On the merits of avoiding stark choices
28 Jul 2014|

On the merits of avoiding stark choices

Strategic analysts have a poor record of anticipating the future shape of international relations. Most famously, apart from a few obscure French historians, no-one seriously foreshadowed the demise of the Soviet Union and subsequent end of the Cold War. Distressingly for those of us who get paid to explain what’s likely to happen in international relations in the future, there’s no shortage of other examples.

At the outset of the 1990s, the overwhelming consensus was that North Korea would collapse by the end of that decade. In the year 2014, the DPRK is nuclear-armed, there are glimmers that its ramshackle economy may be turning around, and the authority of the regime under a thirty-something four-star general appears stronger than ever.

Few envisaged the most significant geopolitical shift of the past three decades: the rise of China to great power status. Indeed, when the small but committed staff at Australia’s freshly-minted Beijing embassy in the 1970s sent cables to Canberra predicting that China would rival Japan as the region’s major power by 2000, they were laughed out of town by senior policymakers.

Why should we be any more confident that our capacity for prediction today is better than it was in years gone by? That’s no mere academic question. It has major implications for how we allocate the shrinking defence dollar and how we deploy our small but effective diplomatic presence globally. The counter-claim from some that ‘we don’t have a crystal ball so we can’t predict anything’ is disingenuous. Ultimately, strategic analysts purport to predict future trends and shifts on the basis of key global drivers, with a few intervening variables thrown in for good measure. It’s how the credibility of our craft is judged.

The subject of prediction has direct relevance to the lively discussion between Hugh White and Peter Jennings over whether Australia has to make a choice between China and the US. Both perspectives are, in essence, based on pretty confident predictions about the future trajectory of Sino-American relations and how our region will evolve in the next 20–30 years. Rod Lyon has captured nicely the key assumptions underlying each view, and while I’m probably slightly more sympathetic to Peter’s angle, I have some concerns about the deeper foundations on which both arguments are based.

First, both assume that current trends will continue; in Hugh’s case that US–China rivalry will sharpen over time, and in Peter’s case that economic interdependence and middle power autonomy will remain as independent variables that drive strategic choices in Asia. But there’s no guarantee that either trend will persist. To be sure, China–Japan economic relations are important, but there are palpable signs Beijing and Tokyo are pulling policy levers to dilute mutual interdependence, particularly in the area of foreign direct investment. Rivalry between Washington and Beijing may well become more acute going forward, but then again, it might not. Structural realists predict that war is inevitable between rising and declining great powers because the latter will seek to hold on to accumulated power through whatever means, including armed force. But as we have witnessed throughout even recent history, nothing is preordained in international relations and, given the paucity of accurate forecasting, we should be inherently sceptical about claims to the contrary.

Second, Peter and Hugh make distinctively different assumptions about the degree of agency Australia enjoys in international relations. Hugh is a thoughtful realist—as distinct from the uber-realist types often found in government—but he’s still a realist and therefore inclined to see non-great powers as secondary actors with little real autonomy. Peter’s view echoes liberal optimism about the power of interdependence, but also acknowledges that small and middle powers have agency that can overcome structural constraints in the international system. That perspective rejects the standard realist view that small and middle powers don’t matter.

Yet there’s a pretty good chance both perspectives will be borne out as we move forward in the 21st century. One of the really striking macro-trends in international relations since 1945 is that realist and liberal theories have both been validated at different times in different circumstances. It’s not as if we should be making a stark choice between them as a guide to the future. Put simply, in relation to the US–China relationship, Australia will feel more constrained in some cases and more autonomous in others. That will depend on a range of contingent factors, including the views of elites at any given time, the precise issue(s) at stake, and whether Australia is able to act in concert with other middle powers as a diplomatic force-multiplier. The one theme uniting those contingent factors is that, by definition, they will be hard to predict.

Andrew O’Neil is professor and head of the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. With Bruce Gilley, he is the editor of Middle Powers and the Rise of China to be published by Georgetown University Press in September. Image courtesy of Flickr user nahemoth.