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Despite naysayers and fears of decline, US global leadership still has a role to play: Retired US admiral

For many, it sounds like an antiquated idea, something better confined to the dustbin of history, a world devoid of US primacy and leadership; for others, it is the worst possible outcome. For a retired US Navy admiral and Special Operations commander, American leadership is needed now, more than ever.

For many, it sounds like an antiquated idea, something better confined to the dustbin of history, a world devoid of US primacy and leadership; for others, it is the worst possible outcome. For a retired US Navy admiral and Special Operations commander, American leadership is needed now, more than ever.

Depending on who you ask, the period of unrivalled US global pre-eminence that arguably began in the dying days of the Second World War has been an unabashed good, for others, it was simply the continuation of the European-centric imperialist and capitalist exploitation of the developing world.

It is, however, inescapable that between the end of the Second World War and the end of the 20th century, the global environment, the infrastructures like the United Nations, World Bank, and the “rules-based order” built by the United States benefited hundreds of millions, if not billions across the globe.


Australia’s own Treasury Department stated in 2001, “recent studies have shown that over about the last 30 years, the majority of the world’s poor have achieved income growth faster than in developed countries for the first time in two centuries”.

Going further, the Treasury added, “The proportion of the world’s population in extreme poverty has declined from about three-quarters in 1820 to one-fifth today, and despite some setbacks, that proportion continued to fall slowly over the 1990s.”

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.

The world also followed US moral leadership as it intervened in humanitarian crises from southern Europe to the Horn of Africa and beyond, seeking to expand the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to the rest of the world.

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 the opposite direction, developing economies benefited from the spread of globalisation that saw industry shift from the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and other western nations to their own homelands, delivering economic opportunity for the developing world.

However, since the Global War on Terror, particularly the Iraq invasion and its prelude in the early-2000s, the inescapable truth is that much of the world no longer trusts America as the “Leader of the Free World” and the moral arbiter of the West.

This decline in trust and faith in the United States has only metastised in the last two decades, driven in large part by a declining domestic confidence and belief in the American experiment which has permeated the global culture at a time when autocratic, revisionist regimes in Russia, China, Iran, and others are on the march.

For US Navy Admiral (Ret’d) William McRaven, the world needs US leadership now, more than ever, with Admiral McRaven using an interview with Time to detail the importance of American global leadership.

US global leadership essential for enduring security

The US position of tactical and strategic pre-eminence that first emerged in the waning days of the Second World radically rewrote the global balance of power, where once competing European imperial powers had vied for dominance, the US stood virtually unopposed and uniquely “separate” from those ancient rivalries.

This unique position of global leadership broke the mould of what had come before, with the status of the United States affording it a unique position, something not even the British Empire had been able to achieve during its period of global hegemony.

Also unique to the period of global US primacy and leadership is the period of relative peace, largely between great powers and the devastation wrought on the world as a result.

While conflicts would break out again, mostly in southern Europe and Africa, swift, decisive US intervention ultimately brought about a period of peace and prosperity unprecedented in history.

For Admiral McRaven, this precedent establishes the need for renewed and reinvigorated US leadership on the global stage during this period of great power competition, saying, “The fact of matter is, the world needs US leadership. Even people that disagree with our politics understand that US leadership is the most important leadership in the world, because who else is going to lead if we don’t?”

Going further, Admiral McRaven added, “Nobody of any consequence really wants Russia or China leading, certainly not our allies. So we need to continue to make sure that we ... keep those alliances strong, whether it’s in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, or building alliances in the Middle East.”

Speaking of the Ukrainian conflict, Admiral McRaven stated, “This is a fight that they are fighting not only for their own homeland, but frankly for the Western values that we hold pretty dear. They were certainly anxious about whether or not the US would continue to supply arms and ammunition for their flank.”

Admiral McRaven added further context around the importance of US leadership against the backdrop of the ongoing Gaza conflict, saying, “I think Secretary Tony Blinken kind of understood early on that the US needed to lead and this is an incredibly challenging situation ... . So you have to understand and appreciate the IDF’s position, the Israelis’ position, on striking back [and] striking Hamas. But at the same time, of course, there are a lot of innocent Palestinians that have gotten caught up in this war.

“You absolutely want to take out the terrorists, you want to do what you can to make sure that Hamas never has the opportunity to strike back again. But at the same time, you have to be cognisant of the civilian population, you have to do everything you can to make sure that you’re not inadvertently killing civilians. And from what I’ve seen, the US is making a strong case now to the Israelis that they need to take this very, very seriously,” Admiral McRaven added.

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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