Time is well and truly of the essence with the heady days of elated victory following the collapse of the Soviet Union now over, yet for some reason, despite the deteriorating global and regional security environment, Australia seems intent on remaining ensconced in a delusional cocoon of false security.
Australia, like many nations around the world, is at the edge of a precipice of immense economic, political, and strategic change.
The post-Second World War order, established in the dying days of the war and formalised with the Bretton Woods Conference and the creation of the United Nations, set the stage for the period of stability, prosperity, and growth which transformed the world despite sporadic periods of tumult.
In putting an end to the often-ancient rivalries between varying imperial powers, the United States, through its post-war might, guaranteed the freedom of the seas and promoted an explosion of free trade and expansion of liberalism across the globe, paving the way for the modern, interconnected global economy and period of innovation we enjoy today.
Through this might, both conventional and its strategic arsenal, the United States established what has become known as a “strategic umbrella” where for greater input into their ally’s security policy and easier access to their markets, the United States would do the heavy lifting on the global geostrategic stage.
The end of the Cold War and the demise of ideological competition between the United States and Soviet Union heralded the end of the almost four centuries of great power competition and multipolarity, giving rise to the new US-led world order.
This “End of History”, as characterised by Francis Fukuyama, gave rise to a period of elated optimism and hubris, with many nations, including both the United States and Australia, falling into the trap of what would become known as the “Peace Dividend”.
For Australia, the “Peace Dividend” would provide an opportunity for the nation to default to its tried-and-true doctrine of strategic dependence on the world’s pre-eminent like-minded power as the outlook became more benevolent.
Still dealing with the hangover
In the aftermath of the celebrations that swept the world following the end of the Cold War, the re-emergence of Islamic terrorism and low-intensity humanitarian interventions preoccupied many nations.
This prompted many nations across the Western World to decrease the emphasis on “conventional military capabilities” in favour of a greater focus on diplomacy and, where necessary, niche, specialist forces tailored to meet the requirements of the “End of History”.
In contrast, nations like the humiliated Russian Federation and the now rising People’s Republic of China gathered their strength in order to rectify the wrongs of the past and reassert themselves as truly global powers.
This period of optimism and idealism in the West left many nations, Australia included, ill-prepared to face the resurgent ambitions and designs for the global order of nations like Russia and China.
In many ways, we continue to deal with the hangover from the party now nearly two decades ago.
Australia, in particular, has been slow to react to the mounting challenges we face both directly, and as part of the post-Second World War order.
Nowhere is this clearer than in our nation’s lacklustre response to Beijing’s mounting hostility towards the Indo-Pacific order and Australia, in particular.
Our new ‘Cold War’ reality
Much like the first iteration of the Cold War, this latest iteration has been kept below direct conflagration between the two competing major powers, with proxy conflicts the only circuit breaker at this stage.
Nevertheless, Cold War 2.0 is characterised by a more complex understanding of international power and the relative “tiers” as a means for understanding their position in this new global paradigm.
At the apex of this new hierarchy, we have competing great powers, including the United States, the People’s Republic of China, India, and to a lesser extent, Russia, followed by great power “adjacent” and emerging great power “adjacent” nations including Germany, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, Vietnam, and others.
Rounding out this new multipolar world are the middle powers, including Australia, Italy, Canada and minor, or developing powers largely across the “global south” of formerly colonial holdings, each with their own interests, ambitions, and designs for the global order and balance of power.
Further underpinning this international order are the multilateral organisations like the United Nations, World Bank, World Health Organisation, and the International Monetary Fund – all with their genesis in the waning years of the Second World War at the Bretton Woods Conference.
Yet for one side of this new “Cold War”, the “Western” genesis of this international order is increasingly drawing the ire from some of the world’s established and emerging great powers eager to shift this “Western-centric” world order in favour of the new world order.
In recent years, the post-Second World War global order has come under assault both directly and indirectly as emerging powers like China and India, backed by established powers, namely a resurgent and increasingly belligerent Russia, are all combining to begin building a parallel network of economic, political, and strategic organisations and arrangements to challenge the post-war global order.
Adding to this seemingly coordinated pushback against the US-led world order, Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China have equally sought to directly subvert and undermine the legitimacy and reputation of the United States and its multilateral international organisations that serve as the foundation of the post-war order.
Idealism v realism and our decades of failure
While Australia’s strategic malaise is not a new phenomenon, the current state of the malaise arguably dates back to the 2013 Defence White Paper and the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, both of which established the importance of the Indo-Pacific to our continuing economic, political, and strategic stability.
Yet despite this foundation and successive white papers reinforcing this reality and the necessity for new defence capabilities in particular, little has changed.
Indeed, it is now well recognised that the Australian Defence Force is in a position similar to that of a decade ago, with little progress made in the way of new capabilities being delivered to the ADF.
This is only reinforced by both the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the recently released Defence Strategic Review which establishes a number of key factors shaping the development and implementation of “National Defence” and the resulting creation of a “Focused Force” to reshape the nation in the era of great power competition.
It becomes increasingly clear in this instance that Australia is struggling to shake off the hangover of the “Peace Dividend” and to adjust to the new paradigm of competition placing us in an increasingly dangerous and vulnerable position.
In this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is a conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.
Dr Ross Babbage of the Centre for Strategic Budgetary Assessments told Defence Connect, “I think what we’ve got to show what’s the vision for Australia, you know, what can we achieve and what you know if we go on the trajectory we are on at the moment. I’ll tell you what, you know, a lot of people, a lot more people in a decade’s time are likely to be either in really dumb jobs or maybe not have jobs at all, and in the society be a lot weaker and will be a lot less prosperous.
“So what we want to say is, look, there’s plenty of scope for doing more and smarter things, encouraging investment to do that, and then there will be some very, very interesting additional jobs and opportunities, a lot of high tech, and so on, I can tell you that, you know, talking to foreign investors, they’re quite keen on principle to work here, and do a lot more here and provide a lot more good jobs for Australians,” he explained.
This requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers and elected officials and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.