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Daily Media Quotation

The Decline Of American Sway

January 11, 2006

by Paul Dibb - The Australian

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has cancelled her attendance at this week's trilateral security dialogue with Japan and Australia in Sydney because of the political situation in Israel. She also cancelled attendance last month in Adelaide at the AusMin annual high-level security discussions, again because of developments in Israel. Meanwhile, the US has failed to appoint an ambassador to Australia for more than a year. What do we make of this? In my view, it is a reflection of the greater geopolitical importance of the Middle East in Washington.

It is almost three years since the US invaded Iraq and more than four years since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. In the intervening period we have seen an almost one-eyed preoccupation by the Bush administration with terrorism and the Middle East.

This raises two problems. First, a perception that Iraq is undermining America's reputation as the dominant global power. Second, a worry that Washington is taking its eye off important geopolitical developments elsewhere in the world. Let us examine each of these propositions.

The US military victory in Baghdad in 2003 was spectacular as a demonstration of American "shock and awe". No other country is capable of moving such large numbers of troops to the other side of the world so quickly. And no other country, now or foreseeably, has the lethalness of the US military. But then came the problem of occupying Iraq and fighting a savage insurgency. Here the US has performed less than well. While it is true that Iraq is not the quagmire of Vietnam, it is not looking good. And the damage to the US's reputation has been immense.

After three years as the occupying power, the US still faces an uncontrollable insurgency. And what sort of government will the new Iraq have? As John Gray argues in The New York Review of Books, the most likely legacy of the war appears to be a Balkanised Iraq and the enhanced power of radical Islam throughout the region, with Iran being the main beneficiary.

The limits of US military power have been clear to observe: rotating 150,000 troops to Iraq has placed great stress on the US military. Some US National Guard units are on their third rotation. American public support is wavering and there are growing demands for troop withdrawals. Meanwhile, short of re-introducing the draft, the US is not in a position to mount a major ground force offensive against North Korea or Syria, let alone Iran. Iraq imposes serious limits on US freedom of action elsewhere.

While the US has been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, tectonic shifts are occurring elsewhere in the world geopolitical scene. Gray argues that the fall of the Soviet Union served to reduce American power, rather than enhance it. The Soviet collapse quickened the pace of globalisation, "enabling China and India to become great powers whose interests may conflict with those of the US". Thus the true beneficiary of the Soviet collapse is not America but Asia.

In Gray's view, the era of Western primacy is coming to a close. He thinks that as a result of its intervention in Iraq, the dissolution of US global hegemony "has been accelerated, perhaps by a generation". Be that as it may, if the US continues to pursue unattractive policies its role as the final guarantor of global security will be challenged.

Of course, America will continue to be pivotal in world affairs. The fact that the US accounts for 30 per cent of world gross domestic product and more than 45 per cent of global military expenditure will continue to secure its position as the leading power in the world. And US "soft power" assets, such as its inventiveness and the attraction of its all-pervasive culture, will continue to be powerful levers of influence. The US will not soon be deposed as the world's leading power.

That is not the issue. What is at risk here is America's reputation for the prudent use of power. As Owen Harries foresaw almost four years ago: by making unilateralism a feature of US behaviour it is bound to generate widespread criticism and hostility towards it. Harries concluded there was a danger of a gathering political hostility which would leave America both dominant and increasingly disliked and isolated. Since those words were written, there has undoubtedly been marked improvement in the second Bush administration's diplomacy towards Europe and India, ties with Japan have never been so close, and relations with China are, at least superficially, in reasonable order.

But on the negative side, China's relations with Japan are the worst they have been for a very long time, Russia is lurching back to bad old authoritarian habits and North Korea and Iran continue to thumb their nose at Washington. The Chinese succeeded in having the US excluded from the East Asia summit last month, which is a salutary message for Washington and one we should not condone.

As time goes on, the US will find its paramountcy gradually eroded and its interests and values will not remain unchallenged. The Australian National University's Coral Bell has argued, in a publication last year by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, that we are moving into a world order in which a concert of several great powers will be necessary to keep the peace. She calls this a company of giants, which will include the US, China, India, Japan, Russia and perhaps a confederated Europe.

This redistribution of power will inevitably herald the twilight of the present unipolar world of US dominance. Some argue that a concert of powers such as this will be less dangerous for world order. That, of course, will depend upon whether there is indeed an internationally co-operative concert or whether, instead, there will be competing centres of power and a struggle for a new global balance of power. The most dangerous outcome for Australia would be if China in its bid for the mastery of Asia sought to design some sort of anti-US alliance.

Throughout history, great powers have waxed and waned, some quicker than others. The great question of our contemporary era is not whether America's physical attributes of power are under challenge. Rather it is whether, after a short 15 years at the top, US global political leadership and influence have passed their zenith.

Paul Dibb, a former deputy defence secretary, is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.



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