Our Networked (Dangerous) World: Do Australia’s Leaders Get It?

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The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau chief. Sign up to get it by email. Here’s where to find all our Oceania coverage.______At one point while I was preparing to interview Rukmini Callimachi about Islamic terrorism at Twitter’s Sydney offices today, I found myself thinking about international threats — and journalism.Not coverage per se, but the way that both are being shaped by two forces: ideological ruptures and digital networks.For both journalism and geopolitics, a breakdown of monoliths and norms has created what sometimes feels like more of everything.Traditional news outlets, especially newspapers, are struggling. In their place are more partisan products and aggregators, more niche publications, greater availability of unfiltered (and often inaccurate) news through social platforms — and more readers and viewers in more places than most of us could have imagined a generation ago.For foreign affairs, the networked world has also meant proliferation. There’s an equalization that’s happened across the nodes and cables, whereby power can be wielded by far more than “superpowers.” Ideologies, motivations and methods of mayhem have multiplied.North Korea can lock up computers in 150 countries, canceling thousands of appointments in Britain’s health care system. The Islamic State can recruit terrorists across borders. Russia can interfere in American elections, smugglers can encrypt communication with the efficiency of a modern military, and WikiLeaks can undermine diplomatic relationships worldwide.Not all of these impacts are bad or the result of bad actors. Technology and trade have helped lift more than a billion people out of poverty since 1990. There are also implications that are harder to categorize: Netflix, for example, can build a huge business in Australia with barely any local employees. Is that a net positive or negative?In many ways, it used to be simpler. During the Cold War, the world was mostly divided into two camps with ideologies and spheres of influence that were well known. Now, it can be hard to know where the biggest threats or opportunities come from or which ones deserve the most attention.For many people, all of this creates a sense of dislocation and anxiety. Even within national borders, it’s hard to know what’s really shaping daily life as the world feels progressively harder to understand.At The New York Times, of course, we believe that part of our job is to help with that — for readers in Australia and everywhere. But we also rely on political leaders to frame goals and strategies for dealing with the forces that affect us all.This week, I got a taste of how Australia’s leaders are managing.Both Bill Shorten, the opposition leader, and Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, gave speeches in Sydney on foreign policy. I attended both.I’d hoped to hear them grapple with some of the new challenges that go beyond nation-states or China vs. America. I’d hoped to hear a sophisticated argument and maybe a vision for what the world could learn from Australia, and what Australia could learn from the world.Instead, I heard status quo thinking and caution.Mr. Shorten’s lecture at the Lowy Institute emphasized that if Labor wins the next election, Australia will not view China solely through the lens of “worst-case scenarios,” seemingly a dig at the Liberals’ focus on foreign interference. He emphasized a need for independence, but did not provide much clarity when I asked about Australia’s areas of concern. Perhaps that was because the Chinese ambassador was in attendance.Mr. Morrison, speaking at an Asia Society gathering hosted by Bloomberg, focused more on the benefits of trade and expanded military spending. He started out trying to emphasize values: “We are more than the sum of our deals,” he said. “We are better than that.”Then he proceeded to talk mostly in transactional terms. The word “technology” did not appear once in his prepared remarks.“Foreign policy speeches tend to be cautious, as they are directed towards multiple audiences,” said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute. “Australian foreign policy speeches are doubly so, as our external conditions have conditioned our foreign policy in the direction of pragmatism.”Australia’s 2016 defense white paper provides a more nuanced outlook, explaining the tectonic shifts among nations that will affect Australia’s future. There, the word technology appears 56 times.But I still find myself left with a question: Do today’s leaders, in Australia and elsewhere, really understand the effects of a networked world enough to grasp the role it’s playing in both their own democracies and in foreign affairs? Are they doing enough deep thinking about this?This week, I saw no signs that they are.Now for our stories of the week, about this part of the world, about technology, and a few other things to smile and think about.Join our Facebook group for more discussion!______Nellie Bowles, one of our most talented tech reporters (who will be in Australia next month for some reporting and writing), published three stories this week that look at how those who have built our digital world are now eagerly protecting their children from it.They were all among the week’s most read stories among New York Times readers worldwide. You’ll want to digest at least one:• A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones.”• Silicon Valley Nannies Are Phone Police for Kids: Child care contracts now demand that nannies hide phones, tablets, computers and TVs from their charges.This week also featured a few stories about animals that will make you smile. Because, why not?There’s the East Asian duck that mysteriously showed up, unannounced, in New York’s Central Park. There’s the wildebeest, which might just have the most efficient muscles in nature (don’t tell The Rock).Even spiders, yes spiders, are worth appreciating. As one of our esteemed science writers explains in this overview of all their gloriousness: “Scary and beautiful are not mutually exclusive.”If only we could say the same for politics.______Finally, a bit of commentary for you:→ David Brophy: Politicians and activists are shaping nationalist sentiment into pride in artificial and ahistoric notions of civilization. And Australia is just the latest test case.→ David Brooks: These mass killings are about many things — guns, demagogy, etc. — but they are also about social isolation and the spreading derangement of the American mind.→ Kara Swisher: This is what the internet has come to — thugs like Mohammed bin Salman funding tech companies to host the vitriol of thugs like Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers…. And We RecommendRukmini Callimachi deserves more than just my brief mention above. She’s a force when it comes to reporting on global extremism, and The New York Times is partnering with ABC RN to broadcast her podcast Caliphate.RN will provide a unique Australian context for this series with its specialist presenters: “Science Friction” host Natasha Mitchell about the brain science of radicalization, and “Religion & Ethics” host Andrew West on the politics and religion of Islam in Australia, with Samina Yasmin, director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies.The next episode can be heard on the radio on Saturday at 4 p.m.Here is where to find the series at the ABC, including an interview with the Caliphate producer Andy Mills that aired after the first episode. You can also find transcripts and additional reporting on our site.

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