[This article was on the verge of going to print on 23 February 2022. The very last commentary reviewed was by Stephen M. Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard University entitled: THE WEST IS SLEEPWALKING INTO WAR IN UKRAINE. [i]The next morning Russia launched its invasion.]
Throughout Australia’s history, this Nation has always relied on a great and powerful protector. First it was Great Britain, but by the end of World War II, Britain’s economy was in tatters and so Australia turned to the USA which by then had become the mightiest country in the world. As Allan Gyngell observes: “The motivating force of Australia’s international engagement has been fear of abandonment”.[ii] Today, the question is whether it is in Australia’s “National Interest” to continue with this reliance.
A BRIEF HISTORY
In 1915, Australian troops, headed for Gallipoli to meet the threat posed to British interests. According to the Australian War Memorial, the Gallipoli operation cost 8,141 Australian deaths. Despite this, it has been said that Gallipoli had no influence on the course of the war.
On 15 February 2022, Australia remembered how 80 years earlier, in 1942, at the fall of Singapore, British-led forces surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army. 8000 Australians perished.
In the final days of World War II, America divided the Korean Peninsula at the 38th parallel. Five years later it became the first of America’s failed modern wars. Truman was unshakeably opposed to Communism. According to the Australian War Memorial, more than 17,000 Australians served during the Korean War. 340 were killed and more than 1,216 wounded.
Kennedy believed that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow. Prime Minister Harold Holt assured the American president that Australia would go “all the way with LBJ”. 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam and 521 died. The strategic assumptions which lay behind Australia’s engagement in the war were flawed. Although Vietnam became Communist, the rest of the region did not follow.[iii]
In October 2001, following the 9/11 attacks, the US under Pres George W Bush invaded Afghanistan. On 31 August 2001, the last American soldiers lifted off from Kabul airport, ending the 20 year war, the longest in US history. An estimated 241,000 people have died as a direct result of that war.[iv]
The US invaded Iraq in 2003, after accusing Saddam Hussein of having weapons of mass destruction. None were found. At its peak in 2007, the US had an estimated 170,000 troops in Iraq.
The ANZUS Treaty between Australia, New Zealand and the US came into force in 1952. In 1984, the Treaty began to unravel when New Zealand (demonstrating its independence) declared its country to be a “nuclear-free zone”. Consequently, the US and New Zealand no longer maintain this security relationship.
Notably, New Zealand and China have recently upgraded their trade deal to further promote trade and investment to a higher level. The agreement includes measures on environmental protection, believed to be the strongest such measures to which China has committed in any free-trade agreement. [v]
The ANZUS Treaty provides that each party “will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened in the Pacific”. ANZUS is nothing like Article 5 of NATO which provides that an attack on any one member is regarded as an attack on all of them. According to Gareth Evans, the alliance is only there to support America’s position in Asia, not the other way around, and the USA will only put itself in harm’s way under the Treaty if it sees its own interests directly threatened.
The Menzies government entered the Vietnam war with the aim of keeping the US involved in the region so that when Australia needed the ANZUS umbrella, it would be available. “The idea of the payment of a premium on an insurance policy became the most powerful metaphor in Australian public life”. It would be a tragedy for Australia if, one day, it calls upon its “insurer” to pay up, and its insurer repudiates the policy! Today, despite the noise from the US and its allies in relation to Ukraine, they have made it clear beyond doubt that they will not engage in military action.
Reliance on USA
During World War II, the USA did not respond to Winston Churchill’s desperate pleas for intervention in the face of an existential threat from Nazi Germany. The Americans only entered that war after they were attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbour.
The Australian government has been criticised for adopting US foreign policy as a template for its own foreign policy. Prime Minister Turnbull spoke of his commitment to support Trump in North Korea saying that Australia stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the US and that the nations were “joined at the hip”.
As at 2020, the US controlled 800 military bases in 85 countries outside the USA (including in Australia). However, the thought of finding a foreign base located in the US is unimaginable.[vi] Just imagine the US reaction if Russia (or China) was to establish a military base in America’s near abroad, in Cuba, Mexico, or The Bahamas!
Jimmy Carter, at 94 years of age, describes the US as the “most warlike nation in the history of the world”.
Australia’s former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser expressed the belief that Australia’s relationship with the US had become a paradox. This is what he said:
“Our leaders argue that we need to keep our alliance with the US strong in order to ensure our defence in the event of an aggressive foe. Yet, the most likely reason that Australia would need to confront an aggressive foe is our strong alliance with the United States. We need America for defence from an attacker who is likely to attack us because we use America for defence!”[vii]
The real danger for Australia is that the USA, relying on Australia’s “clingy relationship” will call upon Australia to join with USA in some future, misguided foreign venture, just as Australia has done in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Where, one might ask, do Australia’s national interests lie?
