The manner in which the AUKUS deal was handled is continuing to be a distinct problem for Australia’s foreign affairs. Although there are some genuine concerns about the particulars of the deal, and especially about nuclear proliferation, it is the diplomatic fallout that remains a central issue. I had previously written that the way the deal was handled not only undermined Australia’s relations with France, but also may have created a perception within Australia’s neighborhood that Canberra was untrustworthy.
Yet there is also a broader problem that was recently highlighted by Japan’s ambassador to Australia Yamagami Shingo: the issue of fraying cooperation between partners and allies in an era where both international security and liberal democracy are facing increasing pressures. Yamagami told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “We are concerned by the current state of affairs between Australia and France because our security situation in the Indo-Pacific grows ever more severe, year after year.”
Making his point clearer – although without naming names (or needing to) – Yamagami continued: “Our situation does not allow for the luxury of this dispute to continue between partners. Who would rejoice in these developments? That is the question that we have to ask ourselves.”
Yamagami’s concerns are about the carelessness with which the AUKUS deal was managed, and the obstinance of the Australian government toward France’s feelings of disrespect. At the core this problem in alliance management is an issue shared by the current threats to liberal democracy: that of complacency. It is the unique inattentive condition created by liberal democracy that has led to Canberra’s carelessness in alliance management.
There is a contradiction at the heart of liberal democracy that prevents an awareness of its privileges. The ability to walk out one’s front door without having to worry about how our actions, words, and thoughts might offend the sensitivities of our governments is believed to be natural and unimpeachable. There is little consideration that this one day might not exist, or indeed the way these privileges can be undermined. If we are considering threats, we’re looking for the big threats, and never for the multitude of little ones that have now produced the civic decay we are seeing in the United States.
In the international realm, the advantage of being a liberal democracy is that it breeds a civic manner that is naturally inclined to build alliances and partnerships. In contrast, authoritarian regimes lack similar alliances and instead tend to have client states. Yet if this civic space isn’t similarly tended to by governments it can also fall into decay just as domestic politics can. There was an obvious lack of diplomatic care taken by Canberra in the establishment of the AUKUS deal. As Yamagami highlighted, like-minded partners are not luxuries at present; they come with civic responsibilities.
As the party breaking the contract for new submarines it had negotiated with France, Australia bore the responsibility to make sure that this action was handled with diligence and that France’s response was limited to disappointment, not a sense of disrespect and distrust. As noted by France’s ambassador to Australia, the original submarine contract was not merely a purchase of defense hardware, but it was also a transfer of France’s knowledge. It was a deepening of the relationship with a major power, which still maintains a significant security presence in Australia’s neighborhood. Canberra repaid this trust with complacency at best.
According to Freedom House the world is experiencing its 15th consecutive year of a democratic recession. The democratic practices that should encourage civic cooperation — both domestically and internationally — are deteriorating. Canberra may not see its mishandling of diplomatic relations with France as part of this democratic recession, but that is the point. Focusing on big events — like the storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. — prevents us from catching the smaller degradations that lead to these more destructive events.
Adherence to democratic values and practices is essential for maintaining stability in Australia’s neighborhood. It is in the interests of authoritarian regimes to pick apart alliances and alienate individual democracies from one another. The more resilient the relationships between democracies, the stronger the infrastructure of deterrence toward revisionists actors. Canberra has failed at nurturing this resilience, and more astute friends like Japan have taken notice.
In December, U.S. President Joe Biden will host the first of two Summits for Democracy in an attempt to build greater democratic resilience. While sharing similar political systems does not automatically mean countries will share the same interests, it should indicate that democratic states share similar manners of engagement, manners built on conversation, empathy, transparency, and trust. These habits of democracy also rely on an acknowledgement of missteps, and recommitment to the civic art of diplomacy — a necessary hand that Canberra should extend toward Paris.