Scott Morrison says the world has not faced a period of such global upheaval since the 1930s.
Then, it was a time of depression, still reeling from World War I, the 1918 flu that had killed more people than the war was still virulent, fascism was sweeping Europe and the world was sliding to another catastrophic conflict.
Today we are again ravaged by pandemic, the past two decades have seen global financial collapse, terrorism, endless war in Afghanistan and across the Middle East, millions of refugees on the move looking for a new home, resurgent extremist politics, retreating democracy and rising authoritarianism.
And the biggest challenge of all: the return of China to global power.
An important and significant speech
In his speech last week as he prepared to leave Australia for the G7 meeting, the Prime Minister said the challenge “is nothing less than to reinforce, renovate and buttress a world order that favours freedom.”
He said we have to demonstrate that liberal democracy works. We have to bind ourselves to long standing unwavering allies.
This was an important and significant speech setting out a Morrison foreign policy doctrine. As my colleague David Speers has pointed out, it is also a departure for the Prime Minister once wary and sceptical of multilateralism and the reach of global institutions now apparently a champion of that order.
It also buries the notion that Australia does not have to choose between its biggest trading partner China and its strategic alliance, shared values and friendship with the United States.
We have returned to a world of great power rivalry with the risk of war — Morrison says ever present and growing — and Australia has chosen.
It was the choice we would always make: we are all in with America.
It is a contested world
Morrison’s vision is of a revived liberal hegemony that he says harks back to the end of World War II when America emerged as a global superpower and led what the Prime Minister repeatedly referred to as a global rules based order.
But the post-war world slid into a Cold War, an ideological stand off between the West and the Soviet bloc.
The iron curtain descended across Europe. In 1949 China’s Mao Zedong proclaimed victory for the Communist Revolution.
In 1950 Western troops, including Australians, were at war again in Korea where Mao’s troops backed the North and inflicted a defeat on America’s Eighth Army, driving them back to Seoul in what is still remembered today as the biggest retreat in US military history.
Then came Vietnam and another American withdrawal.
The point is there was no global rules based order but a contested world and American power was not always virtuous or omnipotent.
Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye has reminded us that “American dominance was never as great as some myths make it out to be”. The world is not the West and liberal values are not universally embraced.
Fewer than 20 per cent of the world’s population lives in the West, yet Western nations have dominated global power.
The post-war institutions were controlled by the most powerful countries; what political scientist Michael Barnett has described as a club of liberal states with their own exclusive associations.
These Western liberal democracies preached the virtue of liberty and freedom at home, yet would when it suited their interests, support despots abroad.
As Barnett put it this was not a liberal world order, but “a world order created for liberal states”.
The G7 is about liberal, Western order
Isn’t this what we still see? The G7 is not about a global rules based order but an explicitly liberal and – Japan apart — Western-based order.
It does not include two of the countries in the top seven economies in the world — India and more crucially China.
Canada is in but why not Brazil? It is the ninth-largest economy ahead of G7 member Canada at number 10.
Try another measurement: the top 10 economies by purchasing power parity – equalising the purchasing power of different currencies – and the picture looks very different. Russia, and Indonesia are at six and seven respectively, China is the biggest economy in the world surpassing the US, and Canada drops to 15.
That’s not a snapshot of a changing world where the West does not exert gravitational pull.
The G7 is a collection not just of economically powerful nations but developed nations with high standards of living. But let’s not pretend it fully reflects global power.
The G7 represents 40 per cent of global wealth – powerful, yes but not all dominant.
China is indispensable but has no seat at the G7
China has just this year overtaken the US as the biggest trading partner of the European Union. It is the biggest trading partner of the US and Japan.
It is the single biggest engine of global economic growth. China is an indispensable nation but it has no seat at the G7.
The G7 reflects western power and US hegemony in the world. No one pretends otherwise. In the lead up to the meeting US President Joe Biden stressed the need for “unwavering” and “renewed” commitment to democratic values.
This may be an ideal but it is not a geopolitical reality.
China’s rise has ushered in what journalist and political commentator Fareed Zakaria has dubbed the “post-American world” – not that America disappears but it is no longer the dominant player.
Political scientist Nye says the so-called global order does not need to be revised, it needs to be replaced. As he wrote recently, “it is not enough to think of exercising power over others. We must think of exercising power with others”.
Stronger alliances are required
This requires building stronger alliances with nations that share liberal values, while recognising that not all nation’s believe the same.
As geopolitical scholar Barnett writes: “Wanting a liberal international order and having an international order governed by liberal principles are two different things.”
A politically realist view suggests that if we are to have anything akin to a global order in the 21st century, it will not be an American dominated order.
Can it be an order where the institutions that govern the order are controlled by the West?
For example only an American can head the World Bank and a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ says only a European can lead the International Monetary Fund.
Yet China is the biggest engine of economic growth and on track to usurp the US as the world’s biggest economy.
Xi Jinping also talks about a global order and playing by the rules. He has presented himself as a champion of multilateralism particularly during the Donald Trump presidency when America arguably retreated from the world.
Yet Xi, like his past American counterparts, wants to bend the order to his will. He will use trade as a weapon and rules his country with an iron fist.
China, like America, is a big power and like America believes it is exceptional: it makes rules, it won’t always follow them.
It is increasingly clear that the West won’t live in a China dominated world and China won’t accept a so-called liberal global order. We have arrived again at a critical point of history.
Scott Morrison is right this resembles the 1930s and history tells us what happened then.