Does American National Identity still exist in 2020?

Watching the state of affairs in the US over the past few months has left many of us in a state of paralysis. Our hearts have bled for the millions of American lives lost to COVID. The violent imagery of George Floyd’s last breath and subsequent violent riots and protests have poured across our screens. From an Australian perspective, it seems America has never been more politically and socially divided. One might argue that Americans have lost the connective national tissue which once bound them together.

In spite of the recent social and political upheaval we are observing within the United States, it is important to keep in mind that socio-cultural movements are nothing new for the American people. A glance at US history depicts numerous movements which have fought to uphold and actualise the rights of minorities. I argue that the social movements bubbling within America today such as Black Lives Matter do not undermine the notion of an American identity, rather they demonstrate the attempt of modern Americans to live up to the founding values of their nation. In this way, movements of social change can help the United States move closer towards actualising the hopes and dreams that the American founding fathers had for a new nation.

American national identity is built upon the unique and radical founding of the United States.   Unlike nations whose identity is based on shared ethnicity and ancestry, America was formed on the idea of “the essential dignity of the individual human being, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom and justice.” Though at the time of America’s founding, these admirable ideals were not realised for most citizens, American history has steadily embraced and began to live up to the freedoms expressed in seminal founding texts such as the Declaration of Independence and U.S Constitution. Leader’s such as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. come to mind as men who enabled America to live up to their founding commitments by abolishing slavery and segregation. While America has never been perfectly aligned with its founding values, what appears to bind Americans together is a dedication to see the United States lives up to its founding values.

The idea of American identity is under constant pressure to change by those who experience barriers when attempting to access freedom and equality in the United States. Racism is one of these barriers that is deeply rooted within American history. The United States will always contend with the harsh reality that while European colonists could claim an American identity, people trafficked as slaves from Africa were not entitled to the same privileges. The practice of slavery continued in the United States until 1865 with the introduction of the 13th Amendment.  Following this, black Americans endured an entire century of racial persecution and discrimination before the promises of the Civil War were realised. While America’s Declaration of Independence and the Constitution proclaimed universal liberty, such documents coexisted alongside the exploitation and exclusion of black Americans. Despite an increasingly diverse US population and racial progress [evidenced through achievements such as the election of Barak Obama, the first African American president], some Americans argue that there is an entrenched racial component to American identity that divides whites and non-whites. 

Building upon historic injustices against African Americans, The Black Lives Matter movement has emerged in response to controversial law enforcement policies and police brutality against members of the African American community. At the core of this issue is the social concern that African Americans are not afforded the same societal protection as other Americans. Black Lives Matter demonstrates a powerful message: African Americans, like all Americans, long for freedom, equality of opportunity and access to the American Dream. Historic and contemporary racism in the United States have prevented African Americans from accessing this promise. American citizens responsible for discriminating and continuing to exclude African Americans from the benefits of American identity are contradicting the very values which underpin American identity. In this way, the plight of members of the African American community throughout history expresses a pattern: the continuous attempt to reconcile society with the country’s founding values.

Social change in the United States has improved the freedoms of its people, reconciling the US with its founding principles and helping to evoke the true sense of what it means to be American.



Realism and the diverging foreign policy approaches of the United States and China

The COVID pandemic has showcased a proliferation of blame, acrimony and military aggression between the United States and China. Additionally, we have witnessed the fragility of international institutions as the WHO which struggled to balance the strategic interests of China with the health of the global community. Core realist tenants of the anarchical, state-centric international order are proving relevant in the study of modern international relations.

The emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic has inspired varying international responses from the United States and China. China severely mismanaged the outbreak of the coronavirus through censorship and denial. As precious weeks passed and the seriousness of the outbreak became apparent, officials of the Communist Party of China made extensive preparations to protect their population, while only selectively sharing information with the international community. Amid the global pandemic, the Chinese government has continued to advance its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea and has been accused by the United States government of exploiting the crisis to gain territory. On April 2, Vietnam reported a Chinese military ship deliberating sinking a Vietnamese fishing ship in the disputed territory. In March, the Chinese government commissioned two research stations with defence capabilities on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The US international response has differed significantly from China’s approach.

America’s democratic values and trusted institutions have enabled more accurate reporting of COVID-19 figures, this has allowed epidemiologists to develop policies to ‘flatten the curve’ and contain the virus. The US Centre for Disease control also continues to publish information that helps American citizens gain access to medical services and minimise community transmission. The US has prioritised holding China accountable for the global spread of the coronavirus and has scaled up its military presence in the South China Sea. In March, the US military conducted live-missile testing in the Philippine Sea, sending a message of deterrence to China. On March 31, President Trump announced the suspension of all US funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) due to concerns of its mismanagement of the COVID pandemic and “China-centric nature.”

