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Scott Morrison has gone rogue on international relations

This is hardly an original theme. However, until recently, it was only struck by extremists; the

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French far-right leader Marine Le Pen favours it, for example.

It has been more common for world leaders who regard themselves as representatives of liberal democratic institutions to straddle these two themes. In the mid-twentieth century, they built the UN on these twin foundations.

As importantly, the UN was founded in the United States, and Australian governments, as leaders of a middle-power, have always invested heavily in the international forum that these institutions have offered. Australian leaders have even, under both conservative and progressive governments, exploited the opportunity for world leadership within these institutions.

It is difficult to fathom just how unusual the behaviour of the current Australian government is when it comes to its view of the existing international order. Since Federation, successive Australian governments have taken the opportunity that the invention of the modern international order has offered to mould multilateral institutions, from international law courts to international laws.

League of his own: Prime Minister Billy Hughes standing with a crowd in Sydney on his return from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

League of his own: Prime Minister Billy Hughes standing with a crowd in Sydney on his return from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.Credit:Archive

In some cases, that influence was unfortunate. In 1919, Australia’s prime minister Billy Hughes used the creation of the first multilateral instrument of global governance, the League of Nations, to reinforce Australia’s White Australia policy, making its vote count to exclude a convention on race equality.

By contrast, in 1939, Stanley Bruce, a former conservative prime minister, advised the world on the lessons that could be learnt from the institutional weaknesses of the League of Nations in creating its successor, the UN. Bruce said a new international organisation needed to take more consideration of economics and social issues.

In the wake of these institutional tweaks, the UN became a space where inequality could be challenged. When the UN has succeeded or failed it is because it is a mirror of the nation-state members that are its foundation. Where those states have failed, it has failed.

Through this history, China has also been there as a crucial voice. At the end of World War I (which republican China fought with Australia, but who remembers?), China was among the powers requesting race equality on the basis of its contribution to the battle against the German-Austro-Hungarian alliance.

In 1945, its delegates were the shaping voices of the UN Human Rights Declaration, which it imbued with a Confucian philosophical rationale — stand in the shoes of the other person.

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These long histories of creation of and engagement with the international order are integral to the histories of both Australia and China. They have deep roots in popular movements and views, as well as government actions.

Given these histories, the behaviour of the Australian government these days – whether it comes to international refugee laws, climate compliance, or fundamental distrust of international institutions – is all the more out of character. It is not without precedent, but it does go against the national historical trend, and should be a cause of anxiety and questioning.

When we ask what is China’s place in the future of the international order, we should also be asking what is Australia’s?

Glenda Sluga is a Professor of International History, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, University of Sydney. She will host a public panel on ”China and the Future of the International Order” at the University of Sydney on October 3.

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