On 6th December, Penny Wong and Richard Marles, the Australian Foreign Minister and Defence Secretary respectively, met with their American counterparts Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin in Washington, DC for the annual Australia-United States (US) Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN).
The subsequent joint statement covers much ground and departs from and expands upon last year’s in several ways. Notably, the statement’s language on Taiwan was ‘weaker’ than that of 2021, and many of US force posture enhancements in Australia that were outlined in 2021 were fleshed out in greater detail. Japan was singled out and invited to ‘…to increase its participation in Force Posture Initiatives in Australia’ and much greater emphasis was placed on the island nations of the South Pacific (the 2022 joint statement saw these countries, initiatives aimed at them, and the region’s multilateral framework mentioned 28 times compared to 11 in 2021).
Most starkly, any reference to shared, democratic and international ‘values’ is omitted in the 2022 statement. In the 2021 version, there was an entire chapter dedicated to ‘democratic values and multilateralism’ and ‘values’ – shared, democratic or international – were mentioned six times.
Have Australia and the US lost faith in democracy, the ideas that underpin it, and the pillars of their governmental system? No. Are they prioritising engagement with nations supportive of an open international order over ideological concerns? It seems so. It is a realistic assessment based on the current geopolitical context that the exercise of attaching (liberal and democratic) ‘values’ to partnerships, and at times adherence to them as a precursor to deeper engagement, is fruitless at best and counterproductive at worst.
Washington, DC and Canberra will need to engage potential partners of all stripes if they are to wade through the murky geopolitical waters they find themselves in. Indeed, it is shared interests that should – and now seemingly do – guide their bilateral relationship and approach to external partners. Promoting liberal and democratic values and their proliferation whilst prioritising areas of shared with partners old and new is not always a complimentary exercise and can invite easy jibes of hypocrisy and tokenism.
Australia and the US are of course still right to continue to call out grievous infringements upon human rights and the nefarious concentration and abuse of power. This is particularly important in international forums, where both countries demonstrate leadership.
But simply put, many of the partners that Canberra and Washington, DC want to deepen relations with do not share the same commitment to, or care for, liberal and democratic values, or even have democratic systems of governance. This now seems acceptable to both powers. This should give Australia and the US more flexibility in choosing who to engage and how. Red tape is removed and dialogue enabled, better allowing for the targeting of domestic priorities – something which the 2022 statement stresses – and the subsequent forging of strong relations.
Promoting liberal and democratic values and their proliferation whilst prioritising areas of shared with partners old and new is not always a complimentary exercise and can invite easy jibes of hypocrisy and tokenism.
This shift dovetails with what the statement reveals as the greatest concern and focus for both Canberra and Washington, DC: competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, between AUKUS, the Quad and the US’ force posture enhancements in Australia, it is clear that competition with the PRC is the main focus of the US-Australia alliance. There was no reference to Afghanistan or Afghanis in the statement (compared to eight in 2021), cosigning this previous pillar of the bilateral relationship to history’s scrap heap.
The shift to emphasising shared interests also has the subtle effect of better allowing collaboration between Australia, the US and the PRC where their interests still align, i.e., in preventing war. Their values will scarcely do so. The Australian side seems particularly keen on this, with Wong invoking in a speech to the Carnegie Endowment on 7th December the thesis of Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Minister and long-term PRC analyst, that ‘guardrails’ need to be erected to manage strategic competition. These guardrails, it is said, will:
…establish hard limits on each country’s security policies, accept that both sides will seek to maximise their position within these limits, and welcome – if not encourage – areas of collaboration that are potentially in both countries’ interests.
Emphasising shared interests over the promotion of liberal and democratic values and their proliferation in their foreign policy demonstrates the sharpening focus of both Australia and the US. Outdated approaches are being refined and the process collaborative due to the new nature of the problems faced.
In his recent foreign policy speech, Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, referenced British ‘values’ six times. He did this, however, without promoting their international proliferation and placing them at the centre of the United Kingdom’s (UK) foreign policy . He acknowledged that there are threats to these values, and that Britain must (rightly) defend them – as did James Cleverly, the British Foreign Secretary, in a speech yesterday – but poignantly that the UK’s application of them must evolve. Prioritising shared interests and those supportive of a free and open international order over ‘values’ and other ideological concerns is part of this evolution.
Patrick Triglavcanin is a Senior Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy. He specialises in Indo-Pacific geopolitics.
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