The United States is in decline, with AUKUS, so too is Australia

Apr 8, 2023
AUKUS banner with USA, UK, Australia flag icons. American, British, Australian security alliance pact design.

It is all but finalised. Australia has handcuffed itself, essentially in perpetuity, to the United States. As a result, Australia’s future is inextricably intertwined with the future of the United States.

One of the first steps in any military planning activity is to conduct an ‘own troops’ analysis, to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your own force. An important and necessary pre-requisite for developing a strategy that has a realistic chance of success.

In 2018 whilst serving in the Australian Army, I submitted a paper to The Australian Defence Force Journal which was essentially an own troops analysis of Australia’s ally, the United States. The thesis of the paper (which was not published) was that the United States centre of gravity was the dominance of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Four interlinked pillars were examined that supported this “exorbitant privilege”, being the military, information, and economic dominance of the United States along with supportive client states. The paper suggested that these pillars were all under a great deal of stress and that “sooner or later one or more of these pillars [would] reach a critical state beyond which the whole edifice will collapse.”

Fast forward to the present and the indicators of a collapse of the United States imperial system are flashing red across all domains. Three key indicators, from a long list, include:
The abject failure of sanctions, unprecedented in scale and nature, to cripple the Russian economy.

The exponential growth in currency multipolarity deals, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Many countries now see that not only is trading using the United States Dollar a sovereign risk but there are alternative options.

The United States lacks the industrial capacity to match Russia (let alone China) in the military sphere.

The United States has of course faced significant challenges in the past, such as the Civil War, the Great Depression and the upheavals of the 1960s and 70s. How can we be certain that the United States won’t once again return to its former position as the global hegemon (and Australia’s security blanket)?

The law of diminishing returns provides the answer. Consider the enormous positive return on investment achieved via the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ceded large parts of the southwest of north America to the United States, or the imperial acquisition of the Philippines and other colonies. As with most successful empires, the initial territorial expansion had a hugely positive cost benefit ratio, which enabled the United States to establish its dominance and enjoy the spoils of imperial conquest for much of the 20th century.

The cost benefit ratio of United States military interventions has however turned decisively negative. From the Korean war, to Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan (and now Ukraine), despite the huge investment of its economic resources, the United States has gained little in the form of wealth to sustain its imperial system. As author John Michael Greer puts it, the United States’ imperial wealth pump is now largely pumping sand.

This is not to say that segments of the United States population have not done extremely well out of decades of military misadventures. War is after all a ‘racket’ as General Smedley Butler pointed out. But the resulting unequal distribution of wealth points to another characteristic of imperial collapse, which is that empires collapse from the periphery to the core.

A survey of the social and economic ills facing the internal periphery of the United States (the working and middle class), from homelessness, to drug use, falling life expectancies, crumbling infrastructure and a decaying social fabric, are another set of indicators that the United States is in decline.

As the marginal returns on investment in empire decline, as explained by Joseph Tainter in his classic work The Collapse of Complex Societies, an empire becomes increasingly at risk of collapse, unable to address new challenges as they arise with the resources available. Historically the result has been a reversion to a lower level of complexity – a collapse. In the United States’ current context, this would likely be operationalised as the giving up/loss of its empire. Not by choice, but by necessity.

This is the state and likely future direction of the country that Australia has handcuffed itself too.

The stridency and almost hysterical rhetoric emanating from the hawks in both the United States and Australia about the potential for a near term war with China is an indicator of desperation. China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty by avoiding war for decades, so the motivation for it to suddenly trigger a war and risk the prosperity upon which the legitimacy of the Chinese Government rests rings rather hollow. In comparison the United States aggressive policy of ‘containment’ of China reeks of the desperation of an empire slipping towards the abyss. The United States needs to significantly diminish the economic strength of China in the near term otherwise it will be too late (arguably it is already too late) to regain its hegemonic position. War appears to be the mechanism by which the nihilistic foreign policy of the United States seeks to achieve that aim.

It is unclear what if any benefit that Australia would gain from a war with China. But this is the path that we are on having been unable to separate our interests from those of the United States. The outcome of a conflict with China will be devastating for Australia’s future – win (with the destruction of the major engine of global economic growth) or more likely lose. What AUKUS highlights is that Australia does not have a strategy. What we have is an ideology. An ideology so deeply ingrained that the further down the path of decline the United States progresses, the tighter Australia’s embrace becomes. An embrace all but cemented by AUKUS.

In 2018 I concluded that:
“it is well past the time that Australia considers a future where the US imperial system is not at the heart of the international order. Rather than treating this change as a threat it should be viewed as a once in a century opportunity to redefine Australia’s position in the international order. Australia’s choice is as clear as it is difficult; either sink into a muddy morass with a declining empire or redefine our defence and foreign policy on our own terms within the emerging global order.”

That conclusion is even more relevant today than it was at the time. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity to escape from our potentially fatal embrace with the United States is closing. This self-inflicted tragedy in the waiting would see a grim future for Australia.

Is this the future ‘we’ want for our country? Is this the future Prime Minister Albanese or the Government wants for our country? I suspect not.

The one glimmer of hope that remains is that the path we are on can be averted, and averted in short order requiring only two resources: leadership and moral courage.

All it would take is for the Prime Minister to publicly and forthrightly state that Australia will not participate in a war against China under any circumstances, other than as an act of self-defence in the improbable event that China was to attack Australia. This the Prime Minister could do tomorrow.

Let’s hope that the Prime Minister has what it takes!

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