by Katja Theodorakis, Senior Programme Coordinator for Research and Analysis (Foreign/Security Policy)

This piece was originally published as the latest edition of the 'KAS AusPacific Digital Snapshot' - a potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot provides an analysis of selected media and think tank articles, intended to offer a panorama overview of the debate in these countries. The original version found below contains the references and links for further reading.

It’s fair to say that in 2020, our ‘international society’ is under strain.

The reaction of some has been to fret about the weakening of the rules-based international order. Fair enough.

We want to see international engagement framed by agreed rules and norms, not crude economic or political coercion.

But nor do we practically think longing for the past amounts to a strategy. 

The configuration of power in global politics has changed. 

We have to deal with the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.

The liberal rules and norms of what has been known as the American Century are under assault.

The jungle is growing back’, as Robert Kagan has observed.

And we need to tend to the gardening.



The Context: An International Society Shaped by Power or by Rules?

Referencing a classic Australian security scholar, Prime Minister Scott Morisson emphasized the need for pragmatically defending 'international society' which - as conceived by Hedley Bull - is based on a 'common set of rules'. This statement, as well as Morrison;s 'tending the garden' metaphor, reflect a note-worthy position on the dialectic between power on one hand and rules, norms and values in the international system.

After his 'negative globalism speech' from last year - which raised questions about whether it signaled a departure from Australia's commitment to the multialteral system- the ASPEN address was both criticized and well-received for its take on how to respond to the strategic dynamics currently impacting on and steering the international system. While The Foreign and Defence minister equally affirmed a commitment to Australia taking an increasingly active role in shaping the international system

In the words of Foreign Minister Payne: "We can prioritise Australia's sovereignty, and Australians’ long-term interests, by making the difficult decisions and choices...We must stand up for our values and bring our influence to bear in these institutions to … preserve the open character of international institutions based on universal values and transparency..."Similarly, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds described this new strategic impetus as "we have to define a new rules-based order and encourage very strongly all major state actors to accord with these rules".

And How 'Cyber' Fits into This...

One key manifestation of the international system being 'under strain' flagged by Morrison was, alongside disinformation, an increase in the 'frequency and sophistication' of cyber-attacks. This was well-timed with the release of Australia's long-awaited new cybersecurity strategy - four years after the Turnbull government set out Australia's initial vision for a 'cybersmart' nation.

It makes sense to look at Australia's Cybersecurity Strategy through this wider lens- seeing how it fits into this new framework of a more strategically assertive Australia committed to more 'shaping action' in global arena. Particularly instructive for interpreting the new cyber strategy is Morrison's admission that international engagement is shaped by 'agreed rules and norms', yet tempered by a realist admonition that the idealism shaping previous decades won't cut it as a strategy moving into the future.

On the complex dynamic between power and rules or norms, the Lowy Institute's Ben Scott for example noted that even though 'rules based order' " is now accepted shorthand, the international order can be more accurately described as 'shaped by', rather than 'based on' rules. 

This can be interpreted to mean that power trumps norms as its a foundational element whole norms are 'nice to have'. On the other hand though, if international norms don't have a 'bite' and only provide window dressing for power relations, legitimacy - another key factor for states and institutions - would suffer.

Weighed against these these fundamental principles and recent strategic developments, what are we to make of the new cybersecurity strategy?

How does Morrison's position on the tandem dynamic underpinning international relations - fundamentally based on economic and military power while also impacted by international norms as these shape the way in which power is exercised - shine through ?

Assuming that no perfect balance can be achieved and trade-offs will have to be made, as is the case in in national security, the question is to which side the strategy is leaning more?

The verdict on the overall efficacy strategy is still out as more details on its various elements are being discussed. Yet, the focus on offensive action is telling, with the strategy encompassing three key areas: the protection of essential infrastructure, the protection of the economy and SMEs, and the protection of everyday Australians.

More specifically, it sets out the creation of new legislation for mandatory cybersecurity standards in critical infrastructure and systems of national significance; it recommends a

minimum cybersecurity 'baseline' across the economy; and to allow for new offensive powers for security agencies/departments that would enable the 'active defense of networks and critical infrastructure. Values, norms and rules are mentioned pragmatically - in regards to proportionality and with the clear function of tempering power : "our actions are lawful and aligned with the values we seek to uphold, and will therefore be proportionate, always contextual, and collaborative. "

So far, analysts have commented that the new strategy seems to clearly view cybersecurity through a hard national security prism - to the detriment of a more comprehensive strategic approach. In comparison to the strategic vision set out in 2016 by the Turnbull government - which was heavily focused on international engagement, diplomacy and innovation - the 2020 strategy stands out by more modest ambitions:

"The Australian Government's vision is to create a more secure online world for Australians, their businesses, and the essential services upon which we all depend. "

One commentator has described this as 'drab and inward-looking', questioning the value of a strategy whose mere aim it is 'to be cybersecure'. Others have questioned whether this can even be described as a strategy.

A Broader View on Tending that Garden

For a broader perspective, and given the repeated emphasis on increased cooperation with Europe in recent government discourse, a comparison to developments in Europe is also relevant. As the EU imposed sanctions for the first time this month, experts and policy makers internationally are debating what this means in terms of the Union's strategic orientation and willingness to connect hard security measures and soft power/diplomacy. One issue or instance is whether this indeed marks a departure from the EU's previous strategy - what, from a hard power perspective, had also been criticized as a lack of "European initiative, political resolve and proactive willingness to effectively and swiftly confront malicious cyber activities."

Applauded by the US as the right step to more assertiveness, this first-time imposition of sanctions was also criticized as aa well-meaning but ultimately reactive action. All this raises more questions regarding their efficacy and whether sanctions need to be complemented by more offensive actions. Plenty for Australia and Europe to discuss on how to best tend the garden - or tame the jungle, depending on one's perspective.


Weekly Snapshot

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Katja Theodorakis

Portrait, neu

Senior Programm-Koordinatorin Forschung und Analyse
Aussen- und Sicherheitspolitik

katja.theodorakis@kas.de +61 2 6154 9325