The international rules-based order arose from the trauma of war – could sustained prosperity prove its undoing? Sam Sachdeva spoke to US foreign policy expert Charles Edel about the lessons we can take from tragedy, and how to respond to China’s testing of the international order.

It’s not often that an excess of peace and prosperity could be described as our potential downfall – but Charles Edel makes a compelling case.

The US foreign policy expert, currently a senior fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre who once worked on US Secretary of State John Kerry’s policy planning team, argues that a little bit of tragedy has gone a long way in persuading nations to get along.

Edel, visiting New Zealand for a series of public events, tells Newsroom that the most stable orders in global history have been built on “mass human suffering unfolding on a broad scale” , as he writes in his book The Lessons of Tragedy.

“They are prompts for people who have lived through them who never want to go through that again to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.”

The problem now, he says, is that the world has been successful for so long that we have come to take the international system for granted, forgetting the logic of why it was set up in the first place.

With rising Great Power competition and a proliferation of threats testing the boundaries of the international order, could the current instability be a prelude to an even bigger upheaval?

Of course, the United States has been guilty of its fair share of complacency according to some critics.

Eye off the ball

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s suggestion last week that the US had not paid enough attention to the Asia-Pacific in recent years caused a minor stir, with the Washington Post among those to report on her remarks.

Edel says Ardern’s assessment is fair, but points out that Australia, New Zealand and other nations have also taken their eye off the ball when it comes to the Pacific.

The US prioritised other geostrategic matters in the decade following the September 11 terror attacks, he says, while its work in the Asia-Pacific focused largely on the Asian part of the equation, and North Korea and China in particular.

But there is renewed interest in the Pacific now, and an awareness of the sharper edge to concerns and the growing battle for influence – although that interest hasn’t been backed by adequate coordination.

“We don’t have anyone who spans the breadth [of the region] and kind of simultaneously…can speak not only military and strategic [issues] but trade, economic and commerce.”

Edel says the US and others need to focus not on moves designed to counter China, but the needs of local communities in the Pacific and the best response to them – issues like climate change, improving local infrastructure, and empowering women.

To the frustration of many in the Pacific, much of the discussion about the region has focused on its potential militarisation by China – an issue Edel is all too familiar with.

US foreign policy expert Charles Edel says the main question about potential Chinese militarisation of the Asia-Pacific is not whether it is happening, but the consequences if it does happen. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

A comment piece he wrote in May about a potential Chinese base in Cambodia, with satellite imagery showing a build-up of infrastructure similar to that built by Beijing in the South China Sea, was decried by the Cambodian government as part of a “misinformation” campaign to damage the country’s image.

“Don’t take a non-democratic authoritarian at their word,” Edel retorts now, pointing to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s crackdown on dissent and media freedom.

With the Cambodia speculation again rearing its head in recent days, Edel says the most important question for concerned nations to ask is not whether the militarisation is happening, but what the implications are if it does occur.

“There is a pattern here about how the Chinese go about expanding: it’s deny deny deny while acquiring and building up the infrastructure, militarising it, and then revealing ipso facto you have something…we can debate it, but I think the model is very clear.”

In the case of Cambodia, a military base would contribute to what Edel describes as a “Chinese military perimeter” around mainland South East Asia, adding to pressures on the region’s governments.

The Pacific has not been exempt from this discussion either, with Vanuatu denying reports of a Chinese approach to set up a military base there, and he says expansion into the region would grow China’s sphere of influence and weaken traditional American alliances.

China would undoubtedly argue the same applies to reports of a new port being built in Darwin for US Marines – denied by US and Australian officials – but Edel argues it is not a like-for-like comparison, with America’s allies asking it to do more in the region.

“Moving from 1000 to 1500 or potentially 2000 Marines in Darwin does not strike me as a dagger point at the heart of China.”

Competition without conflict?

But the manoeuvring for position on both sides points to a new status quo, one that (now departed) acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan described at the Shangri-La Dialogue as heightened competition without conflict.

Edel supports that approach, saying it is clear that China’s change to a more internally repressive and externally assertive regime in the wake of the global financial crisis is here to stay.

“Competition is not a bad thing – it’s about who can offer better things, about how we can get better ourselves.”

That new stance on China has broad bipartisan backing across the US, from the Democrats to businesses threatened by Chinese IP theft. But where Donald Trump’s administration has sometimes gone wrong, he says, is in being confrontational without being competitive.

“The diagnosis is spot on, but the prescription is wrong.”

“That’s the challenge of America First: it’s unclear to countries, even very close allies, if we’re trying to become more transactional, get more profit out of trading…or we’re trying to make sure China lives up to the promises it signed onto when it joined the WTO 20 years ago.”

The US has on occasion worked at cross purposes with its allies and partners, making it difficult to coherently shift its approach on trade and other issues in such a significant way.

“That’s the challenge of America First: it’s unclear to countries, even very close allies, if we’re trying to become more transactional, get more profit out of trading…or we’re trying to make sure China lives up to the promises it signed onto when it joined the WTO 20 years ago.”

While the US may have been overly confrontational, Edel argues that countries like New Zealand have been too willing to accept “this false narrative that exists, that pushing back against China inevitably triggers World War III”. 

Countries like South Korea and Vietnam have managed to move past diplomatic stoushes with China by holding to their principles and not folding in response, he says.

“They look very closely at how nations react to probes. If it’s permissive, they keep pushing; when there’s determined pushback, from nations big and small…they recalibrate.”

Is tragedy necessary?

But what if World War III is the only event that will rebuild support for the world order?

“I hope not, otherwise we’re all screwed – we wouldn’t have written the book otherwise,” Edel says.

He believes his book is optimistic, not pessimistic: while we must not fall into complacency, the twin trap of fatalism – that nothing can be done to avert turmoil – should also be avoided.

“The ‘golden era’ of the cold war wasn’t bipartisan and it wasn’t particularly golden – it was always a difficult argument to make to the American people.”

American internationalism has always rested on a “three-legged stool”, as he puts it: fear, based on remembrance of past failures; hope that a defence of the rules-based order would benefit both the US and other countries; and the political leadership to win over a sceptical public.

“It’s not the easiest argument in the world to make, but…until this point, until Donald Trump, you had political leaders making the argument that this is in America’s interest.”

The current president’s “America First” ideology would seem an uneasy fit with that particular argument – but maybe the tragedy of Trump could provide the push for action that we sorely need.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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