New Delhi-based Professor Brahma Chellaney has reinforced the growing concerns about the tactical and strategic limitations of the US as it struggles to balance commitments in the Middle East and countering the new era of great power competition with China and a cluster of disruptive rising powers.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the US emerged as the single greatest economic, industrial, political and strategic power in the Western sphere of influence – supplanting the British Empire as the pre-eminent global power, challenged only by the Soviet Union.
Buoyed by its unrivalled economic prosperity and capability and supported by the Bretton Woods Conference and creation of the United Nations, the US quickly established itself as the primary economic, political and strategic partner of choice for war-torn nations throughout Europe and Asia as the two rival superpowers and former allies jockeyed for position.
The creation of strategic partnerships like NATO and direct strategic partnerships like the ANZUS treaty further served to underpin the long-term strategic security and prosperity of these nations well into the early 21st century.
While the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War promised “the end of history” and what became known as the American Peace, or “Pax Americana”.
However, despite these promises, the rise of China, resurgence of Russia and broader development of the Indo-Pacific, combined with the ever pervasive asymmetric threats like violent extremism and non-state actors, all challenged this reality.
Fast forward to today and the increasing economic, political and strategic competition both the US and its “new world order” partners, including the UK and Australia, find themselves in is challenging the capability of the US to maintain its position as the pre-eminent global power, subsequently impacting the post-Second World War order.
Enter the mercurial US President Donald Trump, who promised to withdraw the US from what he describes as “endless foreign wars”, particularly in the Middle East, which have drained America’s blood and treasure and, seemingly, resolve of the nation to provide the strategic umbrella for allies throughout Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
Recognising this, Professor Brahma Chellaney, New Delhi-based professor of strategic studies, has sought to reinforce the growing concerns about America’s capacity to meet its regional and global tactical and strategic responsibilities, particularly following the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.
Chellaney summaries the predicament the US finds itself in, stating, “Military entanglements in the Middle East have contributed to the relative decline of American power and facilitated China’s muscular rise.”
Why is the US still in the Middle East? It isn’t oil
Many immediately run to the oil factor as the driving force behind America’s sustained interest in interventionism in the volatile Middle East. However, that primary factor appears to be declining in importance as the US continues to establish its own energy security.
“The US no longer has vital interests at stake in the Middle East. Shale oil and gas have made the US energy-independent, so safeguarding Middle Eastern oil supplies is no longer a strategic imperative. In fact, the US has been supplanting Iran as an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China,” Chellaney said.
Recognising this, it appears that energy security isn’t a driving factor, so perhaps regime change as exemplified by the disastrous Iraq War and the US-led intervention, which decapitated the Gaddafi regime, with similar repeated attempts in Syria and Iran. However, this focus on the Middle East has paved the way for an increasingly assertive great power: China.
Standing up to China’s revisionist expansion
Professor Chellaney sought to articulate this, beginning with the Obama administration’s “Pacific Pivot” and its failed implementation, followed by years of defence sequestration and repeated cost cutting across the US military at a time of increased expeditionary operations and global tensions from the Middle East, Eastern Europe and through to the Indo-Pacific.
“The US does, however, have a vital interest in resisting China’s efforts to challenge international norms, including through territorial and maritime revisionism. That is why Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, promised a ‘pivot to Asia’ early in his presidency.
“Yet in 2013, when the military toppled Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, Obama opted for non-intervention, refusing to acknowledge it as a coup, and suspended US aid only briefly. This reflected the Obama administration’s habit of selective non-intervention – the approach that encouraged China, America’s main long-term rival, to become more aggressive in pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea, including building and militarising seven artificial islands.”
Shifting his focus towards the markedly different stance of the current Trump administration, Professor Chellaney stated: “Trump was supposed to change this. He has repeatedly derided US military interventions in the Middle East as a colossal waste of money, claiming the US has spent $7 trillion since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Brown University’s costs of war project puts the figure at $6.4 trillion.) ‘We have nothing – nothing except death and destruction. It’s a horrible thing’, Trump said in 2018.
“Furthermore, the Trump administration’s national security strategy recognises China as a ‘strategic competitor’ – a label that it subsequently replaced with the far blunter ‘enemy’. And it has laid out a strategy for curbing Chinese aggression and creating a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific region stretching ‘from Bollywood to Hollywood’,” Professor Chellaney said.
Professor Chellaney expanded on the growing concerns regarding the tactical and strategic limitations the US is facing, particularly as it is required to split resources between the Middle East and directly facing China, stating: “The Trump administration is unlikely to change course anytime soon. In fact, it has now redefined the Indo-Pacific region as extending ‘from California to Kilimanjaro’, thus specifically including the Persian Gulf. With this change, the Trump administration is attempting to uphold the pretence that its interventions in the Middle East serve US foreign-policy goals, even when they undermine them.
“As long as the US remains mired in ‘endless wars’ in the Middle East, it will be unable to address in a meaningful way the threat China poses. Trump was supposed to know this. And yet, his administration’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific seems likely to lose credibility, while the cycle of self-defeating American interventionism in the Middle East appears set to continue.”
Questions for Australia
Despite Australia’s enduring commitment to the Australia-US alliance, serious questions remain for Australia in the new world order of President Donald Trump’s America, as a number of allies have been targeted by the maverick President for relying on the US for their security against larger state-based actors, which has seen the President actively pressuring key allies, particularly NATO allies, to renegotiate the deals.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?