Three political heavy weights loom threateningly over 2018: Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. All three lead dangerous nuclear-armed states. All three have elephantine egos squashing their intellects. As ultimate narcissists, each believes that his nation is embodied in himself (“L’état c’est moi!”). In this respect they are political dinosaurs because the problems that imperil their countries today – and the entire globe – require of today’s leaders a truly global vision. Their political extinction is much to be desired, but is depressingly unlikely. Whom among this ugly triumvirate can Australia trust as the New Year unfolds?
Since the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951 Australians have instinctively looked to America for security reassurance in the Asia Pacific. What this instinctiveness has failed to take into account is how rapidly the world is changing in terms of the risks to peace since the end of the Cold War. Instinctiveness is not the same thing as rational thinking. As Malcolm Fraser warned, the America that we signed ANZUS with nearly 70 years ago is not the same America today. Once an apparently “great and powerful friend” the USA today is a fractious, narcissitic power that Australia would be mad to rely on in the event of a regional or global crisis.
Back in 1951 the United States was a growing superpower, increasingly confident of its place in the world, the so-called leader of the free world. But a serial commitment to unwinnable wars, from Korea to Syria, has sapped the self-confidence of the US. As demonstrated during the Vietnam War, the morale of American soldiers is easily undermined when confronted by a determined enemy. Ill-discipline and even officer murder severely dented the reputation of US forces in Vietnam. And we should never forget the My Lai massacre. The torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere has furthered dishonored the United States’ reputation worldwide.
Additionally neoliberalism has devastated the American economy, still struggling in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis (which, let us not forget, originated in Wall Street). The America that neoliberalism has constructed is fragmented, populist, xenophobic and bitter about its decline as the sole global superpower. Under Trump it has lost its direction as a world leader and is arguably today the greatest threat to world peace – greater, that is, than the threats implicit in China’s re-emergence as a major power and Putin’s cynical reactions to Russia’s nearly three decades of post-Cold War humiliation. It could well be that the days of Trump’s presidency are numbered. But will things be different post-Trump? That is the question!
However, one thing is now abundantly clear: We can no longer trust America.
Vladimir Putin is not dissimilar to Donald Trump. His ego is way out of proportion to his intellect. He is utterly without a moral compass and maintains a ruthless grip on power. He panders to a populist version of Russian nationalism. Like Trump his popularity is likely to be hostage to fortune. If (as appears likely) he is unable to deal with Russia’s mounting economic, environmental and demographic crises, he will be swept away, sooner rather than later. Russia’s agonized history, its oppressed ethnic minorities, its confected nationalism that Putin uses so cynically to mobilize his purblind supporters, and its economic problems make it a terribly wounded bear roaring its frustrations across Eastern Europe and the world. It needs careful handling by the European Union and NATO – and both those clumsy organisations have been anything but careful in their treatment of the Russians in the post-Cold War era.
While Australia is reasonably secure from geopolitical threats from Russia, Canberra should be extremely cautious about policies and actions that will provoke Moscow’s adventurism in the Asia Pacific. That will require extremely adroit diplomacy with countries like Indonesia and Vietnam – an adroitness that is utterly lacking at present. And it will require rethinking the ANZUS alliance – freeing Australia from the self-imposed reputation of being America’s “deputy sheriff” in the region.
Unlike the other two in the triumvirate, Xi Jinping is here to stay – at least for the foreseeable future. His reign may even eclipse Mao’s malevolent years as the “great helmsman.” However, he comes from a very different historical culture to both Trump and Putin. Too often China is viewed in the west through a very western lens. It is not understood on its own historical and cultural terms.
President Xi is riding two tigers as he tries to guide China into its major global power future. First there is the economy tiger. While China’s current economic growth is phenomenal it is also extremely hard – potentially impossible – for the government to keep under control. The second tiger is the Chinese Communist Party – the CCP. Xi Jinping is seeking to refresh the party’s leadership, root out corruption, and streamline the bureaucracy. He knows full well that if he fails, so the CCP’s days will be numbered – and his and his family’s with it. Those in the west who think a post-CCP China will follow Taiwan and South Korea’s democratic trajectories are fooling themselves. A post-CCP China could well become a new form of fascist state. So there is every reason to hope that Xi can keep the tigers running in parallel.
So how should Australia position itself amidst these enormous challenges to global security? Should we turn right to a closer alliance with the United States (not simply joining but becoming bolted at the hip)? Should we turn left, to Beijing, the side on which economic bread is richly buttered? Both of these options are deeply problematic. Australia simply cannot trust either Washington or Beijing to respect Australia’s national interest. All big states are always self-focused. They will happily make alliances when it is in their interests to do so – but only when it is in their interests.
The foreign policy route Australia must take is neither to the right or the left. It must proceed straight ahead to become an independent middle power beholden to no ally, but ready to cooperate with any reliable state wherever mutual benefits are assured. And the irony of all this is that President Xi – amongst that worrying triumvirate looming over 2018 – is the least untrustworthy of them all.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne academic.