In his 2014 book Dangerous Allies, Malcolm Fraser issued Australians with a timely warning. He pointed out that the America with which Australia had signed the ANZUS treaty way back in 1951 is a very different country to the “great and powerful friend” we imagined it to be at the end of World War II. Its internal politics are riven with religious fundamentalisms, factionalised political parties, gun-toting madmen culturally and politically licensed by the NRA and elements in the Republican Party, narrowly-conceived identity politics, worsening economic divides, decaying cities, a class-based culture of populist resentment, and major cultural and political differences emerging among the states in the Union.
The most recent evidence of deep cultural fissures opening up across the Union is the state of Alabama’s new anti-abortion law. Similar laws are championed by a gaggle of Deep South states that are still home to remnants of the Ku Klux Klan, the NRA, and where the politics of rednecks, racists and sexists infuse the Republican Party with dreams of reviving the separatism that drove the Civil War. A majority of voters in the Deep South and the Mid-West have contrasting values and outlooks to voters in, say, New Jersey, New York or California. Chicago’s political culture is significantly different to that of Oklahoma City, Little Rock in Arkansas, or Jackson in Mississippi. Most voters in San Francisco have little in common with most citizens of Baton Rouge in Louisiana.
This all points to the fact that the United States of America has always been a fragile political imaginary. There are very deep cultural, linguistic, religious, ethnic, economic, and historical cleavages criss-crossing the Union that are beginning to bubble up, threatening the integrity of the American federation. Their portent has become more ominous in the wake of the ravages of neoliberalism (Reaganomics) that have sent so many American manufacturing industries and jobs off-shore while increasing economic inequalities across the regions. Sadly, so many of the victims of Reaganomics blindly believe that a demagogue like Donald Trump can lead them out of the neoliberal wilderness into a promised land of an America that is great again. They could not be more mistaken.
The fragility of the American imaginary also points to another historical reality facing over-blown states like the USA. In The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, the political historian Paul Kennedy charted the histories of big powers over 500 years. While the examples he surveyed experienced periods of regional or global dominance, they all subsequently declined. It is the ultimate fate, he decided, of big powers, once risen, to fall.
Speculating about the Cold War stand-off between the USSR and the USA he noted that “the broad trends of the past five centuries are likely to continue.” He even speculated that both of the Cold War superpowers were set to decline, just like their historical forebears. This aspect of his thesis has been widely criticised. However, the USSR did go on to implode. The question is: Is the USA likely to follow suite?
As Professor Kennedy observed: “… there exists a dynamic for change, driven chiefly by economic and technological developments which then impact upon social structures, political systems, military power, and the position of individual states and empires.” In the twenty-first century the speed of economic and technological developments has increased exponentially. In America those developments are impacting on the country’s social structures, its politics, its military, and its hegemonic sway across the globe, placing terrible strains on its institutions of representative government, its economy and society (or economies and societies), its military-industrial complex, and its federal system.
In the era of Trump these strains are intensifying. If he secures a second term as President, they are likely to be stretched even further, possible to breaking point. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a state like California could therefore move to disengage from the Union. It has an economy and political culture that is significantly divergent from states in the Mid-West and Deep South. If confronted by a slew of illiberal policy decisions by Washington, it could well begin to question the relevance of remaining in the American federal system. If this is aggravated by conservative constitutional judgements handed down by an unbalanced Supreme Court (e.g., anti-abortion or anti-same sex marriage decisions), California could see a future in breaking away from the Union – just as states in the old Soviet Union asserted their independence after 1989.
Whatever happens, there can be no doubt that a more isolationist and disrupted (and disruptive) America is in the offing. As is the way of declining great powers, it is likely to respond belligerently to challenges from rising powers. We see this already in Washington’s inchoate responses to China’s re-emergence, to North Korea’s provocations, to Vladimir Putin’s chest-thumping, and Iran’s reactions to US sanctions. America is showing all the signs of a great power in decline. There is little evidence among its current political class that there are leaders with the political wisdom and moral gravitas needed to guide the USA through its current crisis.
It’s time therefore for Australians to ask whether a close alliance with the United States (which Noam Chomsky long ago labelled a “failed state”) is now in Australia’s national interest. Trump’s record of policy chaos and his tweeted contempt for many of America’s traditional allies are matters Australians have to take very seriously. Moreover, it would be naïve to imagine that once Trump has gone (whether that be at the end of 2020 or 2024) things will return to normal – whatever “normal” means in America today. Trump is merely symptomatic of an America that is on the brink of a ravine of political convulsion which could well be the beginning of that country’s endgame.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based political scientist.