QUARTERLY ESSAY 68 Without America



Patrick Lawrence

What a level, clear-eyed assessment Hugh White has written as China emerges, the United States dithers in clouds of nostalgia, and Australians must determine how to proceed amid these momentous transformations. I privilege this as my opening remark on White’s intricately reasoned essay because, as an American watching Washington closely as a matter of my profession, “level” and “clear-eyed” are not terms I am accustomed to typing. White comes out right: here is what the twenty-first century looks like; take it, because there is no leaving it. “Let’s get on with it,” as his last sentence puts the point.

In truth, I did not begin White’s piece so approvingly. I expected to read another connoisseur of the exquisite circularity of Western-centric strategic reasoning, if this is the word. The early signals were many: “America will lose, and China will win,” “how the contest will proceed,” “a new, China-led order,” “an Asia dominated by China,” “a country’s willingness to go to war . . . determines its place in the international system,” and so on. This is the zero-sum myopia that afflicts Washington: what China gains is our loss. It is an adjunct of the “indispensable nation” routine – which, in turn, gives rise to the with-us-or-against-us bit. George W. Bush made this explicit after the September 11 tragedies; but, as White reminds us, Barack Obama treated Australia to a full-dress rendering when he addressed parliament a decade and two months later.

America has the frame wrong, as White notes with a splendid bluntness. This seems to be a realisation that arrives bitterly among Australians, and one understands: it rather cancels many decades of assumptions. White walks through and out of these – the virtue of his piece. China’s rise does not imply a contest. In that speech Obama delivered in Canberra in November 2011, he announced that the United States had decided to turn it into one – a very different thing. This is the frame, and it has proven the fatal flaw in American thinking ever since.

The emergence of China as a regional and global power is neither more nor less than history’s wheel turning. It is a challenge, certainly – no surprise, as history is never short of these – but it is not a challenge to confront, or to turn back. That is sheer folly, as White remarks in so many words. The challenge is to find opportunities in the soil of an unfamiliar landscape. It is to advance imaginatively into a new time, confident of one’s competence to do so. It is to remain game, in a word: aware of the past but never its prisoner.

White writes quite a lot about “great-power politics,” hegemony, the ambitions of powerful nations. He refers severally to the nineteenth-century conduct of the European powers. Good enough to have a sound grounding in history, something we Americans flatly decline to cultivate.

But I urge White to dilate the lens still further. Parity between West and non-West, in one or another manifestation, is in my view the twenty-first century’s single most momentous imperative. Humanity has known nothing like this for at least half a millennium (taking my date from da Gama’s 1498 arrival in Calicut). The past is not going to be so reliable a guide, precedent not so strict a professor – this for the simple reason that non-Western nations are going to do things differently. Empire-building, to make the most obvious of many distinctions, will not figure among their priorities.

How does a nation’s intent come to be as it is? Or its ambitions? What gives rise to them, and why? History, culture, traditions, long-embedded values – these, the soil of politics, are my answers. If we think about China in this way, what might we surmise?

Anyone who has walked to and fro on the mainland understands that the Opium Wars were the day before yesterday to the Chinese sensibility. So there is the question of humiliation and its overcoming – redress. The Western powers walked all over the Chinese by way of territorial integrity, but let us not stop there: pile a set of historical maps atop one another and leaf through them – what makes China China has been a question requiring careful management as long as there has been a China. Closer to our time, it is worth considering the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence Zhou Enlai articulated at Bandung in 1955, when the People’s Republic was a struggling six-year-old. Four had to do with mutual respect – territorial integrity, non-interference, recognition of equality, and so on.

The Cold War being as it was, China’s record in these regards is other than spotless. But vastly on the whole, it indicates that Zhou, fifty-seven when he went to Bandung, was not a mere spouter of platitudes. There is a thread of continuity in China’s conduct, then to now. It dropped no bombs last year and sent no drones into civilian populations in other nations. It has no record of fomenting coups, fixing elections, or, as White points out, insisting that others adhere to its political and social ideologies.

I read Xi Jinping’s monumentally sweeping speech at the Nineteenth Party Congress last October against this background. It is clear to me that China sees its best interests – stability (another long preoccupation in Beijing) and prosperity for its 1.3 billion people – as lying in the cultivation of these very things as far as it can go from Shanghai to Lisbon. The American dailies groused endlessly about self-interest when Xi celebrated his Belt and Road Initiative at a quite well-attended forum in Beijing last spring. This is what I mean by the opportunities that are there to be exploited but overlooked when the frame is threat and rivalry. I read the list of the 1700 BRI projects already on the books and thought, “With enemies like this, who needs friends?”

