When Dean Acheson published his memoir of his time as US president Harry Truman’s secretary of state, he called it Present at the Creation. Acheson’s generation of American statesmen did, indeed, create the postwar world. They rescued Europe from financial ruin, established the institutions of global order and set the conditions for a long season of prosperity and relative peace.
But now, 70 years after the end of World War II, Acheson’s creation is beset on all sides. “When sorrows come,” warned Claudius in Hamlet, “they come not single spies but in battalions.”
From North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, there is chaos and civil war, with the black-flagged armies of Islamic State on the march. In West Africa, governments struggle to contain deadly epidemics. In Europe, the historic project to unite the continent looks shaky.
To the east, Vladimir Putin’s proxies shoot aircraft out of the sky. In Asia, navies test each other in disputed waters and neighbours exchange artillery fire. Technology is empowering malevolent forces as well as benevolent ones. Terrorist networks proliferate; nuclear weapons threaten to do so. There are more refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people now than at any time since World War II.
And all the while, the planet continues to heat up.
There is an Old Testament quality to this moment, with its war, plague, flood, fire and exodus. We have seen such horrors before, of course. What’s different this time is our seeming inability to confront them. The country around which the postwar order was constructed, the US, has inched back from the world, while powers such as China have stepped forward into it. The pillars supporting that order are weak. And the principles that define it are under challenge.
There is a growing sense, therefore, that we are present at the destruction — the destruction of a world order that has served Australia’s interests well. The US emerged from World War II in a commanding position. America’s economy represented nearly half the global economy; America’s scientists alone had mastered the atom. In the years that followed, the US drew like-minded Western countries around it to contain the Soviet Union.
There were violent conflicts at the peripheries of the international system but not at the centre. Washington built a new kind of order defined by shared norms such as democratic government and economic liberalism, and embedded in alliances, agreements and multilateral institutions. As historian John Lewis Gaddis observes, the US established hegemony over half the world not by conquest but by consent.
Then, in 1991, America’s only rival conceded defeat and the world switched from a bipolar system to a unipolar one. The hegemony over the West that was achieved by the US during the Cold War became the new world order. The only option presented to Russia and China was to become stakeholders in our enterprise — if they promised to be responsible stakeholders. A liberal international order settled over the earth. Or so we thought.
Now, a quarter-century on, the scales have fallen from our eyes. The contests between nation-states and between ideologies have resumed. Co-operation between great powers is declining, not increasing. Unipolarity has given way to multipolarity. Geopolitics has returned. Every day, the liberal international order becomes less liberal, less international and less orderly.
One reason for this trend is the diffusion of power across the international system. For most of Australia’s history, the world was run by countries like our own. When a quarter of the globe was coloured red, we were part of the British Empire. Throughout the Pax Americana, Australia has been a treaty ally of the US.
Now, however, our “great and powerful friends” are becoming less great and less powerful.
I have always been sceptical of the more lurid claims about US decline, but it is undeniable that as other nations rise, America’s margin of superiority over them shrinks.
In each of the three most significant global theatres — Europe, the Middle East and Asia — strong challengers to the liberal order are stepping up.
Russia seeks to establish a sphere of influence in its corner of Europe. Iran is taking advantage of the turmoil in the Middle East to extend its power in the Arab world. There is a third power, of course, that is challenging the existing order. But China’s challenge is unlike the others. Compared with the brittleness of Europe and the bleakness of the Middle East, prospects in Asia appear bright. After all, wealth and power are shifting eastwards, towards us.
Impressive Asian economic growth in recent decades has transformed the region and lifted a billion people out of poverty. Asia remains the most dynamic part of the world, accounting for 40 per cent of global gross domestic product but nearly two-thirds of global growth. There are certainly risks ahead, including in China. Nevertheless, before the middle of the century the region is likely to represent half of global output, thereby regaining the dominant economic position it held before the Industrial Revolution — and before Australian Federation.
For a country such as Australia, with an economy that is so interconnected with Asia’s economies, this is exhilarating. It holds out tremendous opportunities for us.
What kind of role does China intend to play? My sense is that it aspires to be the pre-eminent power in Asia. It wants a regional order focused on China, rather than the US. If this is Beijing’s long-term goal, however, there is a notable dualism to its international tactics. Sometimes we see skilful diplomacy, such as last year’s climate deal with the US, or the establishment of new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Australia, in which he completed a tour of all of Australia’s states and territories. “I don’t know whether I can get a certificate for that,” he joked in his speech to parliament.
But sometimes China’s rising confidence and ambition are expressed in other ways. Beijing’s tough approach to territorial issues in its near seas, as well as its new assertiveness in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere, is pushing other regional players such as Japan, The Philippines, Vietnam and India, closer together — and closer to the US. The division of the world by some Chinese officials into “big countries” and “small countries” is disturbing to those who fall on the wrong side of that line. I prefer President Xi’s description of a “community of common destiny” in which all countries respect each other as equals — provided, of course, that the reality matches the rhetoric.
Once, when the world’s head was turned by US power, China’s foreign policy escaped scrutiny. No longer. The old principle applies: with great power comes great responsibility.
This is the grand opera we will see play out in coming decades. When these epics were set in Europe and the Middle East, Australians were usually bit players. Now we are out on the stage with the lead actors. I wonder whether Australians fully appreciate the extent to which our position is being transformed.
Edited extract from the first of four lectures in the 2015 ABC Boyer Lecture Series, A Larger Australia, presented by Michael Fullilove. The audio and transcript of the full lecture is available on ABC RN from noon today; abc.net.au/rn.