Australia's Future in the Region and the World

Australia's Future in the Region and the World

30 May 2008

Dr Michalis Michael
Email: M.Michael@latrobe.edu.au

A version of this opinion piece was first published in The Jakarta Post on 24 May 2006

There is no doubt that in an increasingly contracting world Australia's future lies within a secure, prosperous, peaceful and stable region. However, Australia's historical and geographical exceptionalism has often coloured its political outlook on the world: a certain insularity characteristic of island nations, a profound sense of dependence on American power, a deeply entrenched incapacity to acknowledge the darker side of its recent history, a habitual Anglo-centric dominated perspective, all of which have severely impeded a coherent sense of national identity and prompted a marked ambivalence towards Asia. It is only within this context that we can make sense of Australia's troubled relationship with Asia, and begin to identify the anxieties and insecurities that continue to shape Australia's image of itself and its place in the world.

After a decade where Australia's conception of the world was formulated through western, and in particular American, notions of cultural and political superiority, a new government that promises to reengage with the region, offers a unique opportunity to set a new and comprehensive agenda for change. In this context, the key question for Australia over the next decade is whether, as a significant regional power, it can contribute, individually and/or collectively, to a more effective system of regional and global security and cooperation? By linking with other allied states (e.g. South Korea, Canada, New Zealand, Japan) Australia could, in concert with ASEAN, play a creative role in advancing peacekeeping and peacebuilding mechanisms and processes in the region. Working together at the United Nations and at a regional level, Australia could help avert the looming arms race in East Asia. For this to occur, Australia needs to rediscover and reinvent its middle power identity so as to enable it to address more effectively issues of poverty, governance failure and aid delivery.

However, to build a new regionalism in Asia Pacific requires the reinvigoration and retooling of the existing architecture. Such efforts will need to take account of a rapidly changing global landscape, notably a shift to an increasingly multipolar world. The existing regional architecture needs to be given a more solid normative foundation, a stronger institutional base, and a more coherent set of functions by acknowledging the notion of comprehensive security which incorporate the principles of human security and democratic peace.

Although a new regional architecture cannot countenance conditions of hegemonic control from either the United States or China, the search for alternative pathways to regional stability and prosperity must involve a range of actors across the political and societal spectrum. We are used to thinking of states as having primary responsibility for world order and international relations. However, if we look at world politics in the post Cold War period we see a different logic at work. Whilst governments often steer a state-centric security agenda, regional and global security depends on increasing economic interdependence, thus underscoring the important role the market can play in security-building. However in addition to the state and the market, civil society at the national, regional and international levels are forging new relationships, linking states and nations in re-imagining and reshaping the future. What is distinctive about these agencies is that they influence and are influenced by the state. They occupy a public space which functions side by side with, yet independently of, the state and the market.

Human security is a concept whose time is approaching, certainly one that warrants close and sustained attention. It offers the international community a broader philosophical and political purpose and gives added ballast to the emerging regional and global multilateralism that is a feature of the post-Cold War period. It poses perhaps the most intriguing and critical question of the moment: can civil society, operating across cultural and civilisational boundaries, play a more influential role in defining the goals and processes of regional and international cooperation?

Nevertheless, the many challenges facing the state, markets and civil society in Australia, require more imaginative policy options open to them in relation to three key signposts: relations with the United States, reform of the UN system, and cooperative regionalism. In response to the post-Cold War realities of a multipolar world, it is timely for Australia to undertake a careful re-examination of the alliance with the United States. This would enable Australia to develop a more independent security policy, to better reflect its goals and aspirations, while at the same time contributing to global and regional security.

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