MICHAEL McKINLEY. The unmooring of our national defence from our national interest. Part 4 of 4.

Sep 22, 2016


Australia is currently courting offence rather than, as governments so often assert, defence – a transformation which might only charitably be attributed to absent mindedness if the alternative, stealth, is excluded. It is, moreover, a change wrought, in the first instance, as a consequence of the ways in which Australia thinks about its national defence, but also of both the logic and the inherent dangers arising from and within the Australia – US alliance. While an extraordinary number of avenues of inquiry are possible, there are four which are pursued, the drift to offence itself, followed by, second, the emergence of the “post-democratic” military and security complex in the US; third, the strategic dimension to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, and fourth, Australia’s developing relationship with NATO.

Part 4. Australia and NATO

Coverage of Australia’s developing relationship with NATO over the last few years in the admittedly limited debate on Foreign and Defence Policy is, to say the least, minimal. Informed and critical analyses are even rarer – articles by John Blaxland and Cavan Hogue being exceptions. It would, therefore, probably be a surprise to most Australians to know that Australia has any formal relationship with NATO at all given that Article 6 of the Washington Treaty which established it envisaged a scope of operations regionally defined by the north Atlantic, or if exceptional circumstances prevailed, no further south than the Tropic of Cancer.

Even less would they be aware Australia has an Ambassador to NATO and that, in October and November 2015, Australia participated in Trident Junction 15, the largest NATO exercise in 13 years, involving some 36,000 troops from 30 nations, across Spain, Italy, and Portugal. It did so as one of seven “partner nations,” and notably, it was the only non-European nation among them.

The purpose? To provide an opportunity for them to refine their operational capabilities. Air, Land, Maritime, and Special Forces will participate simultaneously in several locations and from different Headquarters to train in a complex environment to improve Alliance’s full spectrum capabilities. At the conclusion of Trident Juncture 2015, the Headquarters Staff responsible for overseeing the exercise was officially certified to lead the NATO Response Force, if activated, throughout 2016. Countering Russia in Ukraine is frequently cited as the immediate context for such an action.

Taken together, what Blaxland and Hogue caution against is any deepening involvement towards full membership with NATO, in the currently unlikely event that it is offered, on the grounds that it would run counter to Australia’s national security interests. A close examination from the perspective of late 2016 not only affirms this but indicates that Australia’s trajectory is gravitating towards a prejudicial association.

Australia’s designation by President George H. W. Bush as a Major Non-NATO ally of the US in 1989 was followed in 2006, by the US Ambassador to NATO’s proposal that Australia be included in a “Global NATO” within a “Concert of Democracies” such as Brazil, Japan, and South Africa. Four years later, following the adoption of the alliance’s New Strategic Concept, the “Concert of Democracies” concept could only be used disingenuously as further “global partners” were announced – among them Afghanistan, Mongolia, and Pakistan. In the period since, Australia’s status has been promoted to that of “Enhanced Partnership,” within which it will have access to NATO’s operational planning, and governing councils.

Such a promotion goes beyond the collaboration and coordination required when NATO commands operations to which Australia is a contributor – two examples being the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, and the counter-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Accordingly, Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop’s endorsement, at the NATO summit in Cardiff in 2014 that, of future sanctions against Russia to contain its “aggression,” the opening of an Australian Embassy in Kiev, the provision of supplies to the Ukrainian military, and the possible professional training of a small number of Ukrainian officers to attend the ADF staff colleges in Canberra are measures which embed Australia within already existing states of hostility that have their origins in power politics to which it is otherwise a spectator.

Sadly, these moves have taken place during a period of ongoing existential crisis in NATO. While the US holds Russia responsible for “sowing seeds of global instability” – as noted Part 1 – two US commanders of NATO forces are on record as defining Russia in terms almost indistinguishable from enemy – and the latest edition of Germany’s yet-to-be published “white book” – the country’s document outlining the country’s official security doctrine – is reported to have changed its characterisation of Russia from “priority partner” to “challenge,” the overall situation within NATO is one of declining support among the original signatories, for both the alliance in general, and the cornerstone commitment specified under Article 5. In addition, there is a general rejection among the various publics of Russia-as-threat, a sentiment most pronounced in Germany and Turkey.

Taken together, the many fissures within NATO are testament not only to its likely ineffectiveness if called upon but to its dangers to international peace and security as well. In brief, Turkey’s objectives in Syria and Iraq run not only contrary to those of the US, but Turkey has positively hindered US operations in the region, and has a view on Russia entirely at variance with the US; Hungary, too, has engaged with NATO only selectively, and has moved closer to Russia, and the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Greece are also on record favouring a conciliatory attitude towards Russia.

Of these, three NATO members deserve scrutiny: Turkey, Poland, and Hungary. Currently Turkey is the most blatant indication that NATO is in serious trouble: its behaviour in recent times, domestically and internationally, has been that of a maverick which knows that, because it is crucial to NATO’s Central Asian Strategy, and a conduit into Iraq and Syria, it can, and does act with a considerable impunity, both internationally and domestically. Poland and Hungary are similarly inclined internally and are now pursuing politics of an authoritarian nature to such an extent that the European Union, in an unprecedented move, has launched a “probe” into the workings of the rule of law in the former.

None of the above takes into account the robust research on alliances which has been facilitated by massive historical databases such as the Correlates of War and the findings of this reproaches the conventional wisdom – that alliances and balances of power stave off war – with findings that indicate the exact opposite. For the here and now, NATO is surely to be judged by its own logic as an alliance: it should, therefore, have a clearly defined enemy (or an adversary whose capabilities and intentions justify enemification) and on whose identity there is a more than perfunctory consensus; additionally, it should be unified within and between its members to the extent that their politics do not compromise the objective of security for all. None of this now applies to NATO and this should be apparent in Canberra; indeed, its characteristics are indicative of the conditions under alliances first of all become entangling, then dangerous, and ultimately fail.

Dr. Michael McKinley formerly taught International Relations and Strategy at the Universities of Western Australia and the Australian National University; he is now a Visiting Fellow in the College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU.

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