Will Australia be safe?
Whether or not you’re inclined to celebrate the fact, or lament it, American hegemony is over.
This is not to suggest that the US is no longer the paramount super power on the planet. It is, and will remain for some time, the strongest force in the World both militarily, economically, and culturally (the latter a form of power which should never be underestimated).
But the geopolitical reality of today means that the American state no longer holds a monopoly over the global order.
To contextualise the current situation it is prudent to reflect on how we got here. For most of the past century, the World balanced between two sparring nuclear superpowers, the USA and the USSR.
Both had diametrically opposed ideologies and agendas, but both realised that if their tense Cold War escalated to a Hot War, the existence of humanity was likely at stake. It was a notion called Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD Theory. While both parties would fund, arm, and support the conflicts on the fringes, neither nation was prepared to risk the US Army and Red Army coming into direct conflict, because the consequences were existential for everyone.
For anyone that lived through it, it was tense, but history ended up recording it as a period of relative peace (by broader historical standards). MAD Theory may have actually prevented a number of Wars, including the seemingly inevitable World War Three.
Under its own weight, the Soviet Union eventually collapsed in the early 1990’s, and Russia all but disappeared as an international geopolitical force. It maintained its intimidating and vast nuclear arsenal, but its desire to exert its influence beyond its immediate geographic sphere of influence all but vanished, focussing instead on merely holding itself together.
This brought on an era of US hegemony. There still existed a number of nuclear armed States, but the US were the unchallenged absolute super power on the planet. They could, if they so desired, launch military activity in any corner of the planet… unless it had a nuclear deterrent.
This is, to point out the obvious, why States like Iran and North Korea have been so keen to obtain such a deterrent. In the face of the greatest military force the World has ever known, a nuclear cost was the only one the US would likely not be prepared to pay.
But beyond the handful of States that held this capability (United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan… and likely Israel), the US could advance its interests by any means it desired.
So what has changed? US military superiority remains, and despite the best efforts of North Korea and Iran, no new States have the nuclear trigger at their disposal?
What has changed is the way the existing nuclear states see themselves in the World.
The result of the rise of Putin is clear for all to see. A cultivated nationalism intent on rebuilding an empire requiring expansion by force.
The monopolisation of power under one man in China, under President Xi, has seen its economic evolution develop an appetite for comparative geopolitical influence. Xi not only sees the economic benefits of a more outward looking and aggressive Chinese foreign policy, but he sees the domestic value of propagating the foreign threat, and the insistence that the US, in particular, was committed to oppressing Chinese success.
Add to this the increasingly concerning rise of Hindu Nationalism in India under President Modhi, and suddenly the World’s largest democracy sees itself as a more independent and confident, if not aggressive, geopolitical power.
What makes this environment even more tense is the advent of nuclear capable hypersonic missiles. The means by which any nation can defend itself against a hypersonic nuclear attack are now terrifyingly sparse. The only defence is, once again, the deterrent of MAD theory. The knowledge that if you throw a missile towards us, we’ll throw one back before your one lands.
How this changing posture among nuclear States has manifested itself today is a mad rush from many non-nuclear States to ensure they exist under someone else’s “nuclear umbrella”.
Australia has long hung its national security upon the widely held expectation that an attack on Australia was as good as an attack on the USA… it is largely enshrined in the ANZUS Treaty, but it is a reminder why investing in our relationship with the US remains at the core of Australian foreign policy, regardless of which party holds office.
The consequences of finding your nation outside a nuclear umbrella in the current climate have been made tragically apparent for all to see in Ukraine. The fact Western troops refuse to enter the battlefield in defence of a European democracy under attack exemplifies the anarchy that exists when MAD Theory is not in play. If you are not clearly and obviously under the protection of a nuclear state… and you become the subject of interest of another nuclear state, you are on your own.
In 2022, neutrality means vulnerability.
We find ourselves in a familiar situation for those that lived through the Cold War. If a nation does not clearly declare itself within the borders of a sphere of influence, it risks becoming the front line. This is why nations like Finland and Sweden have reversed decades of popular non-alignment and urgently requested the protection of NATO collective security.
This is why AUKUS exists, it is why The Quad exists, and it is why Australia is spending billions of dollars to purchase military hardware from the US. Australia is geographically in the middle of nowhere; we need any potential aggressor to be left in no doubt where we lie geopolitically.
It is easy to critique US foreign policy failings; there are many to choose from. I have personally spoken at protests against their invasions, and vociferously condemned their human rights abuses. But when assessing Australia’s foreign policy choices, the question must be asked… if not the US, whose nuclear umbrella would you prefer we shelter under?
There is a reason that the only Nations that seek the protection of Russia and China are dictatorships led by men intent on protecting their own power. No free people would desire the influence of China or Russia on their country.
Our partnership with the US is tried, tested, and reinforced by culture, tradition, and language. Most importantly though, the US at least aspires to promote the democratic norms upon which our entire political system rests. If the US was ever to waiver from its own democratic institutions (not unfathomable in a country yet to confront Trump 2024) then Australia could find itself in a state of isolation it has never known.
Having enjoyed the protection of pax-Britannia since its discovery by the outside World, the duty of saviour was passed almost seamlessly to our American friends during the Second World War. If their interest in our defence was to wane, we could find ourselves scrambling for a new nuclear umbrella to hide under.
The AUKUS agreement is a clear indication that the “mother country”, the United Kingdom, could remake its role as its colony’s lord protector, but the domestic appetite to defend borders beyond their own should not be conflated with America’s.
In summary, we have entered a period of relative geopolitical uncertainty, that at the same time heralds a return to military certainty. The borders for the new multi-polar cold war are being quickly set in stone. Once they are in place, only madness would threaten their status.
Madness, in a World saturated by deluded dictators, is perhaps an incredibly low bar to preserve the existence of our species… but it has worked so far.