Menzies told the US, ANZUS did not apply on Taiwan. Why not Albanese?

Jun 24, 2023
Manhattan, New York. November 09, 2020. Times Square tribute to president elect Joe Biden.

Call it Carr’s law. I’m pretty confident it withstands any testing. It’s simple: find someone talking up war with China and, if they were around 20 years ago, you find they were a supporter of the Iraq invasion.

Few learn from error. On the other hand, stupidity is a constant in human affairs. Against it, said Schiller, even the gods fight in vain.

It may be true, sadly, in the case of President Biden who three times since 2021 has strayed from the diplomatic formula that kept the peace over Taiwan, dropping the strategic ambiguity adhered to by his Democratic predecessors William Clinton and Barack Obama, and even George W Bush. This week he undercut his own Secretary of State Anthony Blinken who hours earlier in Beijing appeared to have made progress in settling on principles for cautious co-existence.

With Blinken in the air returning from China the president stumbled into calling President Xi a dictator.

There are reasons for doubting Biden has honed instinct and sound judgement on international relations.

Mark Weisbrot recalled in The Guardian (February 18, 2020) that the Iraq war had been debated and then authorised by the US Congress in 2002, at a time Democrats controlled the Senate. At the time Biden had been chair of the Senate committee on foreign relations. In this role he argued strongly in favour of the 2002 resolution granting President Bush the authority to invade Iraq, calling this momentous step “…a march to peace and security.”

In fact, Biden had been positively gung-ho as he was sucked into the devil-may-care neo-con agenda. He was able to choose all 18 witnesses in the main Senate hearings on Iraq and deliberately selected people who supported a pro-war position. They argued in favour of “regime change as the stated US policy” and warned of “a nuclear-armed Saddam sometime in this decade” and that Iraqis would “welcome the United States as liberators.”

Bad judgment calls, all. But they captured Joe Biden.

From the Senate he enthusiastically facilitated the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld Iraq invasion.

It is not unreasonable to politely stand back from his judgment when he states that the US would fight for Taiwan or directs economic containment at China. Happily Australia and Japan decline to endorse the president’s line, cleaving to rhetoric more in tune with that deployed this week by the Secretary of State. France too.

Twenty years ago on Iraq, Australian hawks had no capacity to say no to the US. These were Keating’s “little Americans” who approached the Alliance with cultish loyalty and with no skepticism about US wars or Washington’s judgment. Nor, it might be added, have they ever been excessively burdened with a sense of Australia’s own interests as the starting point for discussions about US-initiated war.

Find any hawk on China – from the think tanks or the bureaucracy, the media or politics – and it’s likely, or even certain, that in March 2003 when the sky over Baghdad lit up with missile strikes they were cheering the American invasion and predicting early and easy success.

Another rule is now emerging: no hawk describes what a US-China war might look like. They talk up war as close-to-inevitable, as a reality to prepare for. But they draw back from sharing any wisdom about how it might play out.

As far as I know, none of the US think tanks have exercised their collective minds on how such a war might be fought, although there have been reports of war games behind closed doors.

That’s why I take seriously the book by Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman entitled 2034: A Novel of the next World War (2021). Stavridis served as commander of NATO and twice led a carrier battle force. His scenario must be granted credibility and two former secretaries of defence, Bob Gates and Jim Mattis, have done so.

As I argued in The Weekend Australian, there’s one striking takeout. Stavridis and Ackerman do not assume a 48-hour Armageddon. Instead they describe a slow-motion nuclear exchange, and of tactical not strategic nuclear bombs. Their conceit is that in the first phase of conflict China has used cyber and missile supremacy to sink two US carrier groups.

In their pages, the blow to US primacy is shattering. The effect on US opinion is traumatic. The president (whom Stavridis makes a woman, under pressure to prove her strength) responds by approving the use of a tactical nuclear weapon over a Chinese city with a population of 10 million. Beijing responds, exploding tactical nuclear weapons on Galveston and San Diego.

This novelised treatment of how such a conflict might be played out should be more widely read, especially given the absence of other scenarios and the unwillingness of hardliners to explore the consequences of their loose war talk. And I hope it’s read by decision-makers in China as much as in the US.

Third law: none of the cold warriors who talk boldly about war – including, for example, the authors of the lurid series published in March in Nine Media predicting war in three years – have considered the new world order that would emerge from such a war. In such a show-down America and China would maim each other so badly that both would be struggling to hold their societies together, with tent cities for millions under radioactive clouds and economies wiped out. They would not be able to resume world leadership.

In this world the dominant powers would be India, possibly becoming a Hindu dictatorship, Iran still run by its revolutionary guards and instantly fitting itself out with nuclear bombs and missiles, and Russia, even if crippled by the Ukraine war, still able to threaten Europe- especially if Europe has lost its transatlantic protector.

Unconvincing dystopia? I would ask a critic to produce a more convincing one to canvas the shape of the world order to emerge from US-China war.

Outside ASPI (with its US government and arms industry funding) I know no Australian who wants to go to war over Taiwan. I assume our military brass see it as a potential disaster – not least because none of our navy assets have protection against hypersonic missiles and would be sunk. Nothing we offer would make the remotest difference.

Robert Menzies, the most authoritative Liberal PM, told two US presidents that ANZUS did not apply on Taiwan. Alexander Downer said the same in 2004. Any PM who committed us to such a disastrous adventure would likely lose office and face a Chilcott-type inquiry. In a world struggling to survive the catastrophe his or her reputation would hardly matter.


Bob Carr is the longest serving premier of New South Wales and former Australian foreign minister.

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