Structural realists assert that the architecture of the international system forces states to compete for limited power. For this reason, cooperation within international institutions often proves fragile. The COVID pandemic provides a vivid reminder of the relevance of these realist precepts. States are fearful that cooperation may enable another state to advance their capabilities and gain greater power and influence relative to them. In this case, President Trump declared the suspension of all funds to the World Health Organisation, perceiving the benefits of US cooperation within the WHO to be waning relative to the growing influence of China. Structural realist theory also provides valuable insight into China’s behaviour within the WHO. States will engage in international institutions when they perceive opportunities to gain power relative to their competitors. President Xi Jinping of the Chinese Communist Party has established the priority to challenge the American global order by strengthening Beijing’s multilateral clout. The World Health Organisation’s response to the spread of coronavirus has demonstrated the influence China wields in the institution relative to the US. Until mid-January, the WHO stated that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission on a large scale, this statement was made without independent investigation into China’s claims.  Following the US decision to halt funding, China identified a US leadership void and stepped in to fill it, announcing a 30 million dollar increase in their contributions to the institution, enabling greater Chinese influence in global health and the portrayal of China as the new champion of multilateralism. So long as China continues to benefit from this institution relative to others, structural realists predict they will continue to amplify cooperation and influence within the World Health Organisation. 

According to realists, the main goal of states within the international system is survival. States understand the best way to ensure their territorial integrity is to be more powerful relative to others. These conditions place a premium on the possession of military power as states are aware of the inherent risks of conflict. China has historically undertaken expansionist strategies to guarantee security and survival, during the global COVID pandemic China has scaled up its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, seizing the strategic opportunity presented by the diminished capabilities of the United States. On April 2, a Chinese Coast Guard ship rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat carrying eight fishermen off the disputed Paracel Islands. Beijing blamed the Vietnamese ship for fishing illegally in Chinese waters. In the previous month, China commissioned two new research stations on artificial reefs it has built on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The reefs are equipped with defence silos and military-grade runways. John Mearsheimer asserts that hegemony is the most effective way to secure the survival of a state. For this reason, the rivalry among the great powers for hegemony is a constant feature in the international system. 

The US government and military officials have criticised China for its increased militarisation in the South China Sea during the global pandemic. From the US perspective, the waterway is a vital channel for US-style sea power. In mid-March, US military vessels and aircraft conducted live-fire missile testing in the Philippine Sea. By demonstrating US military capabilities, a clear message of deterrence was sent to China. Structural realism offers a simple explanation for the recent foreign policy of China and the US. China is an emerging global hegemon and is pursuing as much power as possible within the South China Sea while discouraging others as a means of guaranteeing their security. The US seeks to maintain the status quo of American regional hegemony within the South China Sea and is attempting to balance against the increasingly combative behaviour of China.  

While structural realism provides unique and helpful insights into understanding recent COVID-inspired foreign policies of the US and China, the theory fails to grapple with the influence of domestic politics on a state’s external behaviour. Structural realists assert that the driving forces for international relations are systemic and uninfluenced by domestic politics. States are considered interchangeable ‘black boxes’ that will behave similarly as the international system creates the same basic incentives for all states. This level of analysis has limited structural realism in its understanding of the diverging COVID strategies of the US and China. Differences in the domestic political systems of China and the United States have proven relevant to recent international relations. Neo-classical realists have attempted to reconcile this criticism of structural realism by recognising the impact that domestic politics may have on a state’s external behaviour. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping protecting the reputation and authority of the Chinese Communist Party is prioritised above human life. China’s authoritarian leadership and communist political system led to the censorship of COVID information and prevented China from signalling early warnings to the international community. 

The United States is a democratic republic and stresses the importance of free communication between people and government. These internal values within the US have led to high rates of testing and the transparent disclosure of these figures to the international community. At current, the US has recorded the highest COVID death toll in the world, surpassing China. In saying this, it is important to remember that while the Chinese government claims to be ahead of the US in containing the virus with no reports of new cases, we have reason to doubt China’s information due to its censorship of early COVID warnings and lack of cooperation throughout the pandemic. We will likely never know how many Chinese citizens were infected and died due to COVID-19. In the US, President Trump downplayed the coronavirus and offered advice which conflicted medical experts. However, the democratic system in the US underpins the leadership of the President. When a US president fails, citizens can count on the objectivity of trusted institutions such as the U.S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to provide accurate and objective information. The Disease Centre’s weekly morbidity and mortality report has been a fixture of critical communication between government and the public since 1946 and this has continued throughout the COVID pandemic. 

