ALLAN PATIENCE. American realism versus Australian independence.

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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9 Responses to ALLAN PATIENCE. American realism versus Australian independence.

  1. John Doyle says:

    Even if we disagreed with Mearsheimer’s position, it will be the one the USA will use and prosecute. So we just have to agree but not act that way if our best interests lie elsewhere. Because it will be in some measure our best interest to stay onside with America. We should be able to cook up some wriggle room, but the USA is now a power in decline, it may just double down on its ever failing strategies. and we need to work with that.

  2. There is another side of the coin. I heard Mearsheimer on a radio broadcast and I thought he made a good point about the clash between strategic interest and economic interest. In a way it reminded me of the way Keynes sets the scene in “The Economic Consequences of the Peace.” The globalised, abundant world of 1913 disappeared overnight.

    The Chinese buy lots of iron ore from the Pilbara. It is good quality ore at competitive prices and the shipping distance is advantageous. But these commercial considerations will be over-ruled if we move from peace time thinking to war time.

  3. Stephen Allen says:

    An analogy to the author’s arguement is that the tragedy of the violent attempts of the murderer is the failure to murder. The author places the tragedy not with the victim but with the aggressor. This is typical of academic foreign relations as that of Mearshimmer. Academic foreign relations is about strategy between combatants (things wit power). It has nothing to do with oppressive Western plutocratic corporate imperialism destruction of communism or socialism or other political systems that stand against its imperialist endeavours.
    The author also naively considers the answer one of courage and intelligence of policy makers. Firstly, the author does not disclose who in fact makes our relations with the US of A a policy, and indeed how this relation is a policy. If it is indeed policy, which it is not, it is naive to consider that the party advisors, the parliamentarians, their advisors or heads of dept treat these relations as a matter of “policy” to be debated, directed, reconsidered …. no these relations are a matter of policy as much as our head of state is a matter of policy, well indeed less of a policy.
    ….

  4. Ordan Andreevski says:

    Australia faces many obstacles which prevent it from becoming a truly independent state.

    Australia like Britain has been transformed into a single ideology state (Curtis, 2003). Our foreign and defence policies have been shaped and managed by a domestic elite that shares the basic viewpoint on all major aspects of foreign and defence policy. This elite spans the influential figures in the mainstream parties, the public service and technocrats who implement the foreign and defence policies. It also includes senior academic, think tanks and media organisations who shape public opinion. This elite promotes the basic pillars of Australia’s role in the world such as unquestioned support for the US and nurturing a special relationship with the hegemon, maintaining a strong interventionist military and using it at short notice. It also involves supporting brutal and other regimes around the world who do not question the status quo. As Gyngell (2017) has noted Australians will eventually shift from this position when new Australian citizens from the Middle East, China, India and other countries like Macedonia, start fresh national, parliamentary and foreign policy debates with a less Anglo-US centric focus.

    Curtis, M (2003) Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.
    Gyngell, A (2017) Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the world since 1942

  5. Australia faces many obstacles which prevent it from becoming a truly independent state.

    Australia like Britain has traditionally been a single ideology state (Curtis, 2003). Our foreign and defence policies have been shaped and managed by a domestic elite which shares the basic viewpoint on all major aspects of foreign and defence policy. This elite spans the influential figures in the mainstream parties, the public service and technocrats who implement the foreign and defence policies. It also includes senior academic, think tanks and media organisations who shape public opinion. This elite promotes the basic pillars of Australia’s role in the world such as unquestioned support for the US and nurturing a special relationship with the hegemon, maintaining a strong interventionist military and using it at short notice. It also involves supporting brutal and other regimes around the world who do not question the status quo. As Gyngell (2017) has noted Australians will eventually shift from this position when new Australian citizens from the Middle East, China, India and other countries like Macedonia, start new national, parliamentary and foreign policy debates with a less Anglo-US centric focus.

    Curtis, M (2003) Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.
    Gyngell, A (2017) Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the world since 1942

  6. Rob Stewart says:

    Agree with the view that Mearsheimer is pretty odious, but he’s in good company with the likes of Bolton and Pompeo and of course the Orange Monstrosity running the show. However, in terms of the two options for coursing a different path, while it makes perfect sense, I think Mearsheimer’s point is that whether we have the courage to do it (and I doubt we have), we, according to Mearsheimer will not be allowed to do it. Our imperialist kakistocratic masters in the military industrial complex of the failed state of the USA will not permit it, and we can shove that idea into our democracy sausages and eat it.

    While Allan demonstrates the utter incompetence and failure of the USA to win wars (I think that’s why Trump likes the idea of using nukes) the USA is rather good at destroying countries that don’t do as they’re told in other, often non-military ways. Latin America, the US “backyard” is littered with them – Venezuela is the current demonstration project, showing the destruction of states and socialist leaning pinko regimes that think they might like to act independently. So, I think what Mearsheimer is saying to Australia is that you’re either with us or against us, and if you’re against us we will turn you into the Venezeula of the Pacific.

    While

  7. Niall McLaren says:

    ….the American military-infested complex

  8. Kien Choong says:

    On Mearsheimer’s confidence that “China would come out second best”, it’s puzzling why anyone (especially an academic) would make unconditional predictions. History teaches us that legitimacy matters a great deal.

    The US lost the Vietnam war when its illegitimacy became clear; whereas the Vietnamese would fight to the end given the legitimacy of their cause. Despite the fall of France, Britain remained determined to fight to the end; whereas Nazi Germany eventually lost despite its initial overwhelming success.

    China would surely prevail in any unprovoked attack. On the other hand, China would quickly lose if it were the aggressor.

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