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Recognising the limits of US power and pulling our weight in a changing world

The great myth of the ‘end of history’ following the collapse of the Soviet Union promised an unencumbered American Peace – however, the rapidly evolving world order, driven by the rise of the Indo-Pacific, resurgence of potential peer competitors and complacency of US allies is challenging the once unassailable position of the US, meaning allies like Australia will need to up their game.

The post-Second World War emergence of the US as the pre-eminent global power, replacing the British Empire, saw a dramatic shift in Australia's strategic arrangements as the nation recognised the limitations of the British Empire. In response, Australia's support of the US in both Korea and Vietnam during the Cold War entrenched Australia as one of America's most reliable allies and essential to the enduring stability of the Indo-Pacific. 

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Years of supplying the material needs of both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union in the conflict against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan enabled the smooth post-war transition of the US to the largest manufacturing economy in the world, buoyed by a wealthy, growing middle class and reinforced by the Cold War arms race that established the nation as the pre-eminent strategic military power. 

Despite the ever present threat of nuclear Armageddon and a third conflict in Europe, the lack of industrial and economic prowess and competitiveness in the Soviet Union placed it at a significant disadvantage in the post-Second World War international economic, political and strategic order established with the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 and the formation of the United Nations. 

The economic and strategic competition between the Soviet Union and US and their alliance networks would ultimately lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union and established what would be come known as the the 'Pax Americana', or American Peace – with the US the unquestioned and unrivalled global economic, political and strategic power. 

However, this period was relatively short lived, as regional conflagrations 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. 

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Costly engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with long-standing attempts to denuclearise Iran, have served to draw American and allied focus, while draining 'blood and treasure', eroding the domestic political, strategic and economic resolve and capacity to respond to the resurgence of totalitarian regimes and peer competitors in both China and Russia. 

Further compounding these issues is the growing instability in the US, particularly given the increasing unpredictability and transactional attitude towards alliances by US President Donald Trump – combined with allegations of complacency by NATO allies and the ongoing trade and strategic disputes with China, renewed territorial aggression by Russia and the ever present threat of conflict with Iran.

The limitations of American power

It is important to recognise that for the first time America has a true competitor in China – a nation with immense industrial potential, growing wealth and prosperity, a driving national purpose and a growing series of alliances with re-emerging, resource rich great powers in Russia, and supported by a growing network of economic hubs and indebted psuedo-colonies throughout the Indo-Pacific and Asia. 

Unlike the Soviet Union, China is a highly industrialised nation – with an industrial capacity comparable, if not exceeding that of the US, supported by a rapidly narrowing technological gap, supporting growing military capability and territorial ambitions, bringing the rising power into direct competition with the US and its now fraying alliance network of tired global allies. 

The increasing cost blow outs and project delays of major US defence acquisition and development programs, including strategic programs like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Gerald R Ford Class of aircraft carriers, B-21 Raider strategic bomber, combined with ballooning US government debt and domestic political and societal challenges, serve as unique and important challenges, limiting America's enduring ability to project presence. 

Whether consciously recognising the potential of this challenge or not, the US President's direct, often confrontational approach towards allies belies domestic concerns about America's ability to maintain the post-Second World War global order. Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute highlights the importance of recognising the limitation of US power in a recent piece for ASPI, saying, "The assumption of continued US primacy that permeated DWP 2016 looked heroic at the time. It seems almost foolishly misplaced now."

This is reinforced by executive director of ASPI, Peter Jennings, posing the critical question in late 2018, "What's the plan for Australia's defence, if it turns out that Trump's America First approach is here to stay and alliances fall into mistrustful neglect?"

A bigger ADF and broader industrial capability? 

The potential for reduced and often conditional US tactical and strategic umbrella presents a major challenge for Australia's strategic policy makers to overcome. 

Recognising this, Jennings identifies the need to increase the nation's defence expenditure from the current planned 2 per cent of GDP to approximately 2.5-3 per cent of GDP to increase procurement quantities and improve access to key American-made defence equipment to beef up the striking capability of the ADF through the introduction of long-range strike weaponry, including land-attack cruise missiles and a thinly veiled attempt to replace the F-111 with a more potent, jointly-developed long-range aerial strike platform i.e. potentially a modified, Australian variant of the in-development B-21 Raider. 

For the domestic industrial base, Jennings in particular advocates the development of an Australian version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) as a means of investing and further developing the nation's capacity to meet its own defence material requirements and develop cutting-edge technologies, working separately to the Defence bureaucracy to promote innovation and commercialisation avenues.

Recognising the changing nature of contemporary deterrence theory and modern warfare, this innovation approach should extend to expanding the nation's cyber capabilities beyond the defensive posture they currently possess, to focus on a credible, offensive, deterrent-focused cyber capability.

Finally, Jennings clearly articulates the need to expand the existing ADF beyond the 58,000 regulars currently serving to approximately 90,000 across the three branches, which he credits as "still tiny by regional standards, but would vastly strengthen our ability to operate the high-technology equipment that is central to a strong deterrent posture".

The core premise of this is reinforced by Jennings' ASPI colleague, Dr Malcolm Davis, who told Defence Connect at the 2019 Avalon Airshow in late February, "The government aspiration of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence is simply not enough any more. We need to look at planning our force structure, our capability requirements and spending on a number of factors, including allied strengths and potential adversarial capabilities, not arbitrary figures.

"It is time for us to throw open the debate about our force structure. It is time to ask what more do we need to do and what do we need to be capable of doing." 

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.  

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the broader US alliance structure and the Indo-Pacific more broadly in the comments section below, or get in touch with 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..

Recognising the limits of US power and pulling our weight in a changing world
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