The PRESENT DAY
Taiwan – Confusing Messaging, “Strategic Ambiguity” and Maintaining the “Status Quo”
In 1979, the US declared that it would end formal relations with ROC (Taiwan) and, since 1980, the US has adopted a policy, in relation to Taiwan of “strategic ambiguity”. Nevertheless, President Biden has talked of the US commitment to Taiwan being “rock solid”, saying the US has a “sacred commitment” under NATO to respond to action against Taiwan. Taiwan is not part of NATO! In October 2021, Biden stated that the US would come to Taiwan’s defence in the event of an attack by China saying that the US had a “commitment to do that”. The White House hastily announced that there was no change in the US/China policy and that the US would continue to pursue its policy of “strategic ambiguity”.
In 2007, Taiwan proposed a “status quo” policy relying on a “Three No” formula: “no unification; no independence; and no use of force”. Even Taiwan’s current President Tsai, while encouraging US intervention, calls for maintaining the status quo. Neither unification nor independence seems feasible any time soon.
Australia’s Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, apparently oblivious of the policies of status quo and strategic ambiguity, and arguably deranged, announced that if the US committed forces to defend Taiwan, it would be “inconceivable” that Australia would not join in the military action. Australia’s leading strategist and defence expert, Hugh White points out that if America goes to war with China over Taiwan, Washington will expect Australia to fully commit to the fight, and it seems clear that Canberra would readily agree. However, White contends that such a war is one which the US cannot win and Australia “has nothing to gain and much to lose by encouraging America to go to war over Taiwan”. America’s promise to defend Taiwan is no longer strategically or militarily credible.[viii]
In November 2021, Chinese President Xi Jinping drew a firm redline on Taiwan, saying that China would strive for peaceful reunification, but that encouraging Taiwan independence was playing with fire. Biden reaffirmed the US government’s long-standing “One-China” policy, adding that the US did not support “Taiwan independence”.
The UKRAINE Crisis – NATO Expansion
NATO was created in 1949 to provide collective security against the Soviet Union. Article 5 provides that an attack against any member would be considered an attack against them all.
At the end of the Cold War Gorbachev agreed to German reunification when he was assured that NATO would not expand eastwards. Gorbachev received these assurances from many Western leaders including President George H.W. Bush, US Secretary of State, James Baker, West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, French President François Mitterrand, and British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Gorbachev failed to obtain this commitment in writing.
Although this assurance has been the subject of dispute for many years, as recently as 18 February 2022, Germany’s Der Spiegel reported that a newly discovered protocol (found in the British National Archives) supports Russia’s contentions. Germany’s centre-right daily, Die Welt reported on the conference of the US, Great Britain, France and Germany on 6 March 1991 when the statement was made that “We have made it clear that we will not expand NATO beyond the Elbe River (the dividing line between East and West Germany). When, in 1996, the US proposed that NATO invite Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states to join, George Kennan remarked, “I think [NATO expansion] is the beginning of a new Cold War. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake.” In February 2022, an opinion poll by Germany’s broadcasting Association found that 53% of Germans were opposed to NATO membership for Ukraine.[ix]
In 2008 George W Bush nominated Georgia and Ukraine for NATO membership even though neither country was close to meeting the criteria for membership. The US has called for Moscow to cease all of its activities, to withdraw from Crimea, and to let Ukraine join the EU and/or NATO if it eventually met the membership criteria for those organisations (which it did not and does not now). The US was demanding that Moscow abandon all of its interests in Ukraine, ignoring Russia’s history, its proximity to Ukraine and its security concerns.[x]
NATO grants membership, only by unanimous consent of its members. France and Germany have, in the past opposed Ukraine’s inclusion and other European members have been wary. President Biden remains uninterested in Ukrainian membership in NATO. If Ukraine were a NATO member, the alliance would be obliged to defend it against Russia and other adversaries.[xi] War with Ukraine did not need to happen and should not have happened. This outcome is an abject failure of diplomacy, and it reflects US and NATO’s determination to pursue a vague abstract principle of keeping the door open to Ukraine when it is clearly firmly shut.
Biden has made it clear that the US will not send troops to fight for Ukraine, while Russia has made it clear that it is willing to use force to achieve its core objective of keeping Ukraine from joining NATO – Russia’s RED LINE! Russia sees Ukraine as a vital interest which is worth fighting for. However, this is less than a vital for the West, and is therefore not worth fighting for!
