The acute tensions that disrupted the recent APEC summit, the Brexit fiasco in Britain, the rise of populist discourse and movements in much of Europe, the ‘theatre of the grotesque’ in Trump’s America, are just a few of the symptoms of the seismic shift that has been in the making for over three decades. It is a shift which political leaders, not least in Australia, seem scarcely able to comprehend, let alone address.
A power shift, but much more than that
Experts and commentators – some rather belatedly – have rightly focused on China’s rise. Yet, important as it is, China’s renewed capacity to flex economic muscle does not fully explain the profound changes now sweeping across the globe and reshaping the social and political fabric of many countries.
Just as momentous has been the steady decline of US hegemonic power, to which we should add the reassertion of Russian strategic interests under Putin, and the steady but uneven rise of other centres of economic and political influence in Europe and Asia. However, these geopolitical trends assume their full significance only when placed in a wider cultural and civilisational, indeed planetary context.
First, a few words about the China factor. The scale of the Chinese economic miracle is indeed remarkable. Since the introduction of market reforms in 1979, China’s real annual gross domestic product (GDP) has averaged an annual growth rate of 9.5%; its GDP has doubled every eight years; its manufacturing output overtook that of Japan in 2007 and that of the United States in 2010. All of this amounts to what the World Bank has described as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.”
True enough, China’s GDP growth rate has slowed substantially, from 14.2% in 2007 to 6.9% in 2017, while the US GDP is currently growing at the healthy rate of 3.5%. On the other hand, the US perennial budget deficit, exacerbated by recent tax cuts, is expected to hit a new high of $1 trillion within two years, and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, a staggering $1.5 trillion by 2028.
In the meantime, the US trade gap has continued to widen despite the Trump Administration’s “America First” policies resulting in tit-for-tat tariffs with the European Union, Canada and Mexico and an escalating trade war with China.
US recourse to punitive measures are at least as much about restricting imports as enhancing exports. It highlights the inability of several key US industries to compete against Asian or European imports in their own domestic markets. Simply put, the Trump strategy is an indicator of weakness rather than strength. It is doubtful that Trump’s strong-arm tactics will exact from China, Japan, South Korea or the EU the kind of concessions that will lead to a substantial long-term reduction in the US trade deficit
But the paradox of US weakness becomes even starker when it comes to the projection of military power. Taken at face value US actions and pronouncements since the end of the Cold War have radiated power, yet in many respects this is what may be called ‘abstracted’ or ‘virtual’ power.
Following a decline in the US military budget in the aftermath of the Cold War, military spending soon resumed its growth pattern, reaching a high of over $700 billion in 2011, and after a temporary dip during the Obama years has risen again, with Congress approving a military budget of $716 billion for FY2019.
Yet technological prowess and the flexing of military muscle have not translated into military victory on the ground or effective political influence. The power of the American state is more fragile than appears to the naked eye, as the war on terror, the disastrous war in Iraq, the protracted and punishing conflict in Afghanistan, and the unholy mess in Libya and Syria attest.
The US dilemma of seeking to project power on a global scale while expecting friends and allies to carry a substantial part of the cost, euphemistically described as burden sharing, has simply led to heightened tensions within American alliances. Nowhere is the blowback effect of this clumsy strategy proving more costly than in Europe.
As for NATO’s unrelenting expansion to Russia’s doorstep and the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems in Romania and Poland, they have simply led Putin’s Russia to confront US power, whether it be in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria or in the upgrading of its own nuclear arsenal.
And in Asia-Pacific, relentless US efforts to contain the expansion of Chinese influence, often justified by reference to China’s militarisation activities in the South China Sea, have strengthened Beijing’s determination to break through the US containment perimeter. This it is doing through an extensive and strategically applied mix of investment and aid incentives, of which its ‘One Belt, One Road’ (B&R) initiative, is by far the most ambitious.
Some Asian governments are no doubt wary wary of China’s expanding influence, though less so than is often intimated in Western media. For many China is their largest trading customer and a source of much needed infrastructure support. Some 68 countries and international organisations across Asia, Europe, Africa and the Middle East have already signed up to the B&R, conservatively estimated to be a $1 trillion global infrastructure program.
Economics and geopolitics are at the heart of the seismic shift now under way. In this sense a multi-centric world is rapidly emerging in which several major centres of wealth and diplomatic and organisational clout – some rising, others declining – are furiously competing to continue their ascent or arrest their decline.
There is, however, another dimension, often overlooked yet crucial to the shape of things to come. We are inexorably moving towards a multi-civilisational world. The West-centric world, in which first Europe and then the United States held sway, is slowly but steadily giving way to a new world in which other civilisational centres are emerging or re-emerging.
Three such centres, the Sinic, Indian and Islamic cultural spheres, each with its uniquely rich and long history, have already made a dramatic appearance on the world stage. This is no way to foreshadow Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’. It is simply to highlight the intense intersection of civilisational currents that is fast becoming a reality and brings with it new opportunities for mutually beneficial interaction. Managing the cross-civilisational traffic of intellectual currents, cultural preferences and economic expectations will be one of the more demanding but rewarding tasks of the next few decades.
Further complicating matters, the multi-centric, multi-civilisational world we have entered is confronted with extraordinarily complex threats to humanity and planet Earth. Apart from the twin existential threats posed by nuclear war and irreversible climate change, the world confronts the highly destabilising effects of rising inequalities of wealth and income, population displacements of unprecedented scale, and the multitude of other cross-border flows that encompass goods and services, capital, technologies, viruses, arms, images and information.
