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US request for Middle East support reveals limits of superpower

While Australia, like many US allies, has actively provided military forces to help maintain stability in the Middle East, the most recent request from the United States for the Australian Navy to provide a warship to help secure the region’s critical maritime trade seemingly confirms the worst about the new world we all face.

While Australia, like many US allies, has actively provided military forces to help maintain stability in the Middle East, the most recent request from the United States for the Australian Navy to provide a warship to help secure the region’s critical maritime trade seemingly confirms the worst about the new world we all face.

Where the United States once strode abroad victorious and unchallenged in the aftermath of the Cold War, optimism gave way to hubris and an expectation that the US would unilaterally wield its immense power to solve the world’s problems.

Whether in Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo to Afghanistan, Iraq (again), Libya, and Syria, alongside longstanding commitments to global security across Asia and Europe, the US really embraced its position as the de facto “world policeman”.


For the most part, the world was happy to allow the US to unilaterally fulfil this role, particularly as the global reach of the US allowed it to keep vital shipments of oil and other liquid energy out of the Middle East flowing and the global maritime trade corridors free from molestation.

Off the back of this “American sacrifice”, as it has been described by US-based strategic policy analyst and author Peter Zeihan, much of the developing and developed world alike enjoyed reliable access to energy at reasonable prices, paving the way for the period of economic growth and prosperity in the aftermath of the Cold War.

While periodically, US allies and partners, including Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and even great power rivals like China, have provided military forces to help secure the Middle East, much of the security burden was handled solely by the US.

Yet today, in the aftermath of Hamas’ 7 October attacks on Israel, the region and its critical sea lines of communication, particularly through the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Strait of Hormuz and around the Horn of Africa, have become a powder keg as both state and state-aligned actors flex their muscles at the risk of shutting down international maritime commerce.

Recent attacks on and, in some cases, seizure of European commercial shipping and a swarm drone attack on the French Navy frigate FS Languedoc have prompted the US to call for aid to help secure the region’s maritime commerce.

To this end, Australia has received a formal, operational request through the Bahrain-based Combined Maritime Force (CMF) from the US to provide an Australian warship to help secure the regional sea lines of communication.

While a decision is yet to be made, Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles said: “A request has been made through the Combined Maritime Force in Bahrain at an operational level. Australia has been part of the CMF for a long time [As part of Operation Manitou], we’ve got personnel embedded there, and in the past, we have had navy vessels deployed to that region. We’ll consider this request in due course, but I would note that the focus of our naval efforts now is on our immediate region.”

It is understood that while Australia isn’t alone in receiving this request from the US, much of the dialogue has failed to address what this really means.

Currently, the US Navy has a range of assets, namely Carrier Strike Group 12, led by the Gerald R Ford aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean, the Dwight D Eisenhower carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf and the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group in the Red Sea deployed to the region, so surely it doesn’t need to rely on a single Australian frigate or guided-missile destroyer to secure the region.

A sign of the times

By now, it is no secret, at least to most of the national security, international relations, and public policy community, that the unipolar, post-Cold War world so completely dominated by the US no longer exists.

While there are some corners of the public and political communities that refuse to accept this uncomfortable reality, particularly in Australia, where large portions of both our political leaders and the public seem to live in a state of arrested development when it comes to the reality and implications of this new multipolar world, even large portions of the American community are beginning to accept the limitations on their power.

This was first brought to the fore following comments made by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on 22 December 2022, in which he highlighted concerns about the capacity of the US to directly deter and engage a competing great power: “When it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine, if we were still in Afghanistan, it would have, I think, made much more complicated the support that we’ve been able to give and that others have been able to give Ukraine to resist and push back against the Russian aggression.”

America’s involvement across the Middle East throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century proved to be immensely costly not only for the American Treasury coffers but also for the lower and middle classes of the US, which were compounded by a hollowing out of the once mighty US industrial base in favour of cheaper, offshore manufacturing as part of the unrestricted globalisation of industry and trade.

The dualistic combination of these costs has only received some attention in public policy, academic and political circles, with most of the emphasis being placed heavily on the “blood and treasure” costs to the budget bottom line and manpower lost.

Critically, the real at home” cost to America’s middle class and economic heartland has only served to ferment disillusion with the status quo and, most importantly, America’s role as the global policeman when conditions at home continue to worsen and successive generations of young men, in particular, are decimated by endless conflict.

This uncomfortable reality only becomes more important when considered against growing domestic US sentiment towards the continuing support of the Ukraine war and now announcements by the Biden administration that US special forces will provide advisory support to the Israeli Defense Force.

The public sentiment sweeping the US is highlighted by The Australian Financial Review’s James Curran, in a piece titled, “Another ‘forever wars’ distraction for America, which raises concerns about America being potentially drawn into yet another “forever war” in the Middle East, which spells major issues for the already fraying global order.

Curran explained, stating: “For Washington, the implications for its domestic politics and its foreign policy are once more acute. Republicans suddenly look even more indulgent now for causing legislative dysfunction in the US Congress, a state of affairs that will only feed the perception of an America adrift as the world continues to burn.”

Unpacking the impacts of this further, Curran added: Washington has been looking to free itself of commitments around the world in an effort to focus not only on its home front but on the China challenge. But such is the lot of the sole superpower; it now has wars to manage in the Middle East and Europe simultaneously as it gears up Asian allies for strategic competition with China.”

All of this combines, unfortunately, to reinforce the reality of America’s waning influence and capacity to act as the world’s unrestricted global hegemon, a reality that surely isn’t lost on China’s leadership.

Final thoughts

One can’t help but be drawn back to the comments of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he revealed the uncomfortable reality that the emperor, indeed, has no clothes and has a long way to go before the wardrobe will be fully restocked.

Importantly for Australia’s policymakers and the public, we are going to have to accept two uncomfortable realities. First, the US, despite the best of intentions, may not be capable of actively defending the global order on a scale and over a protracted period of time as it currently stands.

Second, Australia is in for a bumpy ride as the Indo-Pacific becomes the main battleground for geopolitical, economic, and strategic competition in the 21st century. We can’t escape it, so we had better plan accordingly.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific. The most important questions now become, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia, and when will we see a narrative that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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