sets out “the entire breadth of Germany’s multilateral engagement for the first time”. The initiatives form part of a broader foreign policy reorientation to enhance the effectiveness of German foreign and security policy after what could be described as decades of strategic scepticism. It includes efforts towards engagement in NATO and European defence policy, making the German defence budget continue to grow towards the two per cent target agreed with NATO partners, as well as debates around the procurement of armed drones. These developments follow years of security experts admonishing to broaden the debate about security, that the established political structures and strategic culture (or absence thereof) were increasingly unfit to address emerging security challenges.

So, what do we make of these developments and rhetorical commitments then? Do they indeed herald we may be on a path to a greater internationalism and alignment amongst democracies?

The enhanced partnership between Australia and Germany comes at a crucial time, when liberal democracies are in search of dependable partners and alignments for this new era.

As two prominent analysts in Germany had recently posited:

“Germany and Europe will need to reinvent their core relationships with countries such as the US, deepen existing relationships, and try to build new ones. The EU will not be able to rely on a single ‘alliance of multilateralists’. Instead, Germany and Europe will need to work out a flexible set of relationships with a shifting cast of other powers on various issues.”

This requires a good deal of pragmatism for all partners – something which Australian foreign policy is known for. Yet, ironically Morrison’s latest speech was criticized for a notable lack thereof, with some seeing its key frame of cooperation based on ideological like-mindedness, akin to the Cold War struggle playing out in Europe, as unhelpful:

[r]allying the world’s democracies should not be the organising principle of American or Australian strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Morrison should use his meeting with Biden to press for an Indo-Pacific strategy that can generate buy-in from small- and medium-size countries across the region who want a strong US presence, but who won’t be persuaded by a strategic narrative based on democratic values.

Morrison is certainly also doing the practical lifting and, as one commentator has observed, has ‘Australia’s experience and policy toolkit’ to bring along. And it seems indeed accepted knowledge days that ‘the West’ (becoming shorthand for liberal democracy and its universal values) is beleaguered from inside and out. The decline of the West’s ‘natural’ pre-eminence under US leadership is not to deny –  alongside a crisis of multilateralism and tof he concerted internationalist approach of the post-war consensus (the ‘Liberal International Order’ being understood as constituted by an open international economy, rules and institutions for multilateral cooperation, democracy as the ideal political system, and American power as the system’s guarantor).

Yet it is indeed debatable whether such framings, evident for instance also in the  ‘Westlessness’ motto of the 2019 Munich Security Conference, are useful in charting a way forward. For one, limiting what is supposed to be universal through such a distinct geographic delineation with historic baggage is problematic.

More so, while the idea of a “liberal order” can be normatively compelling as an ideal, it is a vague concept to implement. It has been remarked that the overdrawn notions of the liberal order so popular in political speeches “conflate intentions and outcomes”; this can undermine its usefulness as an actual framework for a foreign policy fit for the challenges at hand. As was pointed out in the US context, “appealing to the liberal order [does not] help us understand whether the United States needs to be deeply involved or largely absent from the Middle East, or somewhere in between.”

Making frequent reference to it as a Lodestar unfortunately does not provide much guidance per se on the pressing challenges and key questions of our time. And it could indeed alienate partners and potentially stand in the way of alignment – in the Indo-Pacific as well as in regards to Transatlanticism. This way, to build and cultivate the multi and mini- lateral partnerships needed, there is something to be said for refraining from expressing partnership through recourse to idealistically grand, sweeping ideas, especially the historic type: without letting go of the values and fundamentals that define our democracies, in order to be forward-looking, we can’t depend on making recourse to a romanticized past as the go-to.