It’s two months before America enters World War I, and Woodrow Wilson stands before the Senate to deliver a speech to the American people. His recent appeals to the Allies and Entente for peace have failed, and yet here he stands again. His 14 points, yet to be written, are forming in the back of his mind as he makes his way to the podium for one last, desperate plea. It’s a simple message, “only a peace between equals can last.” Only a peace where all nations are seen as “equal”, with no difference between big or small, powerful or weak, will peace exist worldwide, Wilson insists. The “common good” of humanity must be placed above the “individual strength” of nations, or the world will degenerate into new and ever worse World Wars.
Here Australia stands, a century on, and we have forgotten much of Wilson’s wisdom. Just as Wilson once argued for the “common good” of humanity, Australia cares more about its “individual strength”; purchasing submarines and jet planes, syphoning US troops into Darwin and acting in concert with the NSA to spy on the world’s civilians. Australia aims to be a growing “middle power”, yet Wilson warned against nations establishing a new world order of the powerful against the weak.
Wilson’s idealism is lost on an Australian polity that marches towards a “realism” framework of international relations: a framework centred on increasing military power, strength and dominance vis-à-vis our neighbours and the rest of the world.
When Australian politicians declare us a growing “middle power”, they are suggesting a kind of power play for military dominance over the world. A hierarchy of powers exists here, with “high power” nations, such as the United States and China at the top, “middle power” nations in the middle, and the weak and vulnerable nations left to fend for themselves at the bottom. Instead of countries being “equal”, as Wilson envisaged, each builds their own forces, commandeers their own ships, and defends their own borders.
A country is only a “middle power”, commentators suggest, if it acquires sufficient military might to defend its own borders. The last five Australian Prime Ministers endorsed the term when referring to Australia. As an effect, Australia increasingly invests in its “middle power” status. Defence spending is seen as a benchmark for the highest percentage of GDP expenditure of any government portfolio. We are trying to claim the mantle.
Increasingly, we face pressures from our allies to keep defence spending high. This creates a new world order, where the powerful nations support each other’s extensive expenditure, to the detriment of “weak” countries. The ANZUS treaty, as an example, insists that Australia must “maintain and develop individual… capacity to resist [against an] armed attack”. This explains why, when Julia Gillard decreased defence spending in 2012, her American counterparts lambasted her for it. Conservative politicians in the US insisted that Australia was not pulling its weight, threatening the Asia-Pacific Region.
But what if the threat to the region is not too little defence spending, but too much? In 1951, John H. Herz coined the term “security dilemma”, referring to a situation where countries unintentionally provoke each other through increasing their own defence spending (and “aggressive” alliances). This provokes an equivalent response in return, and the pattern repeats itself until a war commences. Certain historians believe that this was the precise cause of World War I; an unintentional war provoked by an escalation of arms.
Australia’s own path to “middle power” status is fraught with these “security dilemmas”. Whenever Australia asserts a new military coordination with the US: hosting troops in Darwin, critiquing the Chinese no-fly zone or negotiating submarine technology with Japan, China harshly condemns the action. The 2013 purchase of jet planes is just the latest in an ongoing series of events where Australia has placed its “middle power” status over the peaceful coexistence with our neighbours in the region. Herz predicted that this kind of increased military expenditure would not neutralize threats or diminish future conflicts, but instead provoke them.
Here I ask what Woodrow Wilson asked a century ago: “is the present [struggle for peace] a struggle for a just and secure peace, or only for a new balance of power?” Are we fighting today for a peace amongst equals, or for a peace mandated by the powerful upon the weak?
If we are simply fighting for a new world order, then perhaps we should ignore the “equality of nations” Wilson sought. However, if we are to fight for a secure and lasting peace between all nations of the world, where the powerful and the weak come together for mutual benefit and cooperation, where the rivers of blood are met by rivers of compassion and goodwill, where the stark and sheltering dogmas of “hard and soft power” are met by the force of equality and diplomacy, then Australia should lead the way, and give up its quest for “middle power” status, abandon its quest for power over our neighbours, and distance its alliance with the greatest power-player of all.