ALLAN PATIENCE. American realism versus Australian independence.

Sep 2, 2019

During his recent visit to Australia, the American International Relations scholar, Professor John Mearsheimer, warned his Australian hosts that the United States superpower would not tolerate any serious deviation by Canberra away from the ANZUS alliance – for example, by aligning with China against the USA. He was echoing George W. Bush’s warning that “you’re either with us [the USA], or against us.” Mearsheimer’s message was brutally clear: Australia has no choice other than to remain a loyal ally of the USA, come what may, even in the Trump era. His policy prescriptions were absurdly simplistic and morally repugnant.  

In academic circles Mearsheimer is known as an “offensive realist,” a believer that global affairs are driven primarily by powerful states – might may not be right, but at the end of the day, it is all that matters. Reiterating the central theme of his 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, he noted with cocksure confidence that the United States is economically and militarily the greatest power on earth and will remain so for the foreseeable future. As with all “great powers” in history, he enthused, the USA therefore will always seek to consolidate and extend its power, aggressively if necessary. That’s the way of international politics, like it or lump it.

Mearsheimer noted that the only power challenging America’s hegemony in the contemporary Asia Pacific is China. He believes that a major conflict between the two powers is all but inevitable. He is nonetheless confident that China would come out second best from such a war.

But will it? Consider, for example, major wars instigated by America since World War II.

Think of the Korean War. For all Mearsheimer’s bluster about America’s military supremacy, the Korean War ended in stalemate (although whether it has “ended” is a moot point). The North Koreans and their Chinese allies pushed the Americans and their allies back to the 38th parallel. That festering stalemate persists to the present day. This was no great victory by a great power. It was a significant American failure of strategy and over-reach.

Think of the Vietnam War. The “tragedy” of the great power in this war was its humiliating defeat by a largely peasant army that sent the Americans (and their allies) packing, with their tails firmly between their legs. That war also showed how the US military is anything but a disciplined, united and reliable force in battle. Ill-disciplined soldiers, some drug addicted, some going AWOL, others who mutinied against their officers (even blowing some of them up – “fragging” as the practice was called), were stricken by low morale and were ultimately defeated by an enemy who (by contrast) unequivocally believed in its cause.

It is the war in Iraq that shows how hopelessly unprepared the Americans were for a conflict which they fought on utterly spurious grounds and which has resulted in an appalling mess. Iraq today is a violent, corrupt, madhouse of a country – a direct result of America’s maladroit and malevolent conduct there.

Afghanistan has been militarily vandalised by the United States’ intervention, ensuring that Taliban and ISIS thugs will carve up that tragic country as soon as Trump can extract the remaining American forces from what is clearly a failed war zone.

The sheer craziness of Trump’s withdrawal from the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran has set a fuse burning that any day now could explode into all-out war.

And then there is the Syrian catastrophe. And now the Strait of Hormuz …

Meanwhile, the CIA and their  bullneck mates who run the American military-industrial complex continue to covertly – and at times overtly – interfere in other state’s affairs, not in order to extend America’s greatness as a civilising (democratising?) power in world affairs, but to make vast profits for themselves and their share-holders.

What Mearsheimer depicts as a great power wielding power greatly reveals, in reality (a word Mearsheimer likes), a state that has unleashed more violence across the globe with very little to show for it, that has broken international law more frequently, and that has failed to achieve its stated objectives in almost all of the conflicts it has either started or escalated into full-blown war.

In short, the real “tragedy” of Mearsheimer’s great power theorising is that the American superpower has been consistently unsuccessful in its military adventurism. This is the major reason why Trump’s isolationism is so applauded by his populist base. Imagine if the USA had avoided rushing into most of those conflicts. How much better off would its economy – and the world economy – be today? And how much less conflicted would the world be today?

In sermonising to his meek Australian audiences, the Chicago professor preached that this country faces an either/or scenario in regard to its security policy-making. It’s either the USA or China. As far as Australia is concerned, the tragedy of great powers, he asserted, means that there is, in effect, no other choice. He warned that if Australia were foolish enough to choose China, we would immediately become an enemy of the USA. (This gainsays the question: Why would Australia ever want to ally with China in the manner he is intimating?)

Implicit in the Mearsheimer doctrine is the belief that China will, ipso facto, be precisely the kind of “great power” that the Chicago professor thinks great powers ought to be. The fact that the USA is not – nor ever has been – that kind of great power seems beyond his comprehension.

China’s history as a great power suggests that its contemporary configuring of its undoubted growing regional might could make it something quite different from the realist nightmares (or are they dreams?) of John Mearsheimer. However, this will significantly depend on how America and the rest of the world respond to China’s re-emergence as a formidable power in twenty-first century global affairs. Let’s hope that response will not be the same as when Japan sought acceptance into the International Relations club early in the twentieth century.

What Mr Mearsheimer needs to understand is that Australia doesn’t have to choose between either of the powers threatening each other (and the region) across the Pacific Ocean. Indeed, Australia could plot a course in two quite different directions, if its policy-makers only had the intelligence and moral courage to do so.

First, Australia could aim to become an independent state, allied with no-one and friend of everyone. As Hugh White (an infinitely more sophisticated realist than Mearsheimer will ever be) has pointed out, this would require a substantial up-grading of our defence capability.

Secondly, we could seek to find allies with similar interests to stand up to the great power bullies. This could involve something like the old Non-Aligned Movement with a radical plan for containing the madnesses of great powers across the globe – a movement that recognises that the real tragedy of great power politics is that all great powers are evil.

Australia doesn’t need to be lectured to by professors suffering from Cold War nostalgia and whose realism, in essence, is a form of propaganda lacking both empirical accuracy and ethical strength.

It’s time for Australia to become an independent global citizen.

Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based academic.

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