Why Australia need to get its head around great power multipolarity.
Most Australians think of foreign policy as an esoteric, wonky field. Beyond special-cause activists, few Australians give much thought to our foreign policy choices. One who does is Professor Ramesh Thakur at the Australian National University. He does serious academic work on issues like UN peacekeeping, Security Council powers and responsibilities, the global responsibility to protect human rights , and changing great power balances. His opinion piece written a year ago is pertinent to this essay.
In 1985-1990, as the defeated and dysfunctional Soviet Union eked out its sad and confused final years under Gorbachev, Western foreign policy theorists were thinking about the looming end of US/Soviet Cold War bipolarity and its replacement with a stable multipolar global system: i.e., a balanced international security system resting on several great powers, not necessarily equal in power, but in which all felt their national security was protected by a UN Security Council-based rules-based international order.
It turned out we were around 20-30 years too early. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world entered a long unipolar moment of US hegemonic exceptionalism, which ended … but when did it end?
With the ruthless and wrenching 2001 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the US heartland? With the final withdrawal in 2011 of US forces from Iraq after a costly and bloody eight-year military occupation?
With Russian President Putin’s newfound resolve in 2008, when after eight years of trying to reach a modus vivendi with a triumphant United States, he began to confront US/NATO pressure to project power into Russia’s vulnerable Western borderlands, first in Georgia (2008). And then in Ukraine since 2014?
With the coming to power in China in 2012 of the vigorous nationalist leader Premier Xi Jinping?
Or now in 2015, with Russia’s so far successful military assistance to the Assad Government in Syria, and with China’s intensification of its fortification of islets and reefs in the South China Sea, despite US anger?
Thakur (op.cit) notes that it is hard to map great power transitions with confidence while they are occurring, and that there are increased risks to peace during these transitions. We are in such a period now. Whatever the date of the ‘tipping point’, the US unipolar moment is ending and real multipolarity is upon us. Russia, China, the rest of the BRICs (India, Brazil, South Africa) , and Iran are testing new multipolar arrangements for sharing world power – initially in finance and trade, but as we will find in coming years, in international security as well.
The former ‘indispensable’ power’ of the past 25 years hates and fears these changes, and would prefer to corral everybody – friends and adversaries alike – back into the familiar bipolar camps of the past. We are looking, at worst, at a potential new global bipolarity of the US with its loyal allies or satellites (NATO/ EU, Japan, Canada and Australia, pro-US Sunni Arab states) confronting a new Eastern continental power bloc led by an economically strong China, but with Russia’s revamped military strength providing much of the nuclear deterrent, conventional power projection forces and strategic depth.
This would be a disaster. The world spent decades trying to escape the risks of nuclear war during the 1948 -1991 Cold War confrontation. Why on earth would Australia ever wish to go back to those risks? And why would Putin or Xi want to, unless US aggressiveness left them no alternative?
Soviet Communism is dead, and the market-oriented Chinese version is no ideological threat. Both leaders are keen to work within a multipolar and UN Security Council-determined framework of collective global security.
But a US ‘war party’ , influential in both Republican and Democrat parties, pines for return to a neo-Cold War: by force of habit, and because it is hard to maintain voter support to pay for the world’s leading military capability without an adversary more serious than Al Qaeda or ISIL. The US power structure – never mind the huge challenges of underclass poverty and the environment in the US – needs a big strong enemy.
Australia doesn’t. Nor do the EU, Canada, and the rest of the world, yearning for peace and united focus on global developmental and environmental challenges. We will all benefit from a stable rules-based multipolar world, and Australian foreign policy under Turnbull or Shorten can help build it. But we are going to have to take a few calculated risks on the way.
We can’t be a dumbly obedient janissary for the US in its prickly relationship with China. We have to strike our own balances, respecting Chinese great power security concerns in the South China Sea – not so different to long-held US security concerns in the Caribbean.
Similarly we have to respect Russia’s security concerns in its adjacent borderlands to the West and South. Neutrality of Ukraine could be made to work, as it works for Finland. Ukraine’s neo-Nazi extremists need to be reined in, not clandestinely encouraged by the West. NATO’s newest members Poland and the Baltic States need to accept Russia’s rights to security. (They have already done well, coming in under the NATO umbrella).
And the West need to treat Mr Putin with the respect due to the capable leader of a great nation, with huge territory and resources and on the path, despite hiccups, to a middle-class parliamentary democracy. The pointless propaganda war and demonisation of Putin needs to stop. It is only solidifying his huge lead in Russian public opinion polls – now nearing 90% approval – and strengthening Russian suspicion of Western motives.
Australia needs to welcome the opportunities for us in the world’s growing multipolarity. Hiding behind US skirts will not protect us in the end: we need to contribute good ideas to the ANZUS alliance. Australia needs to move towards a smarter, more adept global diplomacy. There is uncertainty about the next US President and his or her quality of strategic judgement. The US will need wisdom and frankness from its allies, not blind loyalty. The unmourned departures of Abbott and Harper, Canada’s choice of a youthful open-minded Justin Trudeau, and David Cameron’s kow-towing to Xi Jinping during his recent state visit to London, all signal to Australia that it is time for a serious foreign policy audit.
Multipolarity will be good for Australia’s economy and security if we seize its opportunities for strengthened global and regional peace and security. We are well placed as a rich multicultural nation to contribute and benefit.
Neither the Coalition, nor Labor, nor the Departments of Defence and Foreign Affairs, nor the assessment agencies, show much sign of beginning to think about these challenges. It is time they did.