‘History has a way of correcting anomalies’; Beazley warns our path ahead won’t be easy

By Stephen Kuper

There is an old Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times”, and the world in which we live in is certainly delivering, yet the peace, prosperity, and stability of the last three decades is largely a historic aberration, with former ambassador Kim Beazley issuing an ominous warning: “History has a way of correcting anomalies”.

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 in the last three decades: Pax Americana or the “American Peace”.

By putting an end to the often-ancient 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 across the globe paving the way for the modern, interconnected global economy and period of innovation we enjoy today.

Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Western Europe 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 through policies like the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe following the devastation of the Second World War, this golden era of the Pax Americana is now coming to an end.

This new paradigm is explained by The Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, who states, “We are living through a hinge moment in history. The era of globalisation is coming to an end. Is globalisation dead? Maybe not quite dead, but like a COVID virus it’s mutating into something new and different. Deglobalisation, decoupling, democracy versus dictatorship, Cold War 2.0, national resilience economies, national ­security conservatives, renewed military alliances, grey zone conflict, regional wars, free markets lacking advocates or post-globalisation – whatever you call it, we are rushing into the third era of history after World War II.”

Sheridan’s explanation is further reinforced by US geostrategic analyst and author Peter Zeihan, who adds: “Today’s economic landscape isn’t so much dependent upon as it is eminently addicted to American strategic and tactical overwatch … Globalisation was always dependent upon the Americans’ commitment to the global order and that order hasn’t served Americans’ strategic interests since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Without the Americans riding herd on everyone, it is only a matter of time before something in East Asia or the Middle East or the Russian periphery (like, I don’t know, say, a war) breaks the global system beyond repair.”

With the scene set, 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”.

History has a way of correcting anomalies 

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 to 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.”

This warning means that not only will Australia’s military spending need to increase, but it will also need to be spent more effectively with less wastage and less “experimentation” on capabilities and platforms like the MRH-90 Taipans and ARH Tigers, or the Seasprite Helicopters, or the Attack Class submarines that do little in the way of enhancing the actual warfighting capability of the ADF.

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.”

Lessons for Australia’s future strategic planning

There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition. Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.

While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia, this is particularly well explained by Peter Zeihan, who explains: “A deglobalised world doesn’t simply have a different economic geography, it has thousands of different and separate geographies. Economically speaking, the whole was stronger for the inclusion of all its parts. It is where we have gotten our wealth and pace of improvement and speed. Now the parts will be weaker for their separation.”

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?

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