Pull our weight: Renewed concerns emerge over new wave of US … – Defence Connect

For most people alive today, they have no lived memory of the world without America’s role as the “Leader of the Free World”. However, the American peace of the last eight decades is a historic aberration, with renewed concerns about a period of US isolationism in the face of great power competition spelling trouble for many US allies, especially Australia.

It is an indisputable fact that much of the peace, prosperity, and stability of the post-Second World War paradigm came as a direct result of the US-led global order, or as it would become known over the last three decades: Pax Americana or the “American Peace”.

By putting an end to the often-ancient civilisational and ethnic 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, industrialisation, and wealth development across the globe, paving the way for the modern, interconnected global economy and period of innovation we enjoy today – for nations like Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and Western Europe, which have served as the major beneficiaries of this new globalised world and radically new approach, ironed out at the Bretton Woods Conference, and then more drastically implemented policies like the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe following the devastation of the Second World War.

However, now in this era of renewed great power competition, this golden era of Pax Americana is now coming to an end, reverting the world to a more historically “normal” reality.

By far, the most central characteristic of this history is the utter dominance of a small number of nations, empires or kingdoms over others, which created what is often described as a lopsided approach to the geopolitical concept of polarity, making the world a tricky environment in which to operate, particularly for middle and emerging powers.


Leading the charge for this new, increasingly contested multipolar world is Mao, and now Xi’s China, seeking to leverage its now immense economic, political, and strategic might to right the wrongs of the past, namely the “century of humiliation” at the hands of colonial empires, with its eyes firmly set on usurping the global status quo.

In contrast to the United States, the incumbent global hegemon, which has spent the last three decades of unrivalled dominance and optimism post-Cold War actively engaging in policies that have seen a hollowing out of the once-unrivalled US economic and industrial base, and disastrous forays in military adventurism in the Middle East and Central Asia.

At home, the impacts of Pax Americana have come home to roost, with increasing domestic political polarisation. Adventurism fatigue has seen the rise of political leaders like former president Donald Trump advocating for a policy of reduced American presence abroad and transactional foreign policy in an attempt to break the cycle of dependence and complacency seemingly commonplace among America’s global allies.

Highlighting this concern, Joseph S. Nye Jr, Harvard University distinguished service professor and former assistant secretary of the US Department of Defense, has highlighted the growing concern about a return of US isolationism in a similar manner to how isolationism dominated America’s interwar foreign policy in a piece titled, Is America reverting to isolationism?

A mixed history of engagement and isolation

Nye’s immediate emphasis centres on the recent Republican debate, sans Donald Trump, and the mixed consensus among the Republican field that America needs a period of internal focus rather than repeated interventions across the globe.

“The first debate between the Republican Party’s candidates for next year’s US presidential election revealed major schisms over foreign policy. While former US Vice-President Mike Pence and former US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley defended America’s support for Ukraine in Russia’s war of aggression, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and businessman Vivek Ramaswamy expressed scepticism. Former president Donald Trump – the unquestioned frontrunner – skipped the event, but he, too, has objected to US involvement in that conflict,” Nye states.

This growing sentiment among the Republican field echoes a growing feeling across the rust belt and agricultural states hollowed out by a myriad of catastrophes, ranging from the offshoring out of America’s industrial base and factory jobs, the ravages of the opioid crisis and the urban shift, resulting in a rapidly shifting base of the Republican Party from the traditional base of the metropolitan elite to the more blue collar, working-class emphasis.

Nye highlights this broader shift in the nature and sentiment of the American public as part of a broader historic attitude of the American populace, stating, “Historically, American public opinion has oscillated between extroversion and retrenchment. Having witnessed the tragic consequences of the isolationism of the 1930s, President Franklin D Roosevelt launched the process that culminated in the creation of the Bretton Woods institutions in 1944 and the United Nations in 1945. President Harry Truman’s post-war decisions then led to permanent alliances and a continual US military presence abroad. The United States invested heavily in European reconstruction through the Marshall Plan in 1948, created NATO in 1949 and led the UN coalition that fought in Korea in 1950.”