The Kremlin views a potentially hostile alliance at its doorstep as a threat, not unlike the US reaction during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. After the US failed to overthrow the Castro regime with the Bay of Pigs invasion, Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev agreed with Fidel Castro to place Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter any future invasion attempt. Pres Kennedy immediately declared that the US would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba, demanding that the Soviets dismantle their missile bases. Diplomacy prevailed and a nuclear holocaust was averted. Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba and the US guaranteed not to attack Cuba. The US also removed its Jupiter missiles from Turkey.[xii]
Stephen Walt[xiii] had proposed that Ukraine take the initiative and announce that it would operate as a neutral country and not become a member of NATO or join any Russian security organisation. Clearly, that has not happened. French President Emanuel Macron pointed to the 2015 Minsk II Agreement between Kyiv and Moscow as a possible blueprint to break the crisis. The Minsk Agreement, though never fully implemented, included a comprehensive ceasefire and a dialogue about self-government for Donetsk and Luhansk. A deal could have offered a vehicle for direct talks between Ukraine and Russia.[xiv] Macron is one of the only Western leaders to have genuinely taken active steps to attempt a diplomatic solution. However, Ukraine’s President Zelensky, backed by USA and NATO, has remained adamant, and instead of diplomacy, war has broken out.
Mercifully, there is a reasonable prospect that this war will be short lived and that a negotiated truce will be found – but it need never have happened in the first place. In a 1972 interview with Israel Prime Minister, Golda Meir, she said: “War is an immense stupidity. I’m sure that one day children in school will study the history of the men who made war as you study an absurdity.”[xv].
Conclusion - Australia’s National Interests
“INMYOPINION”, no Australian government in the modern era has done more to undermine Australia’s National Interests than this present government. There are many reasons for this conclusion. They include the following
The Morrison government has abandoned Australia’s long-standing policy of not choosing between China and USA (an approach not unlike the US policy of “strategic ambiguity” in relation to Taiwan). Instead, Australia has thrown its full weight in favour of America, and against China. At what cost?
The statement by Dutton that in the event of US committing forces to defend Taiwan, it would be inconceivable that Australia would not join the military action.
Australia ranked last in an assessment of 60 countries released by the Climate Change Performance Index at the recent global climate summit in Glasgow. It was the only country allocated a score of zero in the climate policy category.[xvi]
Using “megaphone diplomacy”, the Australian government has drastically undermined its most important trade relationship with China. Although this government claims that China’s “economic coercion” has had only a minor impact, this view is unsupported by Australia’s business leaders, universities, the tourist industry, and producers of a range of goods such as wine and barley. The financial cost to the Australian economy runs to multiple billions of dollars, ongoing. Many other countries criticise China on various grounds, but none (including New Zealand) have succeeded in bringing such financial harm to their nation.
Australia’s clinging to America has all but resulted in Australia subordinating its sovereign independence to its great and powerful friend. It’s fear of abandonment, Harold Holt’s “All the way with LBJ”, and Australia’s then Prime Minister, Turnbull claiming that Australia and USA were “joined at the hip”.
Not only has Australia undermined its own sovereignty but it has placed a target on its back by its determined and outspoken commitment to participate with its great and powerful friend in any conflict with China and now, against Russia in Ukraine. These conflicts have nothing to do with Australia (except to continue to pay homage to America).
Most recently, Prime Minister Morrison introduced sanctions on Russia unsurprisingly saying that the decision was made to ensure Australia is in lockstep with is US and UK counterparts.
Greg Sheridan criticises the West for hitting Russia with weak sanctions resembling “a wet lettuce”. He talks of Germany suspending the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline but adds that the suspension is unlikely to be permanent. Sheridan suggests that Australia’s economic interaction with Russia is so small that it is not a central player and should not try to become one. According to Sheridan, Putin is easily winning the confrontation and is succeeding in “salami slicing” Ukraine, bringing about a massive destabilisation of Ukraine so that it will be under enormous pressure (not least from NATO) to make an accommodation with Putin. Sheridan concluded that if there was a full-scale invasion, Moscow’s superiority is such that it must lead to eventual defeat for Ukraine and he asks, “Should they fight or should they just surrender”.[xvii] Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the day after Sheridan’s comments were published.
[i] Foreign Policy 23 February 2022 [ii] Fear of Abandonment by Allan Gyngell 2017 [iii] Gyngell – Ibid [iv] Aljazeera News 10 September 2021 [v] South China Morning Post 15 February 2022 [vi] The United States of War by David Vine 2020 [vii] Dangerous Allies by Malcolm Fraser 2014 [viii] Taiwan Cannot be Defended by Hugh White, Australian Foreign Affairs-February 2022 [ix] Asia Times 21 February 2022 [x] The Hell of Good Intentions by Stephen Walt 2018 [xi] New York Times – NATO Won’t Let Ukraine Join Soon 13 January 2022 [xii] US Office of the Historian [xiii] Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis, Foreign Policy, by Stephen Walt 19 January 2022 [xiv] Aljazeera Ukraine-Russia crisis: What is the Minsk Agreement 9 February 2022 [xv] Interview of Golda Meir by Oriana Fallaci [xvi] The Guardian 10 November 2021 [xvii] The Australian 23 February 2022