National Defence and Security questions in Australia are, like so many areas of government policy, difficult to follow, let alone master, and debate about them tends to attract only a small attentive public. The answers to them, in the form of various forms of cost, however, are frequently in the currency of death and destruction.
Ultimately, they can require citizens to fight, kill, and maybe die. For that reason the research institutes which claim expert knowledge and understanding of the issues, and publish accordingly, deserve at least our exceptionally critical scrutiny. When they are found to be effectively colonised by the interests of others, they deserve radical reformation, or, failing that, repudiation and even disestablishment. Unfortunately, for Australia, this dire situation has been reached across an extensive range of institutions and inducements
Of these, two in particular deserve close attention – the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which is predominantly funded by Australian defence and national security agencies and military-industrial corporations – and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, established in 2006 by an Australian Government endowment facilitated by the then Prime Minister, John Howard.
Both exist, albeit in different ways, under several layers of camouflage which allow them to present themselves to the outside world as dedicated to the pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding which are the essential predicate conditions to engaging in public debate and proffering policy advice. In point of fact they are, at their occasional best, only partially involved in such a quest.
At other times, they cannot escape a religiously configured state of mind which, in the four prevailing circumstances of their respective obligations, is inevitable. They must, first, and sine qua non, profess the doxology of the Australia-US alliance; second, the must maintain their revenue stream, third they must also produce analyses and recommendations which are acceptable to their patrons, and fourth, they should also attract the genuine respect for their work from people of sober and informed mind and of a critical bent.
The problem is clear: the first three tend to drive out the possibility of the fourth. The whole arrangement is basically a inverted bastardised Faustian bargain: the favours and ear of the Prince, access to the halls of power and membership of the clerisy of policymakers are guaranteed provided a certain incuriosity is maintained.
They ensuing pact, therefore, is designed to serve, special, which is to say specifically American interests incompatible with a genuine research institute or a self-respecting, self-critical university; indeed, they are a parody of them.
In brief, while the commitment to the alliance instructs them, it stultifies the willingness to accept that facts in themselves are, in their own way, tyrannical: they observe no filters and obtrude, with consequences, no matter what measures are taken to ignore them.
This is not to deny that it is to ASPI credit once represented a promising development in Defence debate and to its credit that legacy has come to the fore when, for example, it expressed its critical and refreshingly honest awareness of the parlous state of the national security debate in Australia; to its detriment, however, is its refusal to comprehensively reform its own role in this national pathology by refusing to acknowledge that the alliance with the United States – held to be the cornerstone of Australian Defence Policy – is an alliance with a great power in various modes of decline that have been evident for decades and only more acutely expressing themselves now in a sequence that still has some time to run.
To proclaim the centrality of the alliance requires, at the very least, an attempt to acknowledge, if not reconcile, the deep-seated and chronic pathologies of the US with the needs of Australian defence and security because, logically, all of the former cannot be ignored on at least two grounds. The first is that all, taken together, preclude the possibility of a genuine functioning democracy. Second, a deep understanding of them is mandatory when ASPI proposes that Australia prepare for a major-power war in the next decade, as does the USSC in two publications, Mapping the Third Offset: Australia, the United States and Future War in the Indo-Pacific, and Averting Crisis: American strategy, Military Spending and Collective Defence in the Indo-Pacific.
Indicatively, such an undertaking would include the evolution that gave rise to conditions of internal division and political, social and economic decline, which lead to the Trump presidency and the moral squalor now on daily display which is more redolent of a banana republic than a functioning republic. To be emphasised is that all of the conditions just summarised have been available in abundance on the public record which includes books, peer-review articles in academic journals and in the works of those still practising the profession of investigative journalism.
Within the traditional strategic sphere, the indicators are equally troubling. The range from senior US Central Command (CENTCOM) officers being found guilty of having manipulated intelligence so as to present a “more positive [view] regarding the capabilities of [Iraqi Security Forces] and the progress of the fight against ISIS” to the deterioration of civil-military relations in favour of the latter, and the emergence of a “warrior” culture, furthermore, are the elite forces of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM): some 70,000 personnel operating in 150 countries, mainly from the 800 bases of various descriptions that the Pentagon maintains.
It would be imperative that they include the increasing belligerence by the United States towards Russia – as articulated pre-Trump by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, General Philip Breedlove, and his successor, General Curtis Scaparrotti.
China, inescapably, also features: The Council on Foreign Relations finds China’s refusal to accede to US primacy a threat and urges an escalation in the already dangerous levels of confrontation while a RAND Corporation report, commissioned by the US Army, has produced a war plan, War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable, the logic of which requires a war sooner, rather than later in order to exploit the current, but steadily deteriorating strategic advantage enjoyed by the US.
More recently the turn has been to not only planning for “total war,” as indicated in various reports, but also the eager anticipation of future war which Vice-President Mike Pence has given voice to.
Nowhere is there any consideration of a be a renewed enthusiasm for nuclear weapons by the US and the explicit move from nuclear deterrence to serious consideration of nuclear war-fighting, perhaps best illustrated by Trump’s Acting National Security Advisor, Charles Kupperman, who is on the record as claiming that a nuclear war is winnable.
This disposition then lurches into the absurd, or the bizarre in the knowledge that the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission has no confidence that the US would actually win a war against China or Russia because it no longer enjoys the dominance it once had and the behaviour it could indulge through unchecked power.
Making sense of the alliance in these terms requires that the attentive Australian public understand that, as these and a proliferation of other indicators reveal, the US requires that its allies join with it in ongoing episodes of compensatory violence to assuage what is, essentially, a self-inflicted psychodrama. Although it will continue to be a great power is cannot abide the humiliation of being reduced in status and capability to that of an inferior or even an equal power.
For too long, it has been arrogant, self-infatuated, insensitive to others, and prone to threat exaggeration and illusions – to the point of declaring itself exceptional and indispensable – but time has now been called on this conceit and it should be expected that two exceptionally well-funded research centres would have the grace, courage and the imagination to be alive to the contributing causes and their consequences.
Instead, ASPI and the USSC have generally conformed to the behaviour common to all dependent research centres: candour will not be pushed to the point of indiscretion. The unacknowledged, but nevertheless explicit, preference is for the perpetuation of a strategic immaturity, an adolescence made comforting by denying the tragedy and the truth of great power decline.
What emerges are palimpsests of the alliance – in which excruciatingly vibrant conditions are overwritten to suit the traditional and prevailing requirements of a faith that defies belief yet still imposes adherence at the same time it incarcerates all visions of possible, less deadly forms of pursuing national security. A deadly favourable impression is created by the simple but expensive recourse to suppressing the whole truth. In all, a dangerous broadly perpetrated, government-funded and corporate-subsidised fraud.
Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University