Defence: the appalling US corollary

The defence commentary that bloomed in the wake of the publication of Hugh White’s “How to Defend Australia” has largely failed to mention the appalling corollary to White’s wise assertion that Australia has to prepare itself for the possibility that the US would not come to Australia’s defence if attacked from without.

The corollary is, of course, the question as to why, over the past decades, have we sucked up to the US, done all its bidding, and entered wars at its behest that really had nothing to do with us? Why did we expend so much blood and treasure when, now, at the critical juncture of the rise of an aggressive China we will not be able to expect the help we have relied upon from the US these past 75 years.

White, emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, is noted for clear thinking and not one to succumb to hyperbole.

His assessment that we can no longer rely on the US must therefore be considered somewhere between seriously and the given fact.

With the anti-alliance Trump in the White House it is more likely a given fact.

But the important point is what flows from that. White, one of Australia’s clearest statregic thinkers, says we should therefore be more self-reliant.

So far, so good. But his suggested options of meeting the challenge of being less reliant on the US displays a nation-state mentality which is quite outdated. 

He countenances a nuclear option and a fundamental change to Australia’s military-hardware programs. He says Australia’s military-hardware programs are compromised because they are designed as a mere inter-operable appendage to the US military. Truth in that. 

He says we should therefore concentrate on defending our shores against the only way they can be invaded – by sea. Therefore we should increase our submarine fleet to attack marine invaders and reduce the emphasis on surface ships. And overall we should dramatically increase defence spending. 

He, quite correctly, says that that should not be expressed as a percentage of GDP but in terms of how much is required to meet the threat.

But that said, the question is not only how much money should be spent, but upon what it should be spent upon, to address our national security.

In the past two decades we have spent it in precisely the places which have reduced, not increased, our national security: Iraq and Afghanistan in particular. If we had stayed out, Australia would not have attracted the attention of jihadists and terrorists.

Spending money on a nuclear deterrent, which White does not rule out, did not help the US in its interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon etc.

These days, we do not have open all-out nation-state wars as we did in 1939-45. It is acknowledged by the US that it cannot nuke Kabul in revenge for the of the 9-11 attack. As the US acknowledges, its enemy is not the Afghan people, but the evil harbourers of the Taliban. Consequently, despite the overwhelming military strength of the US, it has not and cannot defeat militarily one of the poorest nations on earth.

That point was the difference between the First and Second World Wars. In the First, we were fighting Germany and everything German, and Beethoven was off the menu. In the Second we were fighting Fascism, Nazism and Hitler, not Germany and the Germans, and Beethoven was very much on the menu in British concert halls, just to prove the point.

The legacy is that we are not anti-China or anti-Indonesia. Rather we are opposed to authoritarianism and abuses of human rights.

The answer to this is not to build nuclear weapons or double our spending on the military to meet some misguided concern will be invaded by a nation state. All that will do is escalate nervousness and suspicion and cause an equivalent reaction among those who see themselves as the object of our concerns – in the past Indonesia.

A better way is to make our forces responsive to Australian, not US, needs, as White suggests. But we do not have to spend a vast amount more. Rather than spend more on the military element of our national-security expenditure, we should spend more on the relationship-building expenditure – particularly foreign aid and the soft power of Australian TV and radio broadcasts into our region, and beyond – areas we have cut so stupidly against our national interest in the past two and half decades.

And surface ships which can respond to humanitarian crises, are critical. Submarines cannot do that. 

The foreign-aid budget should be part of the defence budget. Australians have no idea how little we spend on foreign aid, so governments can get away with cutting it. The Lowy Institute (which, as it happens, I criticised last week on its inept polling on population) has done a first-rate job on exposing this.

Hugh White is quite right to pose the question “how do we defend Australia” and is quite right to suggest we can no longer rely on the US, but the answer is not to go nuke, increase military spending, or redirect spending in ways which weaken the Australian military’s capacity to respond to humanitarian crises. To the contrary. 

We can bluff our neighbours with a nuclear weapon that attacking Australia might or might not result in a painful rebuff. But the bluff might be called. On the other hand, if we build trade, educational and cultural exchanges and health, educational and economic aid with our neighbours they will never want to attack, and if they ever have totalitarian leaders those leaders will never be able to point to Australia as the wicked outsider deserving of attack.

To the extent we are no longer under the US nuclear umbrella, as White correctly points out, we should be grateful. The price has never been worth it. And Iran could well, one hopes not, prove the point yet again. 

Australia needs to build its own umbrella in this region, and not a nuclear one. Rather ,one that says: Come, temporarily, we will help you under our umbrella to shelter from the economic rain so you can, within a short time, stand proud in your own shelter.


