Originally published 7 July 2016.
Recent tumultuous political events—including Australia’s election—seem likely to produce a troubling set of strategic consequences. Some of those consequences will be reflected in the strategic policies of key individual Western states. But they’re also likely to be reflected in a broader sense, as part of the pattern of shifting weights and balances in global politics—where we’re likely to see a diminishing role for the Anglosphere in shaping strategic outcomes.
The Anglosphere is typically seen as a select group of countries: the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and—sometimes—Ireland. The group falls naturally into three geographic pairs, and in each pairing there’s one extroverted strategic player (the US, Britain and Australia) and another less extroverted one (Canada, Ireland, New Zealand). Collectively, the group exercises an influence on international relations disproportionate to its small size.
Quite suddenly, though, an important question has arisen about the prospective future role of the Anglosphere. As anyone can now see, there’s a problem. The three most extroverted players are all—to a greater or lesser degree—turning inward.
‘America first’ is now the dominant theme in US politics, and—with the Washington Metro broken and the US middle class resentful over its declining fortunes—it seems likely that even a Clinton presidency might involve a step away from continuing global engagement rather than a step back towards it. A Trump presidency might easily result in Washington taking rather more than one step away.
Across the Atlantic, the UK is wrestling with life after deciding to leave the European Union. That’s no small task. For the better part of a decade, British political leaders are likely to be absorbed in the all-encompassing task of ‘reinventing’ Britain. In short, the national enterprise is likely to trump (no pun intended) the regional or global one. It seems that the UK—traditionally an active security contributor in many parts of the world—will be playing a smaller role in coming years. Apart from activities deemed essential to national reinvention, foreign and strategic issues seem likely to receive fewer resources and less leadership attention.
And so we come to the third extroverted member of the Anglosphere—Australia itself. After its election on 2 July, the outcome of which remains uncertain, we might well be staring down the barrel of a more hesitant Australia in regional and global affairs. Regardless of whether we end up with a minority government or a government clinging to a bare majority in the House of Representatives, the political climate is unlikely to be one to support a particularly venturesome strategic policy. That’s somewhat ironic given the theoretical boldness of the most recent Defence White Paper—the key internal policy parameters of which must surely be in doubt in the new post-election world.
The ruling on the South China Sea by the International Court of Arbitration, for example, seems likely to be issued (on 12 July) while Australia’s still enjoying a period of caretaker government. And grander objectives that Canberra had been keen to explore—including the question of whether the time is now ripe for a new, more action-oriented security structure in Southeast Asia—seem more likely to wither than to flower.
True, there are a couple of questionable assumptions contained in the reasoning outlined above. Even a US standing a little further back from the world, for example, will remain a strong force for good. Even a Britain out of the European Union will remain a Britain inside of NATO. And even a minority Australian government could rely upon a tradition of bipartisanship—at least amongst the two major parties—to ensure the wheels didn’t completely fall off its foreign and defence policy.
The argument, though, is over a difference of degree rather than a difference of kind. If we are facing a future where the US is stepping back from the international role it has played since World War 2, where Britain’s absorbed in a project of national reinvention, and where Australia’s more fixated upon domestic issues and politics, then we should expect strategic consequences to follow. In short, Western influence in the world is likely to be receding at a critical time in international affairs—when the world stands at a new inflection point, and the old strategic verities are fading. Critics of the Anglosphere mightn’t have liked it, but I suspect they’ll rue the waning of its influence.
Is there a cure for introversion? Possibly. All three countries might be forced back into more extroverted roles by a major international crisis. On the other hand, I suspect they’re not going to be dragged back into their traditional roles by a set of troubles that creep in on little cat feet.