Many academics and political pundits have argued that the Trump-era heralded a ‘crisis’ for American global leadership in the face of mounting global tensions. It now seems as if the narrative has shifted, despite the election of Joe Biden, with a growing number of thought leaders questioning the validity and legitimacy of American leadership, revealing a culture of dependence in Western allies.
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 unenlightened antiquity – we now know that to be wishful thinking.
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.
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.
The US and China relationship is showing increasing signs of fraying as the world's two great powers size each other up from across the vast expanse of the Pacific. This growing period of tension is now increasingly centred on the small island of Taiwan, a contentious issue harkening back to the darkest days of the Cold War.
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 both Australia and the broader global alliance network, including much of Europe, North America and parts of the Middle East are economically, politically and strategically dependent.
Its easy to blame Trump, but US credibility has been declining since Bush
For many it is easy to criticise the turbulent years of the Trump presidency, with many branding it a traumatic anomaly for the post-Second World War order, particularly allies in Europe, namely France and Germany, but equally in the Indo-Pacific, with South Korea and to a lesser extent, Japan all drawing fire from the bombastic former president.
However, it is equally easy for many to ignore the fact that Trump's actions and rhetoric were in many ways a continuation and expansion of similar rhetoric used by Obama during his presidency, to this end, it is equally easy for many of these commentators and analysts to either forget and negligently overlook the severe impact former president, George W Bush had upon the global standing, legitimacy and capacity of the US.
A prime example of this reality is a piece penned by director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mark Leonard, titled 'The crisis of American power', in which he outlines the apparent impact of a myriad of factors upon the US global leadership, not least of which he lays at the feet of former president Trump.
Leonard states, "The United States is suffering from a double crisis. Headlines in recent months have focused mainly on America’s crisis of democracy, but its crisis of global power may turn out to be more consequential in the long run.
"America’s crisis of democracy has been personified in the figure of former president Donald Trump, the defeated ‘divider-in-chief’ who still commands leadership of the Republican Party. His successor, Democrat Joe Biden, has embarked on a political project to reunite the country and has already revived many of the institutions that Trump attacked while in office.
"But reversing America’s deepening polarisation and spiralling inequalities will not be easy in a political environment driven by demographic change, media fragmentation and electoral gerrymandering.
"As difficult as it will be to repair America’s democratic institutions, it will be harder still to refurbish America’s global image. Following the Cold War, the US enjoyed a power premium. Because friends and foes alike routinely overestimated American interests, the US enjoyed outsize influence around the world."
That is not to say that the former president is blameless in the new reality, as a combination of domestic economic challenges, political division and senseless, destabilising and costly foreign interventions, particularly in the Middle East are all equally to blame for this undermining of US global legitimacy.
However, perhaps the most important factor either not recognised or overlooked by Leonard is the culture of transactional dependency America's post-Cold War dominance has engendered in many global allies, including, but not limited to much of Western Europe and more broadly the NATO alliance, parts of the Indo-Pacific, including Australia and South Korea.
Leonard, does however identify the rather ironically opportunistic and transactional attitude of the European Union and key European powers in the face of ongoing American malaise, stating, "With the COVID-19 pandemic killing millions worldwide, it was easy to miss the fact that the European Union and China concluded negotiations on a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment in late 2020. After seven years of negotiations, the CAI was pushed over the line just weeks before Biden’s inauguration, with the Europeans dismissing public pleas by the incoming US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to consult with the new administration first.
"By pressing ahead, the EU publicly undercut the Biden administration’s top foreign-policy priority of re-engaging with allies to manage the China challenge together. The EU thus squandered the trust of the new US administration (as well as that of Japan, India and Australia), and emboldened China to pursue a divide-and-rule strategy vis-à-vis the democratic world. The signal sent by Europe’s brazen disregard for US interests should send chills down American policymakers’ spines.
"It’s no less striking that it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel who negotiated the CAI. Merkel is a committed Atlanticist who would not oppose the US even when it decided to invade Iraq in 2003. Many Europeans back then were unhappy with President George W. Bush’s administration and worried that America had too much power. Today, the problem is inverted: Europeans are happy with Biden and his China agenda but fear that America is too weak to pull it off."
Now, none of this is 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.
Learn the lessons
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 Geoffrey 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, political 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.
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.