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  • Mike Lyons


At the end of June 2019, leaders of the world’ 20 richest nations met at the G20 conference in Osaka, Japan. The stars of the show were Presidents Donald Trump, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The following occurrences call for discussion and analysis:

Putin’s statement that liberalism had become “obsolete”;

Trump talking about Chinese tech giant, Huawei, being part of any trade settlement;

President Xi observing that the US/China trade war overshadows world peace and stability; and

Trump tweeting an invitation to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to meet at the demilitarized zone.

Trump’s casual, finger waving and grinning statement to a smiling Putin not to “meddle in the election” and his off the cuff invitation to Kim Jong-un to meet, may have ruffled the feathers of his democratic opponents, but did his popularity at home no harm, and if anything may have won him new friends.

North Korea

Sceptics accuse Trump of elevating style over substance. However, there are many who contend that it is better to ignore his style and focus on the substance. Trump not only met with Kim in the Korean demilitarised zone, but he became the first sitting US president to step over the line into the North. It was a diplomatic gambit without precedent, one which Trump believes will eventually yield positive results. Perhaps it will.

Huawei, China’s Tech Giant

In Trump’s discussions with Xi, he called Xi a “brilliant man” and one of the greatest Chinese leaders of the last 200 years. Following these discussions, Trump decided to relax limits on the supply of equipment to Huawei even though, only days before, the supply of such equipment had been banned by the US on “national security grounds”. Australia, following the US lead, has also banned Huawei on national security grounds from supplying equipment to the NBN and to Australia’s planned 5G mobile technology.

However, only days before the G20 meeting, Huawei senior executive, David Soldani described Australia’s NBN as a “catastrophe” which failed to deliver on its promise of a high-speed Internet. Other experts not associated with Huawei suggest that the NBN model is destined for an expensive failure. Trump, in the meantime is making Huawei part of any trade settlement with China, leading to the obvious question of what kind of security risk is this, or is it just part of US strategy in its Trade war with China. Perhaps, like Europe, it is time for Australia to rethink the security risk argument and to reassess its restrictions on Huawei.

The End of the Liberal International Order

Arguably, the most telling moment came with President Putin’s statement that liberalism was “obsolete” and that the ideology which had underpinned Western democracies had “outlived its purpose”. In the post-Cold War era it had been widely believed that the US, as the sole superpower was invincible and that it should lead a unipolar world, laying down the rules of world order. However, shortly before the G20, distinguished intellectual, John Mearsheimer[1] published an in-depth analysis of the rise and fall of the Liberal International Order (also known as the Rules Based Order). According to this analysis, great powers write the rules to suit their own interests but when the rules do not accord with their interests, they ignore them or rewrite them - “By 2019, it was clear that the Liberal International Order was in deep trouble.”

Following the end of the Cold War, the USA was committed to turning China and Russia into liberal democracies which would be integrated into the Liberal International Order. However, with the rise of China, and Russia’s return as a great power, they were unwilling to become part of a liberal order, dominated by USA. The international system has instead become “multipolar” which Mearsheimer regards as the death knell for the Liberal International order, describing it as being in “terminal decline”.

The spread of the Liberal International Order is believed to have been a major contributor (if not the cause) of hyper-globalisation, resulting in many job losses due to outsourcing, stagnant wages and income inequality and, at the same time contributing to China’s rise.

Early in the 21st century, serious cracks appeared in the Liberal International Order. There are manyu examples. The Iraq war became a disaster. The war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in US history with no apparent path to victory. Washington and its allies pursued regime change in Libya and Syria which instead precipitated deadly civil wars. In 2016, Britain voted to exit the EU. Regaining sovereignty was a major theme in the British referendum. Trump is contemptuous of almost all the institutions which make up the Liberal International order. The number of liberal democracies has been declining since 2006. The US has fought seven wars since the Cold War ended but using military force to bring about democracy has led to one failure after another.

The West believed, naively that it would be easy to create a liberal international order. Instead Mearsheimer argues that this was doomed from the start. He reminds the reader that “There never has been and never will be universal agreement on what constitutes the ideal political system.” China and Russia have resisted the spread of the Liberal order. The greatest obstacle to the spread of liberal democracy is Nationalism which places great emphasis on national sovereignty and self-determination.

While order itself is indispensable in an interconnected world, Mearsheimer sees the current system as being replaced by a more pragmatic version. He suggests that a more modest order would pursue a more nuanced, less aggressive approach, would rein in hyper-globalisation and would put significant limits on the powers of international institutions.The unipolar movement is over. The system has become multipolar and great power politics is again at play.

The Accelerating US Decline

Despite Donald Trump’s performance at the G20, it is not all froth and bubbles. In a recent paper entitled Trump is Accelerating America’s Decline[2], Dilip Hiro[3] says that:

  • America’s greatness should be judged against China’s economic progress and Russia’s advances in the latest high-tech weaponry;

  • In a humiliating treat, Trump halted threatened US airstrikes on Iran at the last minute – and only a short time before that, the Trump administration bungled its attempt to overthrow Venezuelan President Maduro;

  • China’s BRI, launched in 2013 has gone from strength to strength, with more than 80 countries now involved, accounting for more than 63% of the world’s population;

  • In a February 2019, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman defended China’s “re-education” camps for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, saying it was Beijing’s right to carry out antiterrorism work to safeguard national security;

  • Despite US complaints about China pressuring American firms to share technology as the price for gaining access to China’s market, according to a spokesman for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, this practice is “fully in accord with globally accepted guidelines” and , according to IMF’s 2018 World Economic Outlook report, “such diffusion of technological know-how has played a significant part in driving growth globally”. In any event, the rise in China’s market has been so steep that major US corporations have generally accepted this long-established Chinese requirement;

  • Then there is Russia’s progress in its advanced weaponry, since George W Bush pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (encouraged by John Bolton) – which Putin described at the time as “a grievous mistake”. In defiance of US pressure, Turkey has ordered the purchase of Russia’s unrivalled S-400 missile system, as has China;

  • In September 2018, Chinese troops participated in Russia’s largest ever military drills, codenamed “Vostok-2018”, while China’s President Xi praised the two countries friendship which was “getting stronger all the time”;

  • With China and Russia’s increasing engagement in the Arctic Region, with the potential for a “Polar Silk Road” and having regard to the Arctic’s vast petroleum reserves, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo complained, somewhat lamely, of China’s “aggressive behaviour”, following his earlier complaint about Russia’s claim over these international waters, including Russia’s plans to connect with China’s Maritime Silk Road.

With the rise, and rise of China, its growing friendship with Russia, and the apparent decline of USA, it is time to think again about the views of distinguished experts including: Kishore Mahbubani – Has the West Lost it? Gideon Rachman – Easternisation; Parag Khanna – The Future is Asian and others.

[1] Professor of Political Science at University of Chicago - Bound to Fail. The Rise and Fall of the Liberal International Order

[2] Published in The Nation (June 2019)

[3] Hiro is the author of After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World (2012 – long before the ascendancy of Trump)

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