AUKUS and an aggressive US imperium, its reach vast, its mind paranoid

Jan 9, 2024
President Joe Biden greets British Prime Minister Rishi Surnak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese the AUKUS bilateral meeting in San Diego, Calif, March 13, 2023. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

Warmongering think tanks, self-appointed members of the military commentariat, and the whole stable of security-minded cognoscenti in the Anglosphere are terrified about one thing come November 2024. Will AUKUS, that boil on Australia’s policy landscape but boon for the US military industrial complex, be lanced by Donald Trump?

Were the orange monster of misrule to be returned, the cheer squads for an aggressive US imperium, its reach vast, its mind paranoid, warn that he may tear down the plans and arrangements reached by the administrations in Washington, London and Canberra. Those nuclear-propelled submarines may never see the light of day, at least in the hands of the Royal Australian Navy.

TheSydney Morning Herald’s January 6

The Herald editorial goes on to quote the words of a former high-ranking defence mandarin in the Trump administration, Elbridge Colby: “[I]t would be crazy for the US to give away its single most important asset for conflict with China over Taiwan when it doesn’t have enough already”.

The paper does at least acknowledge the quid pro quo situation accompanying any submarine transfer, given the pressure that Washington is bound to impress upon Canberra regarding the defence of Taiwan.

The editor of Australian Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Pearlman, is reminded of Trump’s previous gruffness to Australian leaders, his ill-tempered approach to traditional alliances. The agreement brokered between the Obama administration and the Turnbull government to swap refugees was famously rubbished by Trump in a phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “It was a stupid deal,” he railed. “It is a horrible deal, disgusting deal”.

Well, he was right: it was both stupid and disgusting, showing again Fortress Australia’s fixation against undocumented naval arrivals and a contempt for such documents as the UN Refugee Convention. (And, as Turnbull memorably remarked, we would do the same thing to Nobel Prize winners.) But Pearlman prefers to see the outburst as an “ominous episode for Australia”, a Trumpian tendency to “undermine and disrupt ties with traditional US partners.” A Trump return “could jeopardise Canberra’s entire approach to defence and foreign policy”.

In think tank land, much the same sentiment can be found. The anxiety is palpable. Executive director of the Lowy Institute, Michael Fullilove, yearns for a second Biden administration, given the current president’s efforts in consolidating “Washington’s Asian alliances”. “Biden is a fine president,” he mentions implausibly, “whose policies have favoured Australia’s interests.”

If seizing Australian sovereignty by the throat, turning the country into a US military garrison and putting a large bullseye on the continent counts as being favourable to Canberra, Fullilove best move across the pond to the imperium’s centre. Instead, he has fears that a second Trump presidency “would be a nightmare for Australia and the West.” A nightmare, maybe, but only for some.

Certainly, another member from the school of Trumpian nightmares is Chris Barrie, former chief of the Australian armed forces. Were Trump to win the next election, he told the Sydney Morning Herald in an interview, “that will be the end of it [for AUKUS].”

Barrie, it should be remembered, is all for seeing Australia as a military annexe of US power. He is hearty in his approval of interoperability, the functional military doctrine that binds the Australian and US armed forces in such a way as to make the ADF incapable of detaching itself from the Washington war machine. Such servile arrangements are “practical [because] we will always be a small defence outfit, we are never going to be a world shaker”.

There are also some curious signals coming from polling conducted by The Guardian. They seem to work on a misunderstanding that Trump would, somehow, become a crusader for foreign wars that would demand Australian involvement. AUKUS asserts entrenchment and compulsion: Australia would have to commit to any US-led conflict. Surely, then, such respondents would cheer the prospects of Trump’s termination of AUKUS?

As for the issue of war, Trump remains one of the least war-like presidents in three decades and made a point of calling out the Bush family legacy in invading Iraq and committing US forces to the Middle East in futile open-ended conflicts. It was Trump who sidestepped the puppet regime in Kabul to negotiate the eventual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan with the Taliban, something the imperium cheerers never forgave him for.

The same cannot be said of the Biden administration, packed with neocon hawks, and a whole gaggle of merry empire constables who feel that Washington needs to have a global police force able to deter and repel any usurping contenders. With Australia thrown in as a deputy, conflicts are inevitable.

Were Trump to upend the alliance, even scrap it as a “dumb idea”, the obligation for Australia to commit to any full hardy adventurism suddenly diminishes. Scrapping AUKUS would not only liberate Australia – to some extent – of Washington’s fetters, but enable it, at long last, to look at its own security interests with sobriety. But that is not the reality the security-military establishment fixated on the Indo-Pacific would like you to think.

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