Mr Albanese goes to Madrid: Australia on the alliance path to Global Nato

Jun 30, 2022
Prime Minister Albanese shakes hands with British PM Boris Johnson in Madrid 20 June 2022
Image: Flickr/ Number 10

While most eyes rest on the remains of Scott Morrison’s failed attempt at a khaki election through last September’s announcement of a backward-looking AUKUS alliance, prime minister Anthony Albanese’s trip to Madrid for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit points to a much more significant shift in Australia’s alliance with the United States – ‘a global alliance of democracies’, aka Global NATO.

Scott Morrison’s AUKUS centring on agreement with the US and UK to provide Australia with submarine nuclear propulsion evoked derision about its back to the 1950s strategic vision and despair about what promises to be the worst and most consequential of Australia’s numerous recent politically-driven defence procurement choices.

The submarines debacle apart, AUKUS for the most part remains a matter of two or three lines of unpromising promises in media releases, largely dealing with matters already the subject of bilateral agreements or dimly-seen possible futures like quantum computing for defence purposes.

The most recent, if somewhat limp, nudge to keep the Albanese government on the nuclear submarine track came at the National Press Club when the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove mocked an informed questioner concerned about the deal’s implications for the tattered nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This widely-held worry – if first Australia, then serious nuclear weapon-wannabes Brazil and South Korea – was in fact unimportant Fullilove replied, since experts such as former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans have assured us are under control.

At the same time the US has just added its confidence booster to this process with a bill before Congress for an Australia-U.S. Submarine Officer Pipeline Act that would allow two RAN submariners a year to attend a seven-week nuclear reactor training, take the US Navy’s Submarine Officer Basic Course, and then deploy aboard a US nuclear-powered submarine.

This only leaves the imponderables of deciding the strategic rationale of the mission to which the submarines are to be solution, the actual technical requirements that would be entailed by that mission, the design of the submarine, the choice of country and lead contractors for the build, the development of a full-scale naval nuclear-engineering safety and maintenance regime, and a brief discussion of the lifetime costs likely to be more than a couple of multiples of the $100 billion estimate for the French submarines.

What could possibly go wrong?

And that’s before any discussion of opportunity costs – even for alternative contenders for defence spending, let alone meeting non-military requirements for a secure Australia – of the lifetime costs of a commitment to nuclear submarines that are likely to move towards the half trillion dollar mark.

But Albanese’s trip to the leaders’ summit of a US-dominated alliance centred on the other side of the world will prepare the way for deeper Australian integration into a broadened Nato.

For over a decade US and Nato officials and Australian defence advisors have been calling for ‘a global alliance of democracies’. The Australian prime minister, together with the leaders of Nato’s other ‘Asia-Pacific partners’ from Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, will participate in the launch of the first formal iteration of Global Nato with Nato’s Strategic Concept 2022.

Two decades of high tempo deployment of Australian military under Nato auspices in the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East have conditioned the Australian Defence Force to close operational coordination and interoperability with US-led Nato ground, air, and naval forces.

Defence planners have gradually integrated Nato into high-level Australian strategic planning, first as an ‘Asian partner’ Nato along with Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, and recently as an ‘Enhanced Strategic Partner’.

Nato’s centrality to the hyper-multinational International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan provided the first and possibly most important Australian escalator into Nato.

While replete with consequences as lethal for the people of Afghanistan as they were dysfunctional for all of the alliance militaries involved, ISAF, together with the parallel US-orchestrated Combined Maritime Forces in the western Indian Ocean from 2002, provided deep operational experience and ‘learnings’ for a Nato-centred US-led coalition on a scale approaching a multilateral ‘global’ presence.

Nato’s Strategic Concept 2022 is to be formalised at the Madrid Summit, representing a maturation of US post-Cold War planning for a major step towards an integrated global defence alliance after seventy years of US-dominated Nato in Europe and the limitations of bilateral hub-and-spokes alliances in Asia.

Most importantly, apart from integrating its Asian partners more closely, the new Strategic Concept is to prepare Nato ‘against all threats, from all directions’.

Full membership of Nato for any of these Asian partners will be a long way off, not least because the governing institutions of a now 30 member country nuclear alliance will need adjustment, even assuming there is no uncomfortable internal opposition as Turkey has mounted against the admission of Sweden.

