In the course of the current AUSMIN talks Australia has once again been invited, by the United States, to assume a role for which it is well, indeed over-qualified for – namely to provide janitorial services in the aftermath of a series of strategic debacles by the US itself. Serial prodigality and recklessness are to be rewarded with serial subservience and indulgence. It’s a tradition.
Amid declarations of the “unbreakable” nature” of the alliance relationship Defense Secretary Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper made it clear that both an Australia contribution to a joint coalition of naval forces to protect merchant shipping from attacks by Iran, and Australia’s support for US decisions to scrap the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and deploy weapons once banned by the INF should be forthcoming.
On such matters wherein William Butler Yeats got it right when he wrote that excessive love, leading to needless debasement, and finally to bewilderment becomes a sacrifice so overpowering that it can “make a stone of the heart.”
But, of course, I speak of people historically informed and critically aware of whom there appear too few, or none with voice, at these talks.
If there were, some (at least) murmurings might have been heard to the effect that the current Iran-Straits of Hormuz crisis is principally the result of a White House anti-diplomatic vandalism. By extension, supporting the US is, essentially, to validate a threat to international peace and security.
More positively, declining to contribute to the US-led coalition would, if followed over time on similar occasions, establish a long overdue threshold reflecting Australia’s national interest, responsible international citizenship, and a reminder to the US that it must reform. Wishful thinking? OK – is the preference, then, to be a janitor?
When approval is finally announced, as it almost certainly will be, it will come dressed, as it always does, in the many coloured costume-of-the-day festooned with the many medals of past defeats and the usual claims whereby necessity – the need to serve “the national interest,” and preserve “the international rules-based order” has determined the commitment.
Little thought will be given to the consequences of failure, or what victory would be like. Iran is not a country that will stand for endless bullying and immiseration; it has no substantial navy to persist in ship seizures, but it has capabilities in the form of mines that would make passage in the gulf significantly hazardous to a level at which shipping is uninsurable.
What throws this situation into shadow are three unaddressed (in Australia, anyway) dimensions of US global strategy which go to the heart of the defence of Australia, its alliance with the United States in general and Pine Gap in particular, and the immediate Asia-Pacific region: (1) the explicit context of US strategic decisions, (2) the rationale for scrapping the INF, and (3), the subsequent deployment statements of the once proscribed weapons and others as well which, in combination, imply a renewed US attraction to nuclear war-foghting.
The first should have been a primary concern even before the Trump Administration but it has become unavoidable since its advent and the reported “serious, long-term preparations to restructure the US economy to fight a war with a “peer” adversary [Russia and/or China] entailing radical changes to American economic, social and political life” as detailed in a Pentagon document of October 2018.
This document, moreover, is consistent with a stream of reports, exercises, deployments, weapons developments and bellicose statements by high-level military and civilian personnel which exhibit, in brief, a disposition to war, in parallel with the relegation of diplomacy to an irrelevance beyond its cosmetic utility.
Such a frame of mind easily accounts for the US withdrawal from the INF. Ostensibly this was mandated by Russia’s (possibly not deliberate) breach of the Treaty with the development and very limited deployment of the of the 9M729 missile and, secondarily, the fact that the INF did not include China.
To be understood here is that constituencies in the Pentagon and the Congress had been working assiduously for years to wreck the treaty. More significantly still, the US was also quite possibly in breach of the treaty by installing an Aegis Ashore Missile Defense System at Deveselu air base in Romania (with another planned for Poland).
If we add to this the US initiative to modernise its nuclear arsenal by installing the burst-height compensating super-fuze – which effectively triples the killing power of its ballistic missiles – which, although outside the scope of the INF Treaty, relates in a fundamental way to strategic stability.
As described by three of America’s most respected weapons analysts (Hans M. Kristensen, Matthew McKinzie, and Theodore Postol) in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists the situation is one the US has developed “the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”
Without entering into a ping-pong match of accusation and rationalisation, expert arms control opinion in both Russia and the United States is in agreement that, even if Russia’s 9M729 was in breach of the treaty, the nature and magnitude of the breach in no way justified US withdrawal, nor its obscenely rapid leap into deploying a range of previously prohibited, and other weapons, in Asia.
[Equally, if the non-inclusion of China in the INF Treaty was a grievance, then surely there was an obligation to initiate a round of arms control or disarmament negotiations which addressed the dangers arising from the proliferation of intermediate range missiles].
Instead, what we have witnessed in recent days is a speed of decisions and deployments relating to previously proscribed weapons that suggests a deeply guilty past during the writ of the INF treaty.
These must be seen in the context of the new inventory of nuclear weapons – inter alia so-called “mini-nukes” – in the lingua franca of the discourse, these are not “mega-destructive, but smaller, “tactical,” and “low/variable yield;” others are described as “earth-penetrating / “bunker-busters” (also “low yield). And all will be joined by a suite of hypersonic missiles- described by its patrons as “fast, effective, precise and [currently] unstoppable.”
In time, China, Russia, and the US will all have them in their respective orders of battle. An arms race is as close to inevitable as a political cause-effect chain can be.
Three Conclusions: First, the nuclear developments in favour of the United States tempt not only a first strike (the US emphatically maintains this option) but also the notion of a winnable nuclear war. The speed and destructive power of the hypersonics underline a first strike decision; warning time will be negligible and the “dictum use it or lose it” will be dogma. By hosting the US facilities at Pine Gap, Australia is inextricably involved in this deadly evolution.
Second, the just-completed AUSMIN talks, therefore, are to be seen as another episode in the ongoing grooming process by the US. It has plans for Australia.
Third, realising the country’s enhanced target status, the Australian government will no doubt call for a missile defence system – perhaps the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD); indeed, two former Prime Ministers (Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott) have already done so. Such a costly acquisition would be entirely consistent with currently defined defence priorities and strategic logic, both determined in Washington.
On the other hand, a decision to recognise Australia’s unnecessary transit into the deeper shadows of war by refusing to match America’s irresponsibility with Australia’s own irresponsibility would follow the logic of truly defined national interest articulated by a government engaged with its own people and region.
Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University