Summary. Donald Trump, Dylan Thomas, and the Australia US Alliance – A great power in decline.
Donald Trump’s election requires us to speak of a frightening prospect which has been gathering for decades – the Great Power in decline. And not only in decline but in a state of moral torpor and rampant corruption, given over to the forces that are destroying it. And frightening because Great Powers have long been the embodiment of Dylan Thomas’s famous exhortation to “not go gentle into that good night,” but rather, and we should seriously note, “burn and rave at close of day.”
The last 50 years provide unequivocal evidence that the trajectory of the US is unsustainable, not least because its principal Orders (religious, education, political, economic, military-strategic) are in an advanced state of decomposition.
Its Judaeo-Christian Religion – once a source of civil pride and strength, and an inspiration to many, is now asserted stridently, aggressively and mercilessly – but is neither a moral beacon to others, or a cause of unification domestically.
Education, even of the basic kind predicated on functional literacy is denied to many in direct relationship to their proximity to poverty. Even Higher education, thought to be mandatory for those responsible for governance in the system, is scarce. For the most part, instruction in a few techniques has supplanted education.
Political life is scandalous and the more so the higher in the realms of power that one looks. Where representative government is the issue, representation has come to mean “of a privileged few,” and where government is required by law to be accountable and responsible, it simply is not.
Where the pursuit and creation of wealth are concerned the system is, in a word, unjust. Money, and the power it buys are deployed ostentatiously and those enriched are encouraged to believe that their status is a token of God’s favour. Theories are propounded whereby the inequalities in society are naturalised and legitimised – little thought being given that the poor and the underprivileged are not poor and underprivileged because they lack the intelligence, or cannot keep up with the sophisticated understandings of the world reached by their superiors, but because they have been deliberately excluded from their just share in the common wealth.
Exacerbating this situation are processes, ordained by law (but ridiculous nevertheless) in which public goods are acquired by private interests for their personal edification, and beyond this, the economy is dominated by a system of transactions defined not only by their Byzantine complexity but their inability to relate to anything real, the consequence of which is catastrophic collapse when reproached by their inherent contradictions.
Australian policy-makers in the areas of defence and foreign policy need to take note: in global strategic (as well as political and economic) terms, we live in what the Romans called the Interregnum, when the old is dying and the new cannot be born and a vast variety of morbid symptoms have appeared, It’s transitional; the old laws are suspended, but there is the anticipation that new and different laws will be proclaimed by the emergent order.
What is to hand? According to US those who try to discern the future – scholars, think tanks, analytical intelligence agencies – there is a consensus that, by the mid-2030s, US hegemony will have waned even further. The conclusion is that the US and its allies will live in a world where shaping a global order the way they have since the end of the Cold War will be increasingly difficult, perhaps impossible.
All of this, top repeat, preceded November 8; to regard Donald Trump’s elevation to President–elect as the cause of angst is to miss the point. Yes, his combination of ignorance and bellicosity deserve it, but angst, and a lot more, was appropriate before then and should also have been directed at Hillary Clinton. Behind closed doors she apparently spoke of willingness, when President, to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, a preoccupation that goes back to at least 2008 when she was running against Barak Obama for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Then, she was quite clear that, in response to a nuclear attack on Israel, as president, she would order a “nuclear response” by the United States.
Three questions might suffice to underline just one of the emergent pathologies. Where is the sense that, for decades, the targets of illegal and strategically inept US aggression, and US allies, have been paying the price for serial and serious failure, most notably in the Middle East? Where is the sense of outrage when it is finally revealed that US allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been finding ISIS and al-Qaeda-type movements which Australian forces are ostensibly trying to defeat?
And is there not a sense that moral and political idiocy reigns unmolested in the US when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer can respond to a suggestion that opposing the recently announced $USD1 billion dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia on the grounds that it would cost jobs in the arms manufacturing industry?
In Europe, Trump’s accession will only exacerbate an already dangerous situation with regard to nuclear weapons in the light of his view that they should be regarded as usable in US strategy. Both the US and Russia have become so engrossed in their burgeoning, grievance-fuelled multipolar rivalry, that nuclear posturing, and with it the threat of nuclear war, has returned.
Among the indicators are: Russian and US nuclear weapons modernisation programmes which, in the case of the latter and over the next decade, will cost $USD1 trillion); weapons developments that threaten, or even breach the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, reconsiderations of ‘limited (European theatre only) nuclear war-fighting, and the development of hypersonic nuclear weapons delivery systems. All of this is framed by both war talk aimed at Russia by US NATO commanders, and a refusal by the US to declare a no-first-use strategy. The conclusion to be drawn is that the threshold for nuclear war has indeed been lowered, and by way of the facilities such as Pine Gap, Australia is inextricably involved and complicit in this regression to a revised form of mutual assured destruction.
Geo-strategically, Asia-Pacific and its extension into Eurasia, reveal the fault lines in US policy. The much-heralded pivot to Asia has resulted in a barely concealed attempt to militarise the Pacific and contain China under the guise of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), an initiative that was overtaken by the vetoes on its ratification by both Clinton and Trump. In any case, its containment objectives were always going to struggle in the face of China’s initiative with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and the enthusiastic international support it received. In the context of its framing vision – a single Eurasian economic zone extending 6,500 miles from Shanghai to Madrid – the TPPA is revealed for what it is: a short-term spoiling tactic with long-term opportunity costs.
If successful it will be an epochal shift which quite probably will change strategic priorities because maritime power will become less important as high-speed rail links (240 mph) are developed to form a “Eurasian Land Bridge.” Consider the facts to date: in the last nine years China has built over 9,000 miles of high-speed track and is on target to complete 16,000 miles by 2030.
The old Trans-Siberian route is being joined by newer, faster routes which already transports manufactures from Leipzig, Germany, to Chongqing, China, in 20 days (as opposed to 35 days by ship); the Chongqing Duisburg transit is now down to 15 days. When the link between Beijing and Moscow is completed, trains will make the journey between the two cities along the world’s longest high-speed rail line in two days.
For Australia, therefore, reflection and a sense of perspective is required at this juncture. The internal disorders of the US are chronic and not amenable to reform for the foreseeable future. And any rigorous political and strategic examination of US leadership over the last several decades leads to the conclusion that it has blundered more often than not and with deadly, destructive, and destabilising consequences. It faces a paradox: it continues to have unrivalled military superiority, but in a world in which the deployment of military power is so often either inappropriate, or ineffective , or counter-productive.
While inescapable, the conclusion is that its role as a hegemonic power over, it has yet to come to terms with its own diminished status. In a single phrase, what is good for the United States is not necessarily good for the rest of the world in general, nor for Australia more specifically. In the certain knowledge and understanding of the past , and the uncertainty of the Trump ascendancy, Australia inhabits the time between the lightning and the thunder. This is usually brief but with it comes an opportunity to redefine the relationship with the United States in terms clinical and unsentimental.
Dr Michael McKinley formerly taught International Relations and Strategy at the Universities of Western Australia and the Australian National University; he is now a Visiting fellow in the College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU.
Tomorrow, ‘Quo vadis – the future of the US-Australian alliance’ Part 2 will focus on comments by the late Malcolm Fraser ‘We no longer have an independent capacity to stay out of America’s wars”.