Cunningham Lecture 2007: World order under stress

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Professor Robert O’Neill FASSA

O’Neill served as Senior lecturer in History, Royal Military College, Duntroon, 1968–69. He was head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University in 1971–82, Senior Fellow in international Relations, 1969-1977, Professorial Fellow, 1977-1982. Australian official historian of the Korean War from 1970 until 1982, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies 1982–87 and Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University from 1987 to 2001. He was the founding Chairman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2000-2005. He was Chair of the International Academic Advisory Committee at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney from 2008 to 2011. He was Chairman of Trustees of the Imperial War Museum, London, 1998-2001 (Trustee 1990-1998). He was Chairman of the Council of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1996-2001 (Council member 1977-82 and 1992-96).

It has been a commonplace since the end of the Cold War to refer to the United States as the world’s only super-power. What nonsense this is – and what illusions it fosters! In the currency of effective military power for today’s wars, particularly well trained infantry, marines and their supporting arms on the ground, the United States is simply a major power, contending with many other powers major and minor – some even at subnational level – who can outmanoeuvre and outlast the American will. The United States does not have the necessary military superiority in a major regional war to ensure victory. It is at full stretch militarily, economically, socially and politically with the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not even George W Bush is willing to re-introduce the draft. The United States is the strongest power in the world overall, but it has shortcomings in the particular field in which it has chosen to engage militarily.

Experience of the past four years calls into question the widely proclaimed official view that the United States will eventually emerge victorious from Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, I suggest, we should give some consideration to what will happen to American leadership and prestige if the US is defeated in either place. There will be some major consequences. Let me briefly offer four case studies in the problems of remaining Number One in a turbulent world.

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