The lament of the US national defence strategy
8 Feb 2018|

The US national defence strategy exudes more than a wistful sense of loss and more than regret at the inability of US economic and military power to sustain its hegemony. It’s a lashing out at and resentment of the fact that, perversely, the preponderant power it wielded over the past six decades has led to the rise of strategic rivals.

A longing for what is irreversibly passing isn’t a sound basis for strategic assessment. Building a policy on an attempt to regain lost influence is a mistake. Halting the retreat from postwar primacy is at the heart of the strategy. ‘Failure to meet our defense objectives will result in decreasing US global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners.’

China is depicted as an adversary in this environment. The strategy laments the ‘increased global disorder, characterized by decline in the long-standing rules-based international order’. And it says that China is now undermining the international order ‘from within the system by exploiting its benefits while simultaneously undercutting its principles’. But this interpretation fails to recognise the growing number of other, and possibly more consequential, factors at work—including the Trump administration itself.

One of those key factors is the failure of the liberal international order to deliver better wealth equality, job security and wages growth to many citizens. In Europe, in particular, the obvious waning of state sovereignty and the perceived erosion of local cultural values and norms have given rise to nativism, nationalism and far-right ideologies that are antithetical to liberal values and the globalised world. Brexit is just one example.

The effect of President Donald Trump’s veneration of the primacy of the nation-state, disregard for multilateralism and advocacy of economic nationalism is as deleterious as anything else. Doug Stokes has labelled the Trump world view ‘transactional bilateralism’. He describes Trump’s foreign policy as combining ‘elements of isolationism with cost–benefit bilateralism’ and ‘a deep ambivalence towards the liberal international regimes that America has helped bring to birth and sustain since the end of the Second World War’.  ‘Trump’, he says, ‘may well do irreparable damage to the liberal order and thus, more broadly, to the West.’

The strategy’s reliance on ‘a robust constellation of allies and partners’ stands in stark, and ironic, contrast to Trump’s ambiguity about multinational arrangements—as evidenced in his contrary approach to Israeli–Palestinian peace negotiations, his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and his reluctance to continue with the Iranian nuclear deal.

Moreover, the Europeans don’t see China in the same menacing terms. Visiting China, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said she was pleased ‘to take further forward the global strategic partnership that we have established’. Shortly before that, French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China evinced no concerns about China as a military threat or a dangerous revisionist power. Mutual trade was his priority.

Although the European Union will potentially derive great benefits from lying at the western terminus of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), issues of transparency and sustainability standards are still impediments to major EU direct involvement. There are also concerns about China’s perceived influence on EU members through its foreign direct investment in Europe, which increased to €35 billion in 2016 (up 77% from 2015). Those concerns have recently led to proposals for closer analysis of strategic acquisitions by China.

Nevertheless, after considering the European Commission’s ‘Elements for a new EU strategy on China’, the Council of the European Union stated that it welcomed opportunities to work with China ‘to promote global public goods, sustainable development and international security, and to address global and regional challenges within the multilateral system’. In addition, the council ‘expects the EU’s relationship with China to be one of reciprocal benefit in all respects’. It also anticipates ‘China’s constructive and active participation in providing security as a global public good’.

Strategic assessments need to be accurate, comprehensive, objective, balanced and useful. When they are, their judgements will be shared by all informed observers. The concepts and language employed can predetermine the outcome of the debate over policy options. In matters of strategic and defence policy, the consequences can be serious. It’s certainly not the case that the ‘great strength’ of the strategy ‘is the realistic geopolitical picture it paints of the world’.

China is a large, established, internationally recognised state and a permanent member of the Security Council. It’s a revisionist power. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank and the BRI shows that China is trying to reshape some international institutions and trade patterns. A senior industry figure at the latest Davos gathering predicted that the BRI ‘is going to be the new WTO’. This trend cannot be changed.

Communist, atheist China and oligarchic, orthodox Russia don’t share ‘an authoritarian model’, and their political economies and foreign policy approaches are fundamentally different. Yes, domestically their regimes are oppressive and neither government privileges the same democratic freedoms, or civil and human rights, that are generally guaranteed in Western polities. However, across the world, China is viewed more favourably than the US, and its now substantial development aid has clear beneficial effects in participating nations. The US approach to foreign aid seems far less neutral.

The reality of China’s international engagement with the world doesn’t conform with the strategy’s ominous account, and its presentation of prevailing global dynamics is deeply inadequate. The document’s adversarial and confrontational tone, bristling with umbrage at lost privilege, and lamenting that the US no longer enjoys ‘uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain’, is as disturbing as it is unhelpful.

Australia needs its own clear-eyed and realistic appreciation of this complex, nuanced and evolving world.