Throughout the Second World War, the US emerged as pre-eminent global power – the years of supplying the material needs of both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union in the conflict against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan positioned the nation as the largest manufacturing economy in the world, combined with the position as the sole nuclear power and the core of the post-War economic, political and strategic order laid the foundation for a post-European new world order.
This post-war 'rules-based' world order formally established at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 and the post-war formation of the United Nations was essential to the long-term economic, political and strategic success of both the US and its allies. This included the UK, Australia, Japan, Canada and the allies of western Europe, and ultimately served as the undoing of both the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact to emerge from the Cold War as the unrivalled global power.
However, this unrivalled position and the 'Pax Americana', or American Peace, was relatively short lived as regional challenges in the Middle East and southern Europe, combined with the rise of asymmetric security challenges like the advent of Islamic extremism in the Middle East and, to a lesser degree, south-east Asia, emerged as potent challenges to the US and its post-war global order.
Interventions in Afghanistan and the Middle East, combined with long-standing attempts to denuclearise Iran, have served to draw American and allied focus away from the emergence and in some cases resurgence of traditional state-based peer competitors like China and Russia – draining domestic political, strategic and economic resolve and capacity to respond to the emerging threats following the post-Cold War fallacy of the "end of history" and the ultimate triumph of liberal, capitalist democracies.
Australia's role in rules-based order 2.0
Australia is uniquely located, straddling both the Indian and Pacific Ocean at the very edge of south-east Asia, enhancing the nation's status as the key regional ally for the US – with Australia increasingly dependent upon the economic stability and growth of major established and emerging economic, political and strategic Indo-Pacific powers, namely China, Japan, India, Korea and smaller nations.
The emergence of China in particular, namely the active militarisation of reclaimed islands in the South China Sea (SCS) and further territorial antagonism, North Korea's continuing pursuit of a credible nuclear arsenal and the enduring threat of extremist groups, cyber security threats and organised crime, are all serving to compound regional affairs.
For Australia, the Cold War-era ANZUS treaty and the guarantee of US strategic and tactical security is the core of Australia's position in the rapidly evolving Indo-Pacific region – enabling a greater deal of Australian tactical and strategic autonomy in the face of rapidly developing high-intensity regional capabilities. However, this relationship is not solely a one-sided affair, as the position of Australia provides the US with an invaluable linchpin straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, reinforced the importance of the strategic partnership between Australia and the US, telling Defence Connect, "The US-Australia strategic alliance, under ANZUS, is the most critical component of Australia’s approach to defence policy. In a period of growing strategic risk and uncertainty, particularly given the rise of China, the alliance forms the essential foundation of Australia’s defence but also is an important relationship for Washington."
Dr Davis' comments were reinforced by Defence Minister Linda Reynolds at the ASPI International Conference: War in 2025, who identified Australia's $200 billion recapitalisation and modernisation of the 'joint force' ADF as one of the nation's key commitments to supporting the US-led world order and its advancement in the Indo-Pacific.
"Decisions that, taken together, amount to a 10-year more than $200 billion investment in a more agile, capable and potent defence force. A defence force that will see the biggest regeneration of the Royal Australian Navy since the Second World War. A defence force that is already transitioning to a fifth-generation Air Force. A defence force making new investments to deal with cyber and space threats and to significantly augment our intelligence and surveillance capabilities," Minister Reynolds said.
Australia's strategic and defence industry anchor
Australia's relationship with the US forms the visible anchor of the nation's strategic security – the innovative nature of the US defence industrial base is driven by the increasing national security requirements of the US and, to a lesser extent, allies like Australia. The close industrial collaboration between the two nations has long provided Australia with a technological edge over potential adversaries, enabling the post-Vietnam transition to a continental defence-focused doctrine and force structure.
Dr Davis highlighted the importance of Australia-US relationship for ensuring the nation's enduring qualitative edge over potential adversaries, telling Defence Connect, "Without the US-Australia alliance, Australia would be far more vulnerable in a deteriorating strategic environment and face serious challenges in acquiring the latest military technology to sustain its armed forces against growing threats.
"Australia has a key role in the US F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, and its acquisition of 72 F-35As will give it a leading ‘fifth-generation’ capability. Likewise, the integration of advanced US naval combat systems such as Aegis into the Hobart Class AWD and Hunter Class Future Frigate, including advanced SM-6 missile systems, will be a significant leap in naval capability. Access to advanced C4ISR technologies, space surveillance capabilities, and the operation of the US-Australia joint facility at Pine Gap also elevates Australia’s importance as a US partner."
Power projection through platforms including US Navy carrier and expeditionary strike groups, nuclear deterrence forces and US Air Force strategic bomber forces form the core basis of the US strategy of engagement with potential peer competitors like China and Russia. These platforms and force structures serve as the strategic umbrella empowering the broader tactical freedom enjoyed by Australia and other regional allies, including Japan and South Korea.
The arrival of the USS Wasp ahead of the combined Exercise Talisman Sabre just a week following a port call to Sydney by a Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy task group serves as a potent reminder of the mobility and power projection capabilities of the US, while also serving as a powerful reminder of the two centuries of 'mateship' between Australia and the US.
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geo-political, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.