Australia’s American dreaming is turning into a nightmare.

Jul 7, 2020

Since the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951, Australians have been living a dream that America shares their country’s cultural values, language and democratic institutions. They dream that they are safely cacooned in Tony Abbott’s beloved “anglosphere”, with the USA in the lead. As with all dreams, this fantasy has always had the flimsiest basis in reality. And today the dream is turning into a nightmare.

In 2017 Hugh White warned of the very real possibility that America “will cease to play a major strategic role in Asia, and China will take its place as the dominant power” (Quarterly Essay, 68, p. 1). Implicit in White’s warning is a view of America as a great power in decline.

That possibility was predicted back in the 1980s by the international historian Paul Kennedy: “Although the United States is at present still in a class of its own economically and perhaps even militarily, it cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the longevity of every major power […]: whether […] it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation’s perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain these commitments; and whether […] it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power from relative erosion in the face of ever-shifting patterns of global production” (The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, pp. 514-15).

Professor Kennedy’s analysis is more apposite today than when he first penned it. Its relevance is highlighted by Henry Kissinger’s prediction: “China, fulfilling its own interpretation of its national destiny, will continue to develop its economy and pursue a broad range of interests in Asia and beyond” (On China, p. 525). If anything, Kissinger under-estimated China’s achievements since the 1970s. China’s economy will soon outstrip America’s, its military might is expanding rapidly, and its use of soft and hard power diplomacy is progressing at an increasingly sophisticated rate.

Meanwhile, as ANU’s Brendan Taylor has pointed out: “The operational and maintenance costs of the US military are already exceeding inflation. The American public has no appetite for increased defence spending. In fact, mounting deficits and rising public debt mean that less of the federal budget will be available for defence in the future(Australian Foreign Affairs, 8, pp. 68-9).

The signs are now clearly available that America is in decline. Just as Britain’s empire collapsed after World War I, and as the old Soviet Union broke up after 1989, so the USA is on track to losing its status as the sole superpower. It may even be becoming a power with similar regional and global influence to Germany’s or France’s.

Meanwhile, the Trump saga grinds relentlessly on: a fake president at the helm with all the attributes of a hoodlum. He plunders America’s legal system with grotesquely unbalanced judicial appointments. He defends and pardons convicted criminals. He specialises in bald-faced lying while bellowing “alternative facts”. In response to the Black Lives Matter Movement he gleefully rubs salt into the unhealed wound of America’s deep racial divisions. He wilfully defies expert advice on issues as diverse as climate change, health care, and gun control. He is unspeakably spiteful to his political opponents. He regularly insults America’s long-standing allies, while cosying up to dictators like the appalling Vladimir Putin. And now he is crazily mishandling the spread of the coronavirus across America.

However, it’s important to recall that Trump’s fake promise to “Make America Great Again” is indicative of the USA’s naive self-belief in its exceptionalism in the modern world – in believing that it is the epitome of democracy and that it is the world’s rightful (self-righteous) policeman. Trump is a latter-day symptom of this self-mythologising, not by any means its cause. Moreover, America’s mythical exceptionalism is strikingly contradicted by the present condition of its society and economy.

The USA today is beset by the rampant growth of socio-economic inequality, a product of the destructive neoliberalism that has shaped the American economy over the past 40 years. The country’s prisons are overflowing. The Congress remains politically gridlocked. The gerrymandering of electorates is rife, with Republicans trying every trick in the book to suppress voter participation, especially African-American, First American, and Latino American voter participation. The insane violence of its gun culture continues to wreak havoc across the nation. Polluted water supplies and collapsing infrastructure in disintegrating cities are devastating the poor … Are these facts not irrefutable evidence that far from America returning to greatness, the country is on a downward spiral to national ignominy? It is even possible that the Union may soon begin to break apart.

This is the nightmare that slowly but surely is beginning to creep into the collective Australian psyche. Some Australians still gullibly prefer to think that once Trump is out of the way, things will return to some nostalgically imagined pre-Trumpian “normal.” Uncle Sam will become benevolent and trustworthy again. This is utter nonsense. America’s inexorable decline, which came under the spotlight during the Global Financial Crisis, will pick up momentum – especially but not only if Trump wins a second term.

Australia’s childish dependence on “great and powerful” friends is no longer a tenable position for the country to take. There are no such friends anymore and over the years that so-called “friendship” has mostly been a figment of Australia’s desperate imagining. It was never how Britain imagined its colonial relationship with Australia; nor has it been America’s imagining of the alliance throughout the lifetime of the ANZUS treaty.

It’s time for Australia to wake up. It’s time to snap out of the dependency mentality that has held this country back from successfully engaging with its most significant security and economic interests in Asia since the end of World War II. It means engaging intelligently with the geopolitics of Asia, carefully nuancing our diplomatic and trade relationship with China, while simultaneously building sensibly realistic alliances with like-minded regional and global partners.

It’s time for Australia to stop dreaming. It’s time to get over America.

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