Pax Americana, or the American Peace, has formed the basis of Australia’s strategic and foreign policy since 1945, however, the honeymoon is at an end as great power rivalry from peer competitors and decades of global responsibilities stretch the US as Rome was before it, meaning prudent policymakers should prepare.
At the end of the Cold War, Australia, like much of the victorious US-led alliance, believed that the "end of history" was upon us, that the era of great power competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity – we now know that to be wishful thinking.
While the nation's geographic isolation, encapsulated by the 'tyranny of distance', has provided Australia with a degree of protection from the major, epoch-defining and empire ending conflagrations of the 20th century, the 21st century's great power rivalry hits far closer to home.
Far from the promise of the "end of history", across the globe the US-led liberal-democratic and capitalist economic, political and strategic order is under siege, driven by mounting waves of civil unrest, the impact of sustained economic stagnation across the West, concerns about climate change and the increasing geostrategic competition between the world’s great powers.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the global and more localised impacts of COVID-19, which range from recognising the impact of vulnerable, global supply chains upon national security as many leading nations, long advocates of “closer collaboration and economic integration”, grasp at the lifeboats of the nation-state to secure their national interests.
Despite its relative isolation, Australia’s position as a global trading nation, entrenched in the maintenance and expansion of the post-Second World War order, has left the nation at a unique and troubling crossroads, particularly as it’s two largest and most influential “great and powerful” friends: the US and the UK appear to be floundering against the tide of history.
Furthermore, the fragility of these two nations has prompted many global dictators to take advantage of the absence – as the old saying states: "When the cat is away, the mice will play", leaving Australia and many other allies, including Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, exposed to the whims of nations dedicated to the end of post-war order.
Nowhere is this more evident than across the Indo-Pacific as an emboldened Beijing continues to punish Australia for pursuing a global inquiry into the origins and China’s handling of COVID-19, while also leveraging the comparatively diminished presence of the US military in the region to project power and intimidate both Japan and, critically, Taiwan.
Each of these factors serve to characterise the very real limits of the post-Second World War concept of 'Pax Americana', or the 'American Peace', upon which Australia's economic, political and strategic stability is dependent.
While the Commonwealth has moved to reassure both the Australian public and its alliances around the world with the announcement of the $270 billion 2020 Defence Strategic Update and supporting 2020 Defence Force Structure Plan, the new paradigm of global and regional power means that Australia's policymakers will need to do more in order to respond to the comparative decline of our primary security benefactor.
That is not to say that Australia should forgo its relationship and role within the Australia-US alliance, rather that the nation needs to be prepared for the eventuality that the US may be, at least temporarily, limited in its ability to directly support or provide the umbrella of tactical and strategic freedom the nation is used to, and prepared to actively defend and promote its sovereignty.
Lessons to learn from Libya
Many Australians would argue that the blood and treasure shed throughout the nation's formative years of the 20th century was spilled in the preservation and protection of the national independence and sovereignty and the individual rights, freedoms, and standards of living we now enjoy – in particular they would highlight the Pacific campaign where Australia itself came under direct threat as a pivotal example of the nation defending its sovereignty.
However, each of these engagements were done in support of the Australia-US alliance or, to a lesser extent, the nation's historic partnership with the British Empire at a period of time when those larger, 'great and powerful friends' were able to almost unilaterally enforce their will upon the nations now emerging across the Indo-Pacific as major global players.
Fast forward to the contemporary global paradigm, US international relations academic Walter Russell Mead has called on the world to pay close attention to the aftermath of the Gaddafi regime in Libya as a potential future resulting from the declining capacity and indeed political or domestic inclination of the American public to enforce the 'American Peace'.
"Does Libya show us the future of world politics? American engagement there has been minimal since a 2012 terrorist attack killed four Americans, including the ambassador, and traumatised the Obama administration. In America’s absence, more than a half-dozen powers are struggling to control Libya’s future, carving up its territory and subsidising militias and warlords as they compete for control over its oil and gas. No end to the war is in sight," Mead posits.
"The war also reveals the West’s growing divisions. Two NATO allies (Turkey and Italy) back the GNA. Two more, Greece and France, stand with Haftar. A fifth, Britain, tilts towards the Turks. This isn’t how healthy alliances work.
"Another casualty of the Libyan war: any sense of a joint foreign policy from the EU. Few places in the world matter more to Europe than its Mediterranean neighbourhood. But France, Greece and Italy are pursuing their independent courses in Libya as if the EU didn’t exist. This isn’t what emerging power blocs look like."
Expanding on this, Mead adds, "Finally, the Libyan war shows that a 'post-American' world, one in which the US retreats from its post-World War II policy of global engagement, is unlikely to be peaceful. Zero-sum power games, weakening institutions, cynical power grabs: more of the world will start looking like Libya and Syria."
One thing is for certain, the ensuing chaos on the ground in Libya is a template for what can be expected for many firm US allies should the US abdicate its role, or be limited in its capacity to act as a global strategic balancer.
No reason to give up on the Aus-US relationship, but incentive to grow our role
The nation's approach to strategic policy continues to be heavily based upon the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy as identified in the 1986 Dibb report and then enshrined in the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers in particular, with tweaks made in every Defence White Paper to date.
This largely isolationist policy focused entirely on securing the sea-air gap as a strategic "buffer zone" for Australia, enabling the reorientation of Australia’s strategic and broader defence industry posture, which now serves to leave the nation at a critical cross roads as the region continues to rise.
While successive Australian government's have sought to evolve the Defence of Australia doctrine and the nation's critical strategic partnership with the US, the very premise of the doctrine continues to inform the foundation of Australia's strategic policy to this day.
This new geo-strategic reality is best explained by Paul Dibb himself: "We are now in a period of unpredictable strategic transition in which the comfortable assumptions of the past are over. Australia’s strategic outlook has continued to deteriorate and, for the first time since World War II, we face an increased prospect of threat from high-level military capabilities being introduced into our region."
To its credit, the government's new $270 billion plan as identified in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Force Structure Plan, unlike many others before it, puts its money where its mouth is. It articulates what the Prime Minister describes as budgetary certainty and supports the ambitious, 'big-ticket' defence acquisition and modernisation programs identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper.
Building on this, the new strategic plans and the associated force structure identify some drastic departures from previous doctrine, something Barker explains, "Particularly impressive is the clear alignment and logical consistency between the revised strategic appreciation and the planned 10-year, $270 billion investment program, which includes long-range (possibly hypersonic) missiles, to improve the lethality of the Australian Defence Force.
It is also true to say that while the new policy identifies and responds to the "rapid deterioration in Australia's strategic environment" over the past decade or so, it fails to adequately adjust the size, shape and structure of the ADF accordingly – particularly as the US continues to flirt with isolationism and the qualitative advantages traditionally enjoyed by the US and its allies dwindle.
In recognising this now brutally apparent reality, is the Defence of Australia doctrine, which abdicated Australia's forward presence in the region, enough to ensure that Australia's diverse array of economic, political and strategic interests are protected during a period of mounting geo-strategic competition?
Australia is defined by its economic and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the 21st century’s era of great power competition and global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this 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 geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
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.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.