Neo-classical realist theory inspires the contemplation of alternate foreign policy decisions which may have emerged had COVID-19 first broken out in New York rather than Wuhan. Internal conditions within the United States uphold democratic values enabling stronger communication between government and citizens. These societal underpinnings are likely to have guided a different foreign policy approach to China. While we can never truly be certain of this assumption, in order to prevent the COVID-19 global pandemic, an approach focused on saving lives rather than preserving power, based on transparent reporting and international cooperation was required, the US has exhibited these priorities in their COVID response while China did not.

The relevance of structural realism in the study of modern international realtions has been reinforced by the COVID-inspired external behaviours of China and the United States. The theory provides a useful framework for understanding inter-state completion, the fragility of international cooperation and military security. While it is limited by its system level of analysis, neo-classical realism has built upon previous work of structural realists and can assist in our understanding of the domestic forces behind foreign policy.


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The value of a strong US-Australia alliance

The enduring alliance with the United States remains Australia’s most important defence relationship. Close economic and cultural ties between the nations also continue to flourish and significantly benefit Australia and the US. The historic US-Australia partnership is unique, resilient and enviable among other nations. 

Former Australian prime ministers Malcom Fraser, Kevin Rudd and Paul Keating have each consistently argued for a recalibration of our alliance with the United States. Fraser, a former Liberal prime minister who passed away in 2015, was a major critic of Australia’s military alliance with the US and the implications for our relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Fraser called for Australia to forge an independent strategic posture apart from the US, arguing that the defence risks of our close relationship with the US outweighed any possible benefits. Likewise, previous Labor prime ministers Rudd and Keating have both asserted a need to scale back our alliance with the US government, in favour of stronger relationships within Asia. 

Though the positions of these outspoken former prime ministers might indicate division within Australian foreign policy community, our most recent Foreign Policy or Defence White Papers reflect the Morrison Government’s clear commitment to deepening Australia’s long-standing alliance with the United States and keeping this relationship at the centre of Australian security.  

Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on a robust relationship underpinned by shared democratic values, common interests and strong cultural affinities. The US-Australia partnership is formally recognised in the ANZUS treaty, which has seen significant military coordination between the two nations. The relationship extends much further, however, securing an economic boost for America and Australia and a wealth of cultural exchanges in areas such as health, science and education. For these reasons, Australia should continue to foster and strengthen close cooperation with the United States to secure a safe, prosperous and enlightened future for our country.  

Defence and Security

The history of Australia’s relationship with the United States is based on a close military alliance which has served both American and Australian national interests. The ANZUS Treaty, concluded in 1951, is Australia’s foremost security treaty alliance. While the ANZUS Treaty was created in the wake of World War II when the risk of invasion from Japan was still live in our collective memory, our military relationship has since deepened due to the ANZUS Treaty and ensures that Australia continues to develop its military alongside the strongest in the world. The US-Australia Force Posture Agreement signed in 2014 and the 2015 Joint Statement on Defence Cooperation have instructed the annual rotation of US Marines to Darwin and enhanced rotations of US aircraft to Australia. The Talisman Saber is a biennial military endeavour between the two militaries, enhancing our respective combat readiness and interoperability of our forces. This project reflects the progressive, forward- thinking military relationship that America and Australia have managed to create that is responsive to modern security threats. 

Our relationship with the strongest military in the world provides Australia with privileged access to information and high-end military equipment. This has allowed Australians to foil at least a dozen domestic terrorist plots since 2014, break up transnational crime networks, and stop money laundering and illicit trafficking of drugs, weapons, and people. Our military alliance with the US assists the Australian Defence Force as it responds to security threats and provides an added edge for us within the Pacific region. As China continues to rise, pursuing an aggressive foreign policy agenda, the muscle of the US Armed Forces can be leveraged as a counter-balance to China and shape a stable, prosperous Indo-Pacific region. Australia is a small population, with limited military force in a culturally diverse region. For this reason, it is important that hubris does not stain foreign policy, leading us to think we are better or more powerful than we really are. Our military relationship with the United States has ensured that Australia remains a secure, free and open state in a region where this is not the status quo.  

