Penny Wong says coronavirus catastrophe fuelling 'a macho strain of nationalism'

Daniel Hurst
Photograph: David Mariuz/AAP

The Covid-19 catastrophe has “reinforced a macho strain of nationalism” while fuelling damaging levels of “mistrust” between countries, and Australia cannot afford to stand by as the pandemic speeds up threats to the world order, Penny Wong argues.

Labor’s Senate leader and foreign affairs spokeswoman lays out a case for Australia to become more self-reliant and active on the world stage in an essay for the forthcoming edition of the Australian Foreign Affairs journal.

She also warns that nationalism, xenophobia and extremism are on the rise around the world – and Australia’s collective responses to current challenges need to emphasise unity and leaders must not forget the lessons of the 1930s.

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In a contribution to the renewed debate about Australia’s place in the world, Wong argues the globe faces “a new scale of disruption that could further unravel or even destroy the rules-based system we have known since World War II”.

The essay – titled The End of Orthodoxy – says even before Covid-19, the world was experiencing heightened disruption, citing Brexit, Donald Trump’s election as US president, China’s growing assertiveness, rising nationalism and the increasingly competitive relationship between Beijing and Washington.

Wong argues the world must confront the “stark truth” that its capacity to respond to the far-reaching impacts of Covid-19 has been hampered by a lack of coordination.

“In the midst of the worst crisis humanity has experienced since World War II and a severe economic downturn of unknown proportions, the international community has been unable to muster anything close to the requisite cooperation,” she writes.

“Nations have been too mired in mistrust to generate a sense of common purpose. Competition and disinformation abound.

“Unlike in the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007–08, this catastrophe appears to have reinforced a macho strain of nationalism, and confrontation rather than cooperation. The cost of this collective failure will be measured in deaths and suffering.”

Covid-19, Wong says, will “reshape our lives, our country, the global economy and the world”. Assessing the impact on Australia’s foreign affairs, she writes: “Our strategic environment has deteriorated, risks have heightened, opportunities narrowed, and protecting and promoting our national interests is going to be much harder.”

Arguing against passivity, she calls on Australia to bring a similar sense of urgency and purpose to reimagining its foreign policy as it did in responding to the immediate health and economic challenges.

Wong sees no sign of any abatement in mutual distrust between the US and China, “with our region a focal point”. She cites Trump’s “America First” mantra and “a more strident Chinese nationalism” under Xi Jinping as factors in the “increasingly fragile” position of the liberal rules-based order.

Australia must take risks and have the confidence to shape the outcomes it seeks, she says, “rather than being caught in the slipstream” of US-China competition.

Australia will need to work harder to manage the risks and consequences of escalation, with “a greater premium on self-reliance and the preparedness to assert our interests”.

Wong says Canberra’s relationship with Beijing must be guided by Australia’s values and interests, including transparency and sovereignty. But, in a warning to a number of particularly outspoken parliamentarians, Wong adds that “the escalation of anti-China rhetoric or anti-Chinese sentiment for domestic electoral purposes benefits neither our society nor our standing in the world”.

Wading into the debate on reducing Australia’s reliance on overseas supply chains, Wong says while it is reasonable to safeguard critical sectors and industries, “we cannot allow a descent into populism – or worse, xenophobia – and we must resist calls for autarky”.

Wong outlines three tasks for Australia: renewing the multilateral system, deepening partnerships with countries in south-east Asia and the Pacific, and navigating a more volatile US-China relationship.

All of these tasks, she says, require Australia to take a more active foreign policy and a deeper investment in diplomacy “and the recognition that Australia needs to be more self-reliant in protecting and promoting our interests”.

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“The necessity for greater self-reliance imposes corresponding disciplines on our politics,” she writes.

“Nationalism, xenophobia and even extremism are on the rise. There are some things which must be beyond politics, and our collective response to these should demonstrate that. We must always recall the lessons of the 1930s. Humanity has seen what happens if we allow nationalism and xenophobia to take hold.”

Wong says the crisis will also demand leadership and the maturity to set aside domestic partisanship when it comes to foreign affairs.

“Public interventions and rhetorical grenades designed to gain attention or tactical advantage serve little purpose, and distract from the far more challenging task at hand,” she says.

Wong argues that “we don’t have time for ‘negative globalism’” – a reference to Scott Morrison’s speech to the Lowy Institute last October when the prime minister warned against “a new variant of globalism that seeks to elevate global institutions above the authority of nation states to direct national policies”.

Morrison argued at the time that Australia should avoid “any reflex towards a negative globalism that coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community”.

However, the government has since pivoted to embrace a more active role in global bodies. The foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, used a major speech in June to warn against isolationism, saying Australia’s interests would not be served by “leaving others to shape the global order for us”.

While calling for reform to ensure United Nations agencies were “fit for purpose” and “free from undue influence”, Payne signalled Australia would actively pursue “effective multilateralism”.

Wong’s essay – submitted to the publisher before Payne’s speech – also backs reform of global bodies, saying “vacating the space is rarely a successful reform strategy”.

Wong says multilateralism has not diminished Australia’s sovereignty and is a prerequisite for a comprehensive global response to the climate crisis. “Climate change is the next pandemic.”