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options of meeting the challenge of being less reliant on the US displays a nation-state mentality which is quite outdated.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.