The opinions to which we should pay most critical attention are those of commentators best placed to influence government. Peter Jennings, Executive Director of ASPI, is one. Now he is claiming a ‘new cold war with China is playing out in all but name’.
The Cold War rhetoric evokes strong negative responses and raises fearful associations that confound the clear headed and fact-based analysis required of policy makers in these demanding times. The struggle between the Soviet Union and the US was seen widely as existential by both sides. The Soviet Union threat was more than a military one. Communism was regarded totally incompatible with Western democratic values, norms, and interests and market capitalism.
Moreover, the Americans were convinced Soviet policy ‘calls for the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled from the Kremlin’. It was a zero sum game. The current situation in no way resembles that.
Why employ the provocative and alarmist language? From with the ASPI bunker every Chinese action hides a dark purpose directed at Australia. Jennings is part of an incessant campaign for an ‘increase in defence spending beyond the current target of 2% of GDP and doing even more to build Australia’s military presence in the region’.
He claims that ‘These days, even a British audience understands that China presents the biggest strategic threat to global stability’. However, a PEW survey published last October shows 49 percent of UK citizens have a positive view of China opposed to 35 percent with a negative view. It’s important to recognise that the Jennings is not pushing a view of China that is widely held globally, and especially in Europe.
The Europeans are cautious and prudent in their dealings with China, as they are with Russia and the US. A more recent PEW survey found that the US was regarded as a bigger global threat than China in France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK. In addition, in the African and Latin American countries surveyed PEW found the US to be considered a greater threat to global security than China.
Even after its aggression in Georgia and the Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and facing the Russia massive military at their borders, Europeans regard the US a greater threat than Russia! The 1997 song, “I’m afraid of Americans” by David Bowie and Brian Eno is a more appropriate anthem for our times than Jennings’ constant refrain.
The Administration of President Trump is not simply dysfunctional, unpredictable, faction riven, and diplomatically clumsy and inept. The US’s approach to foreign and security policy is positively corrosive of the institutions and norms that have allowed the world to avoid a repeat of the major wars of the twentieth century. Jennings claims Australia is not ‘a neutral bystander in a cold war that pits authoritarianism against the international rule of law’. This simply avoids the reality that the US is the greatest threat to rule of law.
Unilateral American decisions are eviscerating the Security Council’s standing; through the relocation of its embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and withdrawing from the JCPOA. The long term damage being done to the reputation of the Security Council, the peak security body of the post-war international rules-based-order.
Trump’s handling of nuclear related issues, including the diplomacy over Iran and Korea and handling of the INF Treaty, has damaged global security more than anything the Chinese have done. As has his tolerance and license of illiberal authoritarian regimes.
The US and Australia cannot be said to still fully share the same values and beliefs, rules, or commitment to democracy and human rights, that underpinned the ANZUS alliance. Whether or not Trump himself is an anomaly, or a one or two term president, his tenure has allowed some noxious tendencies to blossom. Future US administrations will find a shattered domestic consensus on America’s role in the world and over the types of strategies and relationships it should pursue.
An irreducible nationalist core has solidified in the electorate, orbited on its periphery by diverse extremist groups—white supremacists, Islamophobes, and alt-right provocateurs. A core that overlaps with an evangelising tendency that wants foreign policy to be coloured by religious positions on matters important to Christian voters, such as abortion and religious freedom, and which also envelopes more apocalyptic, end times attitudes toward the Middle East and Israel.
Even were the next president interested in the promotion of democracy and human rights, the support and maintenance of international institutions, and multilateralism; a divided American political landscape will not provide the freedom of action domestically to prosecute those aims. Nor would such objectives necessarily be perceived internationally as genuine, reliable, and irreversible.
Future administrations will find it difficult to regain the level of trust and partnership that had characterised the US’s important alliances or to re-establish the influence and leadership the US once exhibited.
China is an illiberal and authoritarian state that needs to be dealt with on that basis. It is single-minded and focused in the pursuit of its interests. As is the United States. But the strategic, moral, religious, political, and economic situation that fuelled the cold war has not returned. The views expressed by Jennings are not consistent with the broader consensus on international strategic environment.
It is to be hoped that ministers and their advisors will not have their judgement clouded by inaccurate and ahistorical narratives.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.