Has the quality of Australia’s decision making on issues of life and death for the country and its people – not to mention Planet Earth – truly become reform proof? Going by the lack of any serious process before lining up dutifully behind the most strategically challenged president in American history and the most irresponsible suite of bellicose threats from his tweet-addicted thumbs, the answer to the question is anything but reassuring.
In a radio interview on Friday 11 August, PM Malcolm Turnbull said: ‘If there’s an attack on the US, the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked and Australia would come to the aid of the United States, as America would come to our aid if we were attacked’. He did add the proviso that ‘how that manifests itself obviously will depend on the circumstances and the consultations with our allies’. Nonetheless he doubled down that ‘The American alliance is the absolute bedrock of our national security’ and ‘in terms of defence, we are joined at the hip’.
I lived through the ANZUS crisis in New Zealand in the 1980s. I recall a droll cinema-style poster that proclaimed ‘Coming to a theatre near you, starring Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, “Apocalypse”. Thatcher promises to follow Reagan to the end of the world, and he promises to do his best to bring it about’. Today it is Australia that seems to have locked itself into the support role to extinction.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s tweet resonated powerfully around the world: ‘A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons’. Although many Americans remained puzzled by how he won and are as embarrassed as foreigners by his crude bluster and alarmed by his propensity to risk, the speed and depth of global disenchantment is truly astonishing.
Trump, wrote Harvard University’s Realist scholar Stephen Walt, is ‘determined not to be beaten in [the global] competition of political incompetence’ and to that end has picked security and trade fights with several allies, friends and foes without discrimination. Adults who might be in charge of US foreign policy are conspicuous by their absence. The administration has kept even career diplomats at a distance, dismissing many with a curtness that slights their decades of professional service to America in favour of a ‘know nothing approach’ to foreign policy. Trump’s transactional approach has alienated America’s neighbours, allies and friends. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in Munich on 28 May: ‘The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over’. Europeans must ‘really take our fate into our own hands’.
Within months of taking office, Trump saw his own popularity and the US reputation decline steeply around the world. In a 37-country global survey of 40,448 people, only 22 percent expressed confidence that he would do the right thing in international affairs, down from 64 percent during Barack Obama’s final years in office. The fall in confidence was especially pronounced among close allies in Asia (including a 55 point fall among Australians) and Europe and immediate neighbours Canada (-61) and Mexico (-44). Americans overall are still viewed favourably by 58 percent of the world’s people. But global publics dislike, distrust and disrespect Trump. They judged both his policies and character harshly. In the eyes of most, he is ‘arrogant [75%], intolerant [65%] and even dangerous [62%]’. Only 26 percent believe he is qualified to be US president.
Yet he has his fingers on the buttons of the world’s most lethal nuclear arsenal and this stokes the sum of all nuclear fears worldwide. In December 2016, the Defense Science Board urged president-elect Trump to consider acquiring a greater number of lower-yield weapons that could provide a ‘tailored nuclear option for limited use’. Senator Dianne Feinstein rightly responded that there is no such thing as a limited nuclear war.
In a tweet on 22 December, President Trump promised to ‘greatly strengthen and expand nuclear capability’. In February he insisted the US would stay at the ‘top of the [nuclear] pack’. A day later he said: ‘Let it be an arms race…we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all’. On 2 August, Air Force General Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the future of nuclear deterrence lies in smaller, low-yield nuclear weapons that can be used to attack an adversary without ending the world or causing massive indiscriminate casualties.
In one interview Trump seemed to suggest Japan and South Korea could obtain their own nuclear arsenals. His unpredictability, unreliability and scepticism about the value of NATO awakened interest in an independent European nuclear deterrent. The possibility was raised by Roderich Kiesewetter, a parliamentarian and spokesman for Germany’s ruling party, shortly after Trump’s election in 2016, and repeated by Poland’s former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski in February 2017. A review commissioned by parliament concluded that Germany can legally finance British or French nuclear weapon programs in return for their protection. All such developments are greatly worrying.
The North Korean crisis and Turnbull’s joined at the hips embrace of Trump has to be analysed against this background. Trump has been involved in an escalating series of bellicose threats with Kim Jong-un using words like ‘fire and fury’ and military ‘solutions’ that are ‘fully in place, locked and loaded’. He left many world leaders uneasy and earned an exhortation from Beijing urging restraint and the need to avoid words and deeds that can exacerbate the situation.
Who would have thought – China telling the North Koreans and the US to cool it while our PM simply lines up behind Washington to demand North Korea ‘stop its illegal, reckless, provocative conduct which is putting the peace and the stability of the region at risk’. Turnbull’s words apply equally to both Kim, who has between 20-60 nuclear bombs but none deployed, and Trump who has 6,800 of which 1,740 are deployed. If Turnbull wishes to be taken seriously by other leaders in the region, he must show a more balanced appreciation of provocations and aggressive threats from all sides and regain credibility as a supporter of global efforts to reduce nuclear risks and eliminate nuclear threats.
ANZUS is meant to protect us, not be the lightning rod to a nuclear war waged by two egomaniacs. Kevin Rudd is right to call out his successor’s irresponsibility in giving a blank cheque to Trump in such dangerous brinksmanship, repeating the mistake of the Howard government in Iraq in 2003.
Conversely, if Australia’s prime ministers can use ANZUS to justify risky and aggressive actions abroad with no parliamentary check on the government’s war powers, perhaps it is indeed time to follow New Zealand’s example in being a friend but not an ally of a reckless US itching to fight the next war.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in The Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.