This is the world in which societies, sometimes clumsily referred to as small and middle powers, can make a difference. One option is to persist with the habits and mindsets of an earlier epoch, accept the primacy of this or that great power, and continue to rely on military solutions and military alliances. The more promising option is to chart a course based on independent analysis, wide-ranging consultation within and between countries, intellectually coherent policy making, and a willingness to promote coalitions and initiatives that privilege dialogue over confrontation.
Western Europe, notably the French and German governments, deeply troubled by the mindless unilateralism of Trump’s America, are calling for a return to multilateral values and obligations. In a recent speech pointedly delivered on Remembrance Day in front of Trump and Putin, Emmanuel Marcon called on nations to find new ways to build peace together in the face of dangerous, rising populism and ‘selfish’ nationalism, and went on to urge collective action against climate change, poverty and inequality.
This and similar statements over the last twelve months are welcome but the signs that they will soon be translated into concrete policies, let alone effective institutional arrangements, are not encouraging. They may turn out to be little more than rhetorical flourishes. The failure of the French government to match words with deeds when it comes to climate change, refugees and asylum seekers, and social policies at home inspire little confidence.
As for the strong push for a European army, it is difficult to see what useful purpose it can serve. At best such a project would siphon off energies and resources needed to address pressing regional and global challenges. At worst, it could become a mere appendage of NATO and exacerbate the already fractious relationship with Russia.
Where does all this leave Australia?
Though the last few decades have been somewhat barren when it comes to policy coherence and innovation in Australia, the land, its people and its diverse cultures are nevertheless uniquely placed to give practical expression to a new conception of regional and global interdependence.
What happens to Australia over the next few decades will reflect as much external as internal developments. The seismic shift now under way is blurring the dividing line between the domestic and the international. In coming years what is feasible or even desirable within the ‘domestic’ context will increasingly bear the imprint of the international. The quality of life in Australia will reflect the complex interactions between different national identities, cultural and religious affinities and tiers of governance.
It is now clear that the national interest, which has become the mantra of government and opposition, can be pursued only with due regard for the corresponding interests and aspirations of neighbouring societies and the objectives of world order. This perspective, which includes a commitment to such values as racial equality, human rights, ecological balance and nuclear disarmament, is not a moral luxury but a practical necessity. It should inform policy at every level, including regional relationships and domestic arrangements.
The multilateral option is critical to Australia’s future. In concert with other small and middle powers, it can do much to strengthen the international human rights and environmental regimes, and give added momentum to the Sustainable Development Goals. Here there is ample scope to work more closely with Southeast Asian and South Pacific neighbours, and through the United Nations and its various agencies. Government and political parties generally would do well to develop partnerships with those sectors of civil society whose brief it is to alert public opinion to the consequences of war, famine, environmental degradation, human rights abuses, and genocide.
An independent Australian foreign policy would challenge more forcefully the current security, industrial and energy policies of many developed countries. In collaboration with others Australian efforts could help reverse the continuing pollution of the seas and mitigate the dangers of climate change, which have become life and death issues for Pacific Island nations.
In earlier times Australian governments contributed significantly to the establishment and development of the UN system. Despite years of neglect Australia can, if it acts in concert with like-minded states, play an imaginative and influential role in the radical reform of the international organisation, particularly with regard to the management and resolution of armed conflicts. Reform of the UN Security Council – its composition, structure and accountability mechanisms – remains a high priority. Equally pressing is the establishment of new agencies, or reorganisation of existing ones, with a view to effectively monitoring military budgets and deployments and verifying compliance with arms control and disarmament agreements.
Little of this will come to pass unless small and middle powers and the wider international community are prepared to curb hegemonic tendencies wherever they appear, and as far as practicable to insulate local and regional conflicts from great power intrusion. This objective runs counter to the Australian ethos of dependence on ‘great and powerful friends’, and especially on the paramount role of the US alliance in Australia’s external relations. This mindset is now in need of urgent review.
Over the next ten to twenty years Australia will have every opportunity to distance itself from subservience to US interests and priorities. The narrative of the United States, as the only superpower, delivering protection against the ultimate threat to ‘national security’, and enabling Australia to speak and act in its neighbourhood with a louder voice may have been reassuring in the past. But it is rapidly losing the credibility it may have once had.
In any case, if carefully and respectfully handled, the progressive demotion and eventual termination of the ANZUS alliance, should in no way obstruct a close and constructive economic, political and cultural relationship with the United States. Nor should it lead to new forms of dependence, whether on China or any other centre of power.
Regional co-operation offers a more fruitful option, so long as it is not premised on military alliances or coalitions. Instead, Australia could join with the likes of Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, perhaps the Philippines (under a saner government) and South Korea to press for the establishment of nuclear weapons free zones, the denuclearisation and eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula, a comprehensive settlement of the Taiwan dispute, and the development of regional peacebuilding and peacekeeping capabilities in close association with the United Nations.
In all of this regular and effective consultation with the governments of China, Japan, India and the United States will be vitally important. But Australia would no longer serve as Washington’s ‘deputy sheriff in the region. It would resist any military initiative aimed at containing China or any other great power. The same logic would lead Australia to question the wisdom of Japanese rearmament, the forward projection of Japanese military power, and any attempt by a Japanese government to abandon or dilute the peace clause in the constitution.
If creatively pursued, the interdependence option, all too briefly outlined here, can co-exist with greater autonomy. In embarking on this path, Australia, by virtue of its geography, history and cultural diversity, is well placed to explore the immense potential of three concepts: human security, democratic governance, and civilisational dialogue. All three are applicable to all levels and facets of human organisation. Taken together they offer Australia an invaluable yet not altogether unfamiliar compass for the journey ahead.
Joseph A. Camilleri is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and Executive Director of Alexandria Agenda, a new venture in ethical consulting. Visit his personal website at www.josephcamilleri.org.