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Australia, Germany and Europe as Shapers of the Global Order? Multilateralism, 'Pragmatic Internationalism' and the Future of International Cooperation

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.

"We can be the shapers of a better global order. This is Europe's vocation."

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in her November 2019 speech as President -Elect to present her Commission’s programme


"We have to define a new rules-based order and encourage very strongly all major state actors to accord with these rules".

Linda Reynolds, Australian Minister of Defence, July 2020


As the above quotes illustrate, one can detect a common theme in recent public foreign policy statements by Australia, Germany and the EU: that it is in their respective interest to not only defend but also to actively shape the global order. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's State of the Union Speech (SOTEU) from September illustrates this poignantly, as do the German Foreign Minister's framing and introductory words around the recently released Indo-Pacific Policy Guidelines - both in their own right seen as blunt in regards to taking a stand against China's human rights violations and attempts at badgering Europe for criticizing Chinese power plays in Europe (for Minister Maas' words, see Snapshot #24/20). Following on also from the virtual EU-China summit that took place two days before her SOTEU address, von der Leyen called China "a negotiating partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival" - commentators quickly pointed out the absence of the word 'friend'. This comes against the backdrop of mounting European discontent with China - evident in a so-called 'failed charm offensive' by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li on his recent visit to persuade continental Europe that China was a more reliable partner than the US.


Similarly, the Australian Prime Minister and Defence as well as Foreign Ministers took a distinctively assertive stance when they introduced the long-awaited Defence Strategic Update ( see Snapshot #19/20 ). This more pronounced pivot towards the Indo-Pacific as the strategic focus for Australia's defence activities also signaled a greater willingness to actively defend Australia's interests and shape the rules-based order in the region.

It could be argued that such positioning is based on the growing realization that the international order, albeit 'rules-based', is also very much shaped by power - and that the current geostrategic environment, warrants a shift of focus from internationalism based on an ideal view of the liberal order to a more pragmatist variety of internationalism. As one recent analysis proposes, "If liberal internationalism is to be sustained in the coming order, it must be in a revised form that brings out and revitalizes pragmatism... "

This requires us to ask to what extent this objective of a more active and pragmatic approach to shaping the international order translates to an equally ramped-up commitment to multilateralism? Or whether it signals, at least on the part of Australia, a partial withdrawal from previous levels of multilateral engagement?

This comes as the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the gap between the immensity of the challenges faced and the ability of global governance to deal with it (see Snapshot . For some, this reflects a weakened multilateral system, to the point that our current situation could signify a make-or-break moment for international cooperation. When the UN commemorated its 75th anniversary a few weeks back, it did so in a subdued manner. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Trump administration’s unilateralism and “America First” policies and resulting geopolitical tensions had left their mark on the U.N. Security Council's ability to act effectively. In his 2018 address to the General Assembly, U.N. Secretary-General Guterres drew attention to what he dubbed a "trust deficit disorder" in (multilateral) institutions and the rules-based order. The pandemic has only reinforced these dynamics, with "much of the U.N.’s productive work brought to a standstill."


In Australia, shortly before the COVID-19 crisis began to leave its mark, there were some concerning indications of a distancing from its previous commitment to multilateralism. This was based on a speech by Australian Prime Minister Morrison warned in an October 2019 speech that there was a challenge to "pragmatic international engagement, based on the cooperation of sovereign nation states". According to Morrison, the central concern was to make sure international engagement aligned with Australia's national interest - to avoid what he dubbed 'negative globalism': "global institutions coercively ​seek[ing] to impose a mandate from ​an often ill defined ​borderless global community...and worse still, an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy".

Yet, the pandemic forcefully underscored the need for international cooperation in the face of such a momentous challenge for the global order. And Australia has long played an active role in the strenghtening of the institutions and norms and supported their development in the post-war order. As an examination of more recent government speeches suggest "Canberra hasn't given up on the rules-based order. " This way, the the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs the Hon Marise Payne outlined in her July 2020 'Australia and the World Speech'

"Australia's interests are not served by stepping away and leaving others to shape global order for us...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."


This is comforting as it suggests a greater opportunity for convergence with Europe. Whether its new Indo-Pacific focus and the Foreign Minister's assertion Germany "wanted to help shape that order"  is indeed a sign of Germany beginning to chart its own course independent from Great Power rivalries is subject to evolving debates. And some commentators interpreted the guidelines as still reflecting indecisiveness and lack of resolve rather than a new direction. Notable in this context is also the explicit geopolitical focus of von der Leyen's Commission - evident in her statement that while the EU was strong on soft power and diplomacy, it also needed to "learn the language of power" in the form of “credible military capabilities” to be able to navigate a changing world. It is sometimes questioned however, whether such rhetorical commitments, as in her SOTEU address, are not backed by concrete action.

Both Australia and European nations such as Germany are, despite greater defence investments, not great military powers - they carry more weight internationally as responsible actors in a rules-based system, and in values-based partnership with other nations.

One shared variable in this regard is also how the Trump presidency uprooted deeply-held belief that the United States would continue to be a reliable security partner and remain a great power committed to upholding the international order. In Australia, this plays out in an ongoing process of soul searching in regards to Australia's national security, its identity and capability as a global security actor. One commentator observed already in 2019 that Australia's investment in the global rules-based order "relies heavily on the leadership and engagement of the US - and that can no longer be assumed". Similarly, for Europe the transatlantic alliance is seen as too fractured to be relied upon by many - driving calls for greater EU self-reliance and the need to become a leading global player in its own right. For others, it remains indispensable to the EU's capability to actively contribute to the functioning of the liberal order (a European survey in one of the below articles reflects these ongoing questions and diverging positions within the EU).

Overall, the common factor for Australia and the EU is the need for greater sovereignty and strategic autonomy, to find new ways to exercise influence in the international system. This requires new partnerships, as for instance identified in Germany's recently released Indo-Pacific policy guidelines: 'Global Partners' - industrialized democracies such as Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea— are seen as a key variable in this European quest for greater self-reliance. The debate required to drive more sustained engagement is likely framed through the parametres of 'natural partners, (systemic) rivalry and competition and becoming

And at the more practical level, these partnerships would be built around key policy issues such as for example digital autonomy, supply chain sovereignty, and an expanded European security footprint through bilateral and multilateral joint naval exercises.

As one analysis highlighted, the above mentioned shift from idealism to pragmatism, is

" most likely to emerge from middle powers who have the strength and authority to act independently of the great powers, yet whose limited capabiities and inability to dictate outcomes or decisions make them prone to favour negotiated solutions over the use of force."

This could indicate there is ground for some optimism. Yet, like-mindedness' is not a fixed state of play for liberal democracies

based on their commitment to their founding values but requires careful attention to such diverging positions and political sticking points. In the current climate, looking for a way forward inadvertently means going beyond the rhetoric of 'value partners' and like-mindedness - and includes addressing thorny questions such as how convergent interests really are, especially the extent to which economic interests


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Katja Theodorakis

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Senior Programme Coordinator Research and Analysis
Foreign and Security Policy +61 2 6154 9325