For the present, Australia, Japan and Korea – and possibly New Zealand – will be drawn into Nato’s seemingly endless rounds of political, diplomatic, military and civil society consultations (though the last is in practice a most attenuated and selective grouping of actual national and international civil society).

US-led military interoperability drives will be coupled with injunctions for closer political and strategic planning coordination between Canberra and Brussels (aka Washington).

But there can be little doubt of the ultimate goal for Washington in the construction of ‘an alliance of democracies’ with global reach.

The follies of AUKUS distract attention from the scale of the quiet achievement of the United States in rescuing Nato from post-Cold War obsolescence, latterly assisted greatly by the Russian war against Ukraine.

Drawing the line from Kyiv to Taipei, ‘we know’, the Prime Minister said, ‘that there is an alliance that has been reached as well between Russia and China. There are implications for our region, given the strategic competition that is in our region, which is why this Nato summit comes at such a critical time’.

As Mr Albanese rightly put it Russia’s ‘brutal invasion is against the rule of law’, and carries implications for ‘all of those who cherish democracy, who cherish the rule of law, and who cherish the rights of nations to be sovereign’.

Yet Australia needs to tread carefully.

The warm glow of rhetorical solidarity with Ukraine facing World War 2-scale Russian attack tends to veil the fact that multiple US-auspiced Nato interventions in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan have led, via great destruction, to evident defeat or specious ‘mission accomplished’.

Moreover the list of Nato members and partners does not provide an unsullied list of countries honoured for their respect for democracy, rule of law, or sovereignty.

Mr Albanese might like to chat about the rule of law with Victor Orbán from Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from Turkey, or indeed with Boris Johnson – or mull over the battered state of American democracy with Joe Biden.

Perhaps a stopover by his RAAF plane in Diego Garcia might prompt some thoughts about British respect for the rule of law – in certain respects, such as the forced dispossession of the indigenous Chagos Islanders to make way for a giant US military base often used by Australia, more egregious than China’s violations of international law somewhat further east.

Above all, in one respect Mr Albanese’s rush to Madrid is not so different from his predecessor’s cajoling of Washington and London to help out a mate with the anachronistic PR nonsense of AUKUS and the gift horse of a ‘privileged’ offer to allow Australia to buy massively expensive American or conceivably British nuclear-powered submarines.

By all means, let us make common cause with governments we find congenial – when our interests do in fact genuinely align. Defence coordination and cooperation with democratic states in our principal areas of strategic interest is a must for Australia. The problem is that Europe is not such an area, and neither was the Middle East, Afghanistan, nor Nato’s latest fronts in North Africa and the Sahel.

Thinking about an alliance of democracies is not inherently foolish. The problem comes when the form of periodic elections is confused with the substance of democracy. It may seem carping to point to the Orbans and Erdoğans of Nato, but with Marine Le Pen possibly just one more election away from the Elysée, the authoritarian threat in Europe is palpably real.

Remarking on a British prime minister’s announced willingness to trash international agreements for political gain at the risk of re-starting a war in Northern Ireland may seem unoriginal, it is scarcely beside the point with talk of new alliances built on rule of law.

Most seriously of all, we should be talking about the risk of a precipitous decline, or even collapse, of democracy in the United States extremely seriously. Appalling as it is, the Supreme Court decision abolishing US women’s rights to control their bodies is but the latest blow to the unexamined claim for the United States to still be called a global model of democracy.

The view in Canberra seems to be that the US alliance has survived the threat of Trump, so it’s back to business as usual, and onward to ever closer union – with the path leading now through Brussels. Yet the dangers to Australia from unconsidered reliance on a country with both systemic dysfunction and deep anti-democratic impulses at its heart should not be ignored.

The common element between the swooning Australian interest in Global Nato and the Morrison fiasco with AUKUS and the manifold problems of its submarine element is that in both cases a considered assessment of whether Australian national interests align with those of the United States – in this case in the guise of Nato – is absent.

The new Australian foreign minister has started a commendable reset of Australian regional relations in an effort to recover, at least as a start, from the wreckage of a decade of coalition policy.

In a series of important statements on foreign policy in recent years Penny Wong eloquently has made the case for understanding that a proper consideration of our national interest cannot be separated from the long and sometimes difficult process of working out who we are.

Interests very largely flow from identity, especially when it comes to reading a map of threats and opportunities. Why then would the first foreign policy ventures of a new prime minister be tied to an alliance with the other side of the world – for Australia, the old world?

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