This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 13 July 2019.

10 thoughts on “Defence: the appalling US corollary”

  1. Another thought …
    Economic and educational invasion softening the way for military which will be secondary and maybe not even necessary..
    some thoughts and examples:
    eg the unwise lease of Port Darwin, a WA airport, US military just keeping fingers in the pie, selling of Qld holiday destinations/islands to Chinese investors, Cubbie cotton farm, sale of water and ruining the Murray Darling Basin, selling food production assets eg largest Tasmanian dairy no longer owned by Australians , abattoirs, etc
    allowing other countries to mine and environmentally destroy our land, gas sold at low low prices . Electricity companies sold to foreign owners. Let alone domestic property…
    Our country is being been sold , chipped up and fragmented – effectively moth-eaten.
    Financial control corruption of those in government at all levels – local state and federal … So then it will be much easier to manipulate control and takeover by stealth .
    Infiltration and control of our education system – Unis , schools – utilising good old fashioned financial control – it’s happening right now.
    And to top it off a surprise visit in the harbour of ships on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square?
    Who really ‘owns’ Australia ?
    Discussing military defence of the country is a somewhat late discussion, is it not?

  2. Surely an indication of the real maturing of Australia as a nation is to have an independent position on foreign affairs. It is very rare for Australia not to follow, puppy-like, the position of the US on any matter arising before the UN. The best we can do is to abstain. Do we really need tax-payer funded representatives when we could just say “Whatever the US decides is fine with us” To watch the government cutting the highly regarded Radio Australia, and then foreign aid to Pacific nations, only to have China fill in the gap was baffling. Then Morrison rushing to the Solomon Islands to try to regain lost ground.
    Now the prospect of another US base near Darwin with highly restricted access by Australian citizens. What price will Australia pay for Morrison’s lunch with Trump?

  3. Agree with your assertion that Australian ‘soft power’ is a far better option in defraying Chinese or any other influence in the region. Winston Churchill said ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war’ and former (regretfully) US Defence Secretary Mattis said (as a Marine general) that cutbacks of the diplomatic service means he ‘has to buy more bullets’. So DFAT should be enhanced with more of the fine people we have in that department (I’m not ex-DFAT but I have a lot of time for them).
    We also need to keep the big navy LHDs and RAAF C-17s and C-130s because these assets are needed to provide aid and relief to Pacific populations that will be disrupted by the coming natural disasters caused by climate change.
    But good on Hugh White for stirring the ants nest. It allows the chattering classes to chatter. But why would China want to invade Australia anyway? No need to – just bust up domestic systems by cyber warfare.

  4. Excellent article but careful how you go mate you might get raided.

    If government agencies are not already monitoring you Mr Hull they sure will now that you have published Steve Crisps ideas for the enemy. Noel Wauchope is wrong, because of your former editorship of the Canberra Times permanent residents of Canberra do pay attention to what you write; it’s just the temporary ones that don’t.

  5. Good article. However I would like to question the assertion that the only way Australia can be invaded is by sea. How about this scenario: Country X simply flies a number of commercial airplanes filled with armed troops into all capital city airports at the same time, (complex, but certainly doable to achieve the element of surprise). They disembark, seize the airport, and keep on flying in. Would our fighter jets be able to scramble and would they shoot down aircraft that may or not be military – or have a mix of genuine civilians and disguised troops? Street fighting in all our cities and even country areas with airports. How long would Australia hold out?

  6. Unfortunately we elect governments of both persuasions for whom logic is outweighed by greed and pandering to the few with the loudest voices about maintaining the status quo. Fear of change is much more important than truth and truth becomes that where we have the strongest financial investment. Hence, Morrison sucks up to Trump even knowing he has no sense of loyalty to Australia and probably wouldn’t even consider answering the phone call for help because he is still thinking of imposing tariffs on us.

  7. Thank you Crispin for some clear thinking on this important issue . Warfare has moved on as you and others have said , more economic and cyber strategies bring employed. One suspects the nuclear industry has been lobbying furiously the conservatives for a foot in the door , raises 3issues one adopting nuclear posture will upset near neighbours and start a race we don’t need and can’t afford , second when will we know who is lobby the govt? 9 months time ? After decisions are made with the help of former ministers? (The third issue) In this country regulators are failing us daily , likely due to the small govt push by the IPA funded by Gina and Murdoch

  8. Spot on as usual. Thank you Crispin for airing what should be much more widely discussed.John Back

  9. Wise words. The episode of Yes, Prime Minister to do with the Trident missile had a minor character pose a very pointed series of questions to Jim Hacker, which reaches the conclusion that nuclear weapons probably wouldn’t be used against conventional forces, even with invaders marching toward the centre of government.

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