This correspondence is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy.
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“Goodbye, America” by Patrick Lawrence
Patrick Lawrence’s essay is laced with questions, but perhaps none better than those raised by the title. Who is saying goodbye to America, and what kind of America are they farewelling? By Lawrence’s account, neither Australia nor Japan wishes to farewell America. Instead, these two countries live in a state of nostalgic longing for an America that was and the pre-eminence it once had.
As I read Lawrence’s essay, I was reminded of an event I attended at the Tunisian Embassy in Tokyo – a quaint building tucked away on a side street opposite the Yasukuni Shrine. All the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs representatives I spoke to were concerned they couldn’t match the growing Chinese infrastructure and development spend throughout North Africa and the Middle East. That was 2016, and a reminder that Australia’s narrow focus on countering Chinese spending in the Pacific neglects the contest for influence across the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Lawrence uses the term “Indo-Pacific” but once in the article, to refer to the renamed US Indo-Pacific Command. “Asia-Pacific” is used just as sparingly. This determined separation of Asia from the Pacific gives rise to the questions threaded through the essay, about how America and its allies view and define the Asia and Pacific regions. Lawrence asks if America ever returned to a peacetime posture since 1945, and he questions why Japan and Australia remain so heavily invested in the postwar order when there is so much to gain from “a new reading of their circumstances”.
The answers to these questions depend on who and where the reader is, and what they stand to lose or gain from the changing geopolitical landscape.
Lawrence’s essay is effective in illustrating the contest underway for control of narratives about the region. Try lining up the transcripts of speeches by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and America’s former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, then reconcile their conflicting accounts of disputes in the South China Sea.
I had my lesson in post-truth politics at a non-proliferation workshop in New Zealand in 2017. Representatives of a think tank attached to the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs were detailing their opinions on regional nuclear non-proliferation. Meanwhile, everyone else in the room was doom-scrolling Twitter as North Korean missiles flew over Japanese waters. These missiles were never mentioned during the two-day conference.
That workshop was funded by the US Department of Energy. Lawrence highlights the potential of such work in his statement that “diplomacy is twenty-first-century statecraft’s defining technology”. He also notes that in the immediate aftermath of 1945, when the hub-and-spokes model of the Asia-Pacific was dominant, the critical diplomatic manoeuvring was conducted in Washington. But the principal seat of diplomatic power in Asia is unlikely to remain in Washington forever. Indeed, the man who held that position until January 2021 defaced American democratic institutions and whittled away the symbols, authority and prestige that underpin American rhetoric and international action. Though these institutions have displayed resilience, it is difficult to estimate the long-term damage.
Who controls the treadles of diplomacy in Asia now? Who wields power over truth? “Goodbye, America” suggests it will be those nations that understand a re-Asianised Asia will be modern in its own way, and that an American-imposed accounting of friends, allies and enemies will not align to an Asian set of axes.
Can Australia adapt to a changing Asia at a time when its own diplomacy is underfunded, overwhelmed and undervalued? This, for me, is the defining question of the essay. Australia has found itself in a world without assurances. The changeable policy positions of America or China, and their evolving expectations of Australia, leave the future uncertain. Australia will not be ready to meet this moment unless it farewells the America that once was, and welcomes the America that is.
This task can only be achieved with a well-funded Australian diplomatic corps. Diplomacy may not resolve regional tensions, but it remains one of the few policy levers we have that is not likely to damage our relations as post-truth politics adds to competition in Asia. Across a whole range of issues there is a pressing need for Australia to build interest-based coalitions that have enough bargaining power to negotiate the fluctuations of US–China relations. These coalitions are only built one way, through the hard work of diplomacy.
The lack of resources for Australian diplomacy suggests that our leaders do not understand its value. Lawrence finishes his essay with a suggestion that there is hope for Australia as it becomes less Western and more Pacific – that if Australia “enters into a new order”, opportunities lie ahead. I would qualify this sentiment – there is only hope and opportunity for Australia if it develops a long-term respect for the interests and aspirations of its geographical region, regardless of how that region might be ordered or labelled.
Thom Dixon is vice president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs branch in New South Wales.
Read Patrick Lawrence’s response here.