Unpacking this shift further, Nye states these actions were based in a realistic view of the world, These actions were part of a realist strategy to contain Soviet power. But containment was interpreted in various ways, and Americans later had bitter, often partisan debates over interventions in developing countries like Vietnam and Iraq. Still, while the ethics of intervention were called into question, the value of sustaining a liberal institutional order was much less controversial. As the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed, the ‘fortunate vagueness’ of liberal internationalism had saved it from succumbing to ideological rigidity.”

This reality only becomes more concerning in the context of the broader realignment underway, namely following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 and the repeated antagonism by China towards Taiwan.

These aren’t the only such examples of an increasingly multipolar world, with the rise of parallel multilateral organisations like BRICS playing a central role in the emerging multipolarity of the global power dynamics, adding an additional layer of complexity to rapidly evolving regional power paradigm in the event of US isolationism.

Nye highlights this stating, Although full-scale 1930s-style isolationism is highly unlikely, many analysts still worry that a failure to support Ukraine could signal a return to American retrenchment, auguring a serious weakening of the international order. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion was a blatant violation of the UN charter. If Russia prevails in occupying Ukrainian territory, it will have undercut the liberal principle prohibiting the use of force to alter a country’s borders. The solidarity among NATO countries in applying sanctions and supplying military equipment to Ukraine thus is not only moral, but also practical and realistic.”

Despite the very real threats on the horizon, the growing domestic sentiment from one of the major parties, the potential for a reversion to a measured form of isolationism presents significant challenges for global allies like Australia which have become heavily dependent on the United States for its strategic umbrella.

Implications for Australia

Enter former defence minister, one time Prime Ministerial contender, former ambassador to Washington, and former West Australian governor Kim Beazley, who, speaking with Peter Jennings for ASPI, has issued a concerning warning for Australia, warning “Australia’s armed forces must be ready for the worst”.

For Beazley, Australia’s hard lessons, learned through the crucible of the mid-to-late 20th century – namely the US pseudo-withdrawal from the region following the disastrous Vietnam conflict and waning US public support for expeditionary, pre-emptive conflicts – placed great pressure on Australia, as Beazley states, “I thought that Nixon had done us an enormous favour by telling that the US, like God, helped those who helped themselves. And so he actually made it easy to do a shift in the character of Australian policy.”

Ironically, this push resulted in the 1986 Dibb Report and the subsequent 1987 Defence White Paper, which advocated for Australia to focus on the “Defence of Australia”, shifting away from the forward-leaning posture of “Forward Defence” – ironically, with Australia abrogating its responsibilities and interests through Southeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific for the safety and security of a larger role for the United States, despite what will be argued in response.

However, in doing so, this, combined with the ensuing peace dividend in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union meant Australia could get away with effectively doing less and spending less, something Beazley expands upon saying, “History has a way of correcting anomalies, and in many ways, we are an anomaly. And that means we have to be not so laid back. We have to be clever.”

Equally, the government will be required to buy what we actually need, based on serious, considered strategic assessment and analysis that is heavily engaged in the acquisition process from the earliest stages of conception, Beazley adds, “We have never done defence on that basis, since World War II.”

Final thoughts

Only by recognising the relative decline of the United States and accepting that the United States has real limitations can Australia truly begin to take stock of the challenges of operating in this increasingly multipolar world.

However, it is critical for us to understand that Australia’s security, prosperity, and stability will not be determined by events in Europe, nor will they be determined by circumstances in the Middle East, while they may influence circumstance, our national future will not be determined by these areas.

It is important to highlight that in the coming era of multipolarity, Australia will face an increasingly competitive Indo-Pacific. Indeed, separate to the People’s Republic of China, our immediate region is home to some of the world’s largest populations with its fastest growing economies with their own unique designs and economic, political, and strategic ambitions for the region.

Rather, we have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world. Underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan, in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.

Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers need to look beyond the myopic lens that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policy making since Federation.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific. The most important question now becomes, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see a narrative that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Stephen Kuper

Steve has an extensive career across government, defence industry and advocacy, having previously worked for cabinet ministers at both Federal and State levels.

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