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In realising the complicated nature of the world around us, it is often too easy to dismiss geo-political interactions as random; perhaps devoid of logic. However in actuality, State behaviour can be characterised by specific ideological traits. The most common of these ideologies, that has stood the test of time, is Realism.
As defined by Jonathan Haslem, Realism tells us that States act in ways that further their own pursuit of power: economic and overt. Regardless of political philosophies, States will seek supremacy and that this ultimately formulates the decisions those States make internally and internationally. Governments however, particularly in democracies, are prone to mask their realist intentions behind political or principle walls. These justifications usually dominate the national psyche, enabling governments to act with popular support that may not have been given if the action was purely to gain more power.
If we are to assume that Realist theory is the dominant, notwithstanding the hidden, theory that drives international relations then we must also understand its cyclical nature. Throughout history, certain States have accumulated enough power to enforce their will on the rest of the world. In these periods, it is relatively peaceful, as the monopoly maintains their global control. However, when these ‘superpowers’ begin to decline, the world enters a state of flux, where the other powerful States act opportunely in order to become the next power. Most recently, the United States has been able to force its will onto the rest of the World. After ‘winning’ the Cold War through brinkmanship, the US was the unquestioned power of the world. From 1990 until recently, the US has had no competitor, not even from second tier powers like Russia and China. And one would note the absence of significant inter-state conflict within this period.
However, by looking to history, we can see when we are entering a transition period, where one superpower subsides for another. The decline of the British Empire in the 1900s ushered in a period of growing inter-state rivalries, primarily seen with a newly unified Germany, the USSR and Japan. Arms races and wars were the materialised reality in which States were looking to overtake the UK. Succeeding this was the First World War, the Second World War and the Subsequent Cold War. Realists would suggest all these events were directly linked to States vying for supremacy.
But why does any of this history matter? The World has changed since then? While the world we live in is radically different to 50 years ago and the way in which States compete has changed, we are seeing the signs of another power struggle. Before I go any further, I’m not saying we can expect any new world wars, particularly when States now compete mainly off economic performance and influence on the flows of capital, through FDI. But the material facts are that the United States is being rivalled by powers not under its control. China, Russia, Iran and to a lesser extent India and Pakistan are gaining regional and international influence. These States are amassing economic resources and growing their militaries in size and capability. Of more concern, particularly to the West, these countries are not tied, through alliance or reliance, to the United States as much as they used to be. However, it is not the growing size of these countries that is of concern, but their growing appetite of defying the US.
Russia is continuing to defy Western orders to leave Ukraine alone, China is continuing to build military bases in the South China Sea, India is overstepping its territorial claims in Pakistan and Kashmir and North Korea is still not able to be controlled despite President Trump’s Reagan style diplomacy. Further, Russia and China who have been traditionally at odds with each other, are cooperating with military exercises which essentially war-game a conflict with Europe and Asia. The last time States acted in such defiance of the reigning superpower was with the Rise of Germany and the USSR’s expansion.
Of even more concern to those that support a Western order, is the weakening of the US’ resolve to use direct intervention to maintain its own influence. As with the British Empire, US citizens are losing the appetite of being the global police-man, evidenced, to some, by the election of President Trump. While the US would happily mobilise its forces if a direct threat arises, it is unlikely that they will be ‘overtaken’ through direct conflict, but instead a slow transfer of power towards its rivals through trade and political capital: China’s new Silk Road.
The point of this article is not to proclaim the fall of the Western Empire, nor to disparage the right of sovereign countries to act how they please. Instead, as history has proven, we must be aware of when a power play is in motion so that we can adjust our own politics. Australia is of minimal importance to the major players in the world, yet those same players are of maximum importance to us. So then why is any of this important?
This is important because of the uncertainty surrounding international politics. As the title states, we are in an era of flux. The US is still the most powerful country in the world by every measure yet it is clear a great power struggle is brewing. History has taught us that the world tends toward having one superpower at any one time. And whilst this struggle continues to unfold in the coming decades, we need to make the hard choices now that will determine our future prosperity. Should Australia continue its Cold-War mentality toward the rise of China? Should Australia loosen its emotional and ideological attachment to the US? Can we remain neutral? No one knows the answer to any of these questions. At some point in the near future, the great power struggle will come to a boiling point, sides will have to be chosen and pride will have to be put aside for the sake of our continuing prosperity.
It is vital our leaders subvert the typical short-term thinking that propels liberal-democracies and try to plan for the conflicts of the future: resource scarcity, the continued rise of China, Iran’s defiance or North Korea’s end game.