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Even America can’t have its cake and eat it

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has stood unopposed at the pinnacle of global power; however, as history has shown time and again, the sun must set on all “empires”, with our newly emerging multipolar world demonstrating that America must make some tough choices.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has stood unopposed at the pinnacle of global power; however, as history has shown time and again, the sun must set on all “empires”, with our newly emerging multipolar world demonstrating that America must make some tough choices.

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

From Somalia, Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo to Afghanistan, Iraq (again), Libya, and Syria, alongside longstanding commitments to global security across Asia and Europe, the US readily 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 and global markets with voracious appetites.

In doing so, this paved the way for the period of economic growth and prosperity in the aftermath of the Cold War that transformed much of the world.

Today however, the emergence of the multipolar world and renewed great power competition has seen questions raised about the legitimacy of the concept of “might makes right”, particularly in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early-2022 and the Hamas-led, Iranian-backed assault on Israel and the broader balance of power in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in the Western Pacific, mounting Chinese aggression towards the Philippines, the island democracy of Taiwan, and Australian, American, and Canadian naval and air force forces operating in the area, among others, all serve to reinforce the emergence of this contested multipolar world.

Tensions across the Indo-Pacific have only been further exacerbated by the emergence of parallel multilateral economic, political, and pseudo-strategic blocs, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the rapidly expanding BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) organisation which continues to expand its influence across both the developed and developing world, further accelerating the creation of our new, multipolar world.

Forgive me if all of this seems like a roundabout way of setting the scene for our increasingly contested and competitive global environment.

All of this combines to present the United States with a global paradigm that is stretching the limits, capacity and resolve of the once undisputed heavy weight champion of the world.

Highlighting this is Stephen Wertheim, Senior Fellow in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Visiting Lecturer at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs in a piece for Foreign Affairs, titled, Why America Can’t Have It All: Washington Must Choose Between Primacy and Prioritizing.

A vision that lies in tatters

From the steppes of eastern Europe to the sands of the Middle East and the maritime lines of communication through the Middle East and the Western Pacific, the US-led world order is at the limits of its power.

This uncomfortable reality comes in spite of the Biden administration promising the world, that the “adults were back in charge” and the United States was back following his election in 2020.

Wertheim explains this, saying, “The Biden administration took office intending to inject strategic focus into US foreign policy. The president and his team promised to end the United States’ forever wars and make the country’s international engagements serve the needs of a disaffected public.

“In its first year, the administration terminated the two-decade-old war in Afghanistan, pledged to ‘right-size’ the US military presence in the Middle East, and even pursued a ‘stable and predictable’ relationship with Russia. By placing less emphasis on certain regions, the logic went, Washington could concentrate on what most affects US interests: managing competition with China and tackling transnational threats such as climate change and pandemics,” Wertheim explains.

However, despite these lofty ambitions and a promise of a return to “normalcy” for US foreign policy post the “disastrous” Trump years, Biden’s promise and, indeed, that of the United States, lays in utter tatters.

Wertheim added, “Today that vision lies in tatters. The United States is now immersed in multiple wars in Europe and the Middle East, precisely where the administration sought to keep things quiet. Meanwhile, relations with China and Russia have deteriorated so strikingly as to raise the realistic prospect of the first major-power conflict since 1945.”

While this isn’t solely the fault of the current administration, it hasn’t exactly done itself any favours on the international stage, particularly in the era of renewed great power competition and multipolarity.

This is recognised by Wertheim, who stated, “One can hardly blame US policymakers for the turmoil. It was Russian President Vladimir Putin who decided to invade Ukraine in 2022, and Hamas that chose to attack Israel in 2023. No one had a crystal ball to predict these shocking actions years in advance. Yet American officials bear responsibility for making a failed wager of their own.

Wertheim added, “They hoped entire regions of the world would sit still because they preferred to turn their gaze elsewhere, even as the United States remained ensconced in those regions’ security arrangements. The Biden administration wanted to prioritise what in its view mattered most while declining to disentangle the United States from what mattered less.”

This naive view of the world, feeds into the “End of History” theory hypothesised by US academic Francis Fukuyama, which in many ways seduced Western leaders, including those in the United States into believing that the historic, ethnic, religious and cultural animosities and ambitions that drive nations and people had gone the way of the dodo.

Make ’hard’ choices, prioritise, and allies must step up

The combination of the ongoing war in Eastern Europe and the challenges posed by an increasingly fragmented Middle East have effectively revealed that the US has limits, much like its Roman predecessor.

This means that the United States will need to increasingly make tough choices about its foreign policy, particularly as the global balance of power presents significant challenges in aggregate and domestic American politics increasingly shies away from an interventionist America.

Wertheim stated, “the United States could employ deft diplomacy to accommodate the grievances of actors such as Iran and Russia that seek to revise the status quo in their favour.

“But US diplomats could offer only modest measures if they were prohibited from paring back the United States’ core ambitions, security partnerships, or forward deployments. Alternatively, the United States could try to convince its allies and partners that they, not Washington, would have to take primary responsibility for managing any conflicts that arose in their own neighbourhoods.

“Yet if the United States cared so much that it chose to remain the region’s premier military power, why would it care so little that it would stand back in a crisis? The message would be awfully difficult to make credible,” Wertheim explained.

This ultimately requires an internal recognition by the US and its policymakers that it can’t be all things to everyone, nor can it unilaterally carry the weight of security in this contested world.

Equally, it requires, as Wertheim stated, “deft diplomacy” between the US and its allies, where the US places increasing pressure on its allies to step up their game and hold their feet to the fire should they fail to do so.

Ultimately, this comes down to getting these nations to understand that they will increasingly have to carry their own water without the unrestricted backup of “big brother”, because America is going to have to prioritise its efforts and capabilities in this new, multipolar world order.

This is particularly poignant for Australia in the aftermath of the Defence Strategic Review released in April 2023, and the government’s soon-to-be-released surface fleet review which will chart the direction of the Navy’s surface fleet and broader Australian Defence Force as a whole.

It leaves important questions for Australian policymakers, particularly what sort of capabilities do we need urgently, what do we need over the medium and longer terms, and what does Australia need to be capable of sustainably doing on its own?

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 at 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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