Australia and the United States see the world through the same eyes, Scott Morrison told sailors on USS Ronald Reagan during the Talisman Sabre war games on 12 July.But after hearing what Mike Pompeo and John Joseph Mearsheimer had to say in Australia in recent days, we might conclude that if our eyes are the same, the world we see is different.
Professor Mearsheimer is a former US airforce officer turned academic, and a ‘realist’ in foreign policy. Now at the University of Chicago, he absorbed from Columbia University’s Kenneth Waltz the idea that because there is no higher authority over states, the world is anarchic. The need for security in such a lawless world, he argues, leads nations to try to maximise their capacity for aggression. They need alliances with others, but they don’t last. Aggressive war is a legitimate instrument of statecraft, to be used when another major power threatens a region of importance to a hegemonic state. This is what Mearsheimer calls ‘offensive realism’.
Promoting his two latest books, Mearsheimer addressed the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) in Sydney, debated Hugh White in Canberra, talked on ABC RN with Phillip Adams, and with his sycophant and fellow-realist Tom Switzer on’Between the Lines’. Mearsheimer’s recital about how the world of great powers works was well-rehearsed: he has given it more than a hundred times, and delivers it like a televangelist. He admitted, as some Americans do not, that the US has an imperial, land-grabbing history, one that a rising China will emulate for good strategic reasons of its own. But the US has ‘no tolerance for peer competitors’ and will accept only one hegemon in the Western hemisphere.
America has the strongest military on the planet, and in accordance with Mearsheimer’s offensive realism, will project its power in the Asian hemisphere too, which brings Australia’s US/China choice up close and immediate. Australia has ‘no choice but to side with the US’, Mearsheimer told the CIS audience on 7 August, adding that we would be punished if we sided with China. The US will not allow export of dual-use technology (that can be used for both peaceful and military purposes) to countries which deal with China. Contradicting recently arrived Ambassador Arthur B Culvahouse jr, he cited no rewards for supporting the US: no guarantee of defence, no assurance that Australia will not be a nuclear or conventional target. So for Mearsheimer we’re back with George W Bush: you’re either with us or against us. Security, he claims, beats trade. But what security?
Why opt for such an unreliable, belligerent ally, at great cost to our economy? some in his audience wondered. Why maintain bases that endanger us more than they protect us? Mearsheimer admitted he was surprised at ‘how readily Australia agrees to everything’. Australia, he said, will participate in a coalition in the Persian Gulf, which had not yet been announced, making some wonder what he knew that we didn’t, and what his visit, coinciding with Pompeo’s, was really for. To soften us up for what’s coming, it seems.
Among the well-informed CIS crowd, some inquired if belief in US exceptionalism is wavering, and if Americans’ war-weariness reduces the capacity of the US to thwart China’s rise. Some recalled Morrison’s speech on 15 June saying Australia doesn’t seek to contain China, and China’s record of not seeking to invade Australia or anywhere else. Mearsheimer’s consistent response, as in other forums, was that the US should have pushed back sooner against a rising China, and is now doing so by seeking to slow China’s growth. The US, he told Tom Switzer on 8 August, has ‘tremendous staying power’ and will not tolerate competitors in regions of importance to it.
On ABC RN, Mearsheimer debated these issues with Kevin Rudd, who argued that Australia had decided China, as the greatest driver of global economic growth, should not be shut out of global forums. He dismissed ‘juggernaut talk’, reminding listeners that far from being an aggressive naval power, China’s last sea battle was against Japan in 1895, and China lost. Moreover China’s growth is slowing, and the PRC is beset with internal uncertainties. If China breaks the rules, he added, Australia can challenge it. He described current US strategic policy as ‘all over the place’, and expressed caution about Australia being dragged into conflict with China over Taiwan.
In Mearsheimer’s contrary view, China should be given no chance to rival the US. It should, for example, have been kept out of the WTO. In a process that could take decades, the ‘rules of the road’ are still being created between the US and China. America wants what China has, conventional cruise missiles on land and on submarines. This is the reason, he said, that the US under Trump withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: not to threaten Russia, but for push-back against China. As for international law, and the ‘rules-based order’ so beloved of Australian leaders, for Mearsheimer it’s as if they don’t exist. Nor did he show any interest in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or in China’s support for Central European states and Iran, which will soon give China alternatives to the sea-route to the Middle East and Europe. China is the major trading partner for 120 countries, and 68 have joined the BRI.
An eerie silence prevailed from Mearsheimer about the looming prospect of US nuclear war with China, and its catastrophic effects on our region. He heard from several in the CIS audience that far from guaranteeing our security, it’s the US alliance that endangers Australia. If that concerned him, he gave no sign of it.
Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform, which has just written to Australian politicians deploring the prospect of war against Iran without a debate and a vote in the Parliament.