One of the decisive passages in White’s piece comes after he ticks off all the worst outcomes now laid out in situation rooms in Canberra (and of course Washington). “Beijing could one day try to impose its brand of authoritarian politics, dictate national policies and control our economy to its advantage,” he writes. “At worst it could invade the country and subject it to direct rule from Beijing.” I had not thought our American brand of paranoia had spread so far. But then:

There is no evidence that this is how China’s leaders see things today. Their territorial ambitions seem limited to the lands that China already occupies or claims . . . They show no desire to proselytise an ideology or export a political system. Nor do they want radical change in the regional or global economic order.


My first thought on reading this was that White would have a tough time finding a professorship in the US if he insists on tossing this kind of thing around, but that is another conversation. This is the kind of clear sight Australia needs to rely upon – a starting point, no more – as it decides how to locate itself as a Pacific nation in the twenty-first century. As to the rivalry theme, I propose to dispose of it this way: America has a lot of frontage on the Pacific lake, and no one wishes it were otherwise – not even the Chinese. They are not saying, “Go, your time is over.” They are saying only, “Move over.” But as White points out, the American diplomatic tradition is far too underdeveloped – we have no gift for it because sheer power has left us with no need of it – to manage even this easily achievable subtlety.

White protests repeatedly against the common theme in Australia of recent years, “We don’t have to choose.” I agree it is wrong, a weak-minded flinch, but I do not agree on the choice as White describes it. Australia does have a choice to make, but it does not lie between Beijing and Washington in some contrived either/or fashion. Tipping towards paradox, Australia has to decide if it accepts the choice the US presents it with: us or them, Aussies, choose. I urge Australians to recognise this as a monumentally inconsiderate proposition on America’s part, one in which Australia would do well to detect a fundamental indifference to its own interests at the core of American policy. The latter has long begun and ended with the preservation of primacy, all else judged as serving it or not. This, along with the nostalgic folly of American strategy in the Pacific, ought to make Australia’s true choice a lot easier, I would think. It is the choice of refusing the choice. The truly consequential choice is America’s: it lies between past and future.

I conclude with two final remarks: one has to do with global order and the other with the independence of nations within, broadly speaking, the Western alliance.

White refers often to the post-1945 order, or “the region’s ‘rules-based order’ – by which they [the optimists in Canberra] mean the US-led status quo,” as something many Australians consider the grail to be preserved as they consider their future. Fair enough. Many people in many places think this way. But I think nations such as Australia would do well to reconsider the record, as this, too, would make their deliberations easier. There are too many truisms and gloss-overs inscribed in the orthodoxy on this point. There has been an awful lot of disorder in the Western Pacific in the decades of American primacy (and indeed long before, if we go back to the war in the Philippines). It is off the point, but I must respectfully take issue with White’s remark that Latin America, with its decades of dictators, civil wars, endemic poverty and violence, has by and large done well under American dominance. We – all of us, with more voices at the table and less hegemonic ambition – can do better by way of a global order worthy of the term.

“Australia is going to have a more independent foreign policy in the new Asia – more independent of Washington, that is – whether it likes it or not.” So White writes midway in his essay. I do not quite comprehend the whiff of stage fright. One has long understood Australia’s place as Washington’s “most obliging ally,” as White puts it. But for me, at least, there has always been an assumption of some . . . what? . . . some faint ignominy attaching to this position. Taking possession of a voice of its own will certainly bring Australia challenges and responsibilities. But how salutary a prospect nonetheless. Taking the point further, I would say even the challenges and responsibilities will do the nation a power of good.

I have wondered for decades when in hell the Europeans will learn to stand up and speak for themselves instead of dutifully yes-ing Washington even when it is diametrically against their interests to do so. They have their own perspectives, their own view of diplomacy as against conflict, much that is evolved in their address of the non-Western Other. They mutter of these things among themselves but then resume the forced march. The world would be better for this balancing voice to articulate clearly, especially as it would come from within the old Atlantic alliance.

The Europeans will soon face a series of important decisions. Do they conduct themselves as part of the Eurasian landmass as this draws together in one of the truly historic motions of our time, or stay loyal to the alliance in a way wholly lacking in imagination and confidence? White’s very thoughtful essay moves me to suggest that on its side of the world – different topography, a sea and not a landmass – Australia faces a version of the very same question.

One of the truths I learnt when reporting on Indonesia during the first post-Suharto years, when various provinces were fighting for autonomy, was that to stay together it would be necessary for the Republic of Indonesia to come partially apart. Reading Hugh White’s essay, I wonder if the same may now prove so of the West and all who identify as belonging to it.


Patrick Lawrence covered Asia for nearly thirty years, primarily for the Far Eastern Economic Review and the International Herald Tribune. He now writes columns on foreign affairs for the Nation and Salon. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century. His website is www.patricklawrence.us.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 68, Without America. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 69, Moment of Truth.


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