Trade and Investment

Australia and the United States are not only strong military allies. Our economic partnership is critical to our interests. While Australia’s trade relationships, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, has lead to unprecedented growth and prosperity, the United States remains Australia’s most indispensable economic partner. Our economic relationship encompasses extensive two-way investment supporting production, growth and jobs in both countries. The United States-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has served as the basis of our bilateral trade relationship since the agreement came into effect on January 1, 2005. Under the FTA, all tariffs have been eliminated for products exported from the United States to Australia. The FTA has led to the growth of trade and investment in both countries. The United States is the largest foreign direct investor in Australia, accounting for nearly 25 per cent of foreign investment – more than the next two countries – Japan and the UK – combined. The foreign capital provided by the United States is a crucial driver of employment, economic growth, and also the ability to export. Ultimately, foreign investment facilitates Australia’s trading relationships by providing the necessary capital and know-how for production of goods and services.

Innovation and Cultural Exchange

Australia and the US have successfully established and maintained partnerships that benefit both states. As part of the Australian National Innovation and Science Agenda, the Australian government has established a ‘Landing Pad’ in San Francisco to facilitate cooperation by US and Australian entrepreneurs. Australian scientists, researchers, and innovators enjoy maximum access to America’s world-class innovation ecosystem, and US academics and researchers travel to Australia to share their findings and learn from Australian counterparts. US and Australian government agencies also work together to advance global environmental goals. Zoos and universities in the United States and Australia are working collaboratively to save threatened species, such as the iconic Tasmanian Devil.

The United States and Australia also share best practices, personnel, and technology and equipment to combat wildland fires. In 2017 Wildland Fire Management Agreement was signed, building on 15 years of close collaboration. The United States and Australia also work together to build and strengthen health system capacities, including addressing antimicrobial resistance, human resources for health, and infrastructure within the Asia Pacific region. A recent example of this strong coordination was demonstrated in a call between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicating plans to coordinate responses to the coronavirus in the Pacific. With President Trump’s recent decision to halt funding to the WHO this may make further funding available to strengthen bilateral and regional health coordination between the United States, Australia and their allies.  

A special relationship worth preserving

US presidents and officials have often referred to Australia as America’s closest friend and most trusted ally. This reputation is consistent with the special treatment and benefits Australian’s receive within the United States. For instance, the E3 visa is a United States visa only available to Australian citizens created by an Act of the United States Congress. Approving 10,500 slots for Australians each year, this visa is exceptional and signifies America’s appreciation of our alliance. In 2013, Ireland called for the E3 visa to be shared among Australians and the Irish, but these calls have so far been resisted in Congress. Then-Australian Ambassador Joe Hockey and the Embassy’s congressional liaison team successfully advocated for a change in the language of the first version of the proposed E3 amendment to ensure this outcome. Australia succeeded in Congress because of our historical defence bond and strong relationship with America.

Nonetheless, the narrative that Australia must choose between China and the United States has gained considerable traction in the media in recent years. At the heart of the story is the notion that Australia is economically beholden to China—a perception that China encourages. While there is no denying that escalating competition between China and the United States carries risks, Australia can continue to enjoy a strong, multifaceted partnership with the US whilst trading with China. The argument that Australia is at a cross-roads and somehow at the behest of China is weakened by the fact that China and the US have closer economic independence than China and Australia. Australia’s significant trade with China provides few, if any channels for the PRC to coerce Australia economically. The Chinese are not purchasing Australian commodities because they want to cultivate a friendship or drive a wedge between Australia and the United States. We are a supplier of choice to the Chinese as we have proven ourselves to be an efficient and reliable supplier by international standards. If China does not buy our commodities, someone else will. Research by Shiro Armstrong on the China–Japan relationship—a relationship marked by deep mistrust and periodic heightened tensions concluded that “trade has not been diminished or disturbed by politics to a significant extent”.

If Japan and a host of other countries in our region including South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam and Taiwan can enjoy growing trade with China while maintaining a strategic relationship with the US, surely Australia can do the same. Australia’s foreign policy debate needs to progress beyond an unhelpful focus on binary alignment choices toward a deeper dialogue about the practical challenges that China’s influence poses for alliance management. In saying this, it would be beneficial for the US and Australia to build a more resilient coalition where we discuss areas of divergence in our approach to China. This will secure productive, US-Australia relations and a united front on future foreign policy.  

Shared history, values, and prosperity have allowed the US-Australia alliance to thrive for the better part of a century, furthering both states militarily, economically and culturally. It is within our interests to maintain and grow the US-Australia partnership to ensure both nations can work together to tackle geo-political challenges with force and unity.