It has formed the back bone of the Australian and global post-War order, but it appears as though the US and the world it built is crumbling before our eyes. Burdened by global challengers and mounting domestic tensions, the end of the American Peace spells turbulent waters ahead for Australia and the broader globe.
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.
Meanwhile, the turbulent nature of the ongoing political turmoil sweeping the US, both sides of the political spectrum, within the US and increasingly around the world, have taken up arms against one another, as is evidenced by mounting social, economic and political tensions in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
While the outgoing-President has largely stood true to his word; moving to hold communist China more accountable for the economic manipulations and its bold strategic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, and seeking to make long dependent US allies across Europe more accountable and invested in their collective security.
These actions have driven a wedge between the US and many formerly allied capitals, with many a strategic, political and economic commentator attributing Trump's transactional approach to alliances to the decline of the post-Second World War order and the emboldening of rival powers, including China and a seemingly resurgent Russia.
Preparing for a 'post-American world'
Joining the choir is Marcus Colla, departmental lecturer in modern European history at the University of Oxford, in a piece titled 'The vanishing hegemon' details the growing concern about the relative decline of the United States as the sole global superpower, its impact upon globalisation and the global order.
Colla establishes the predicament, stating, "In recent weeks, Western critics have penned multiple obituaries for the world we have known since 1945. Globalisation, some have argued, has passed its tipping point. Liberalism is a spent force, democracy all the more so.
"The sheer impotence of international institutions has been exposed. China has fully arrived. And the United States – now the epicentre of virus outbreaks – has proved itself unwilling and incapable of co-ordinating any kind of global response: a confirmation of its deteriorating capacities both at home and abroad. The corona crisis, so runs this view, has accelerated the advent of a world that is at once terrifyingly novel and uncannily familiar: novel because it is multipolar and uncertain, but familiar because it seems to play on old motifs of nations, big states, borders, self-sufficiency and paranoia about outsiders.
"And nothing demonstrates this state of affairs more forcefully than Washington’s response. One does not have to search far in this crisis to find pronouncements of a 'post-American world'. Few, I suspect, would dispute that the pandemic has – whether to a greater or lesser extent – exposed the diminishing global influence of the United States."
Nowhere is this declining US influence 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.
Expanding on this, Colla adds, "For all of Trump’s apparent indifference to his country’s global image, the United States retains unparalleled reserves of global power. The numbers alone tell a remarkable story: American unemployment figures are rivalled in their unfathomable vastness by the sums of the government’s relief package and the Federal Reserve’s “booster shot” loan guarantee program. As Adam Tooze recently put it in the London Review of Books:
"What we are witnessing in the American response to the crisis … is the gulf between the competence of the American government machine in managing global finance and the Punch and Judy show of its politics."
Additionally, Colla explains this impact upon the legitimacy of the United States and its claims to global leadership, stating, "America’s pretence (if not the reality) of moral leadership was always vital to its hegemonic position in the old world order. But, with Trump, the age in which American economic and military dominance was buttressed by a missionary moral language is now past, and it is exceptionally difficult to see how it might ever be reconstituted."
These factors spell particular and immense challenges, not only for the United States as it seeks to regain its standing, rebuild in the post-COVID world and heal following decades worth of mounting societal, political, racial and economic tensions, but for the global allies, including Australia who have grown dangerously dependent upon the US for strategic, economic and political prosperity and stability.
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 crossroads 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.