Leaders seem to want to believe that they’re living in the world’s most interesting times but there’s a real danger if they make it so.
It was not an off-the-cuff throwaway line. It was a considered key paragraph in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s statement launching the 2020 Defence Strategic Update.
“….even as we stare down the COVID pandemic at home, we need to also prepare for a post-COVID world that is poorer, that is more dangerous, and that is more disorderly,” he said. “We have been a favoured isle, with many natural advantages for many decades, but we have not seen the conflation of global, economic and strategic uncertainty now being experienced here in Australia in our region since the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s.”
A sobering thought, as Mr Morrison said, and one he claimed to have reflected on quite a lot lately. So let’s briefly look at the 1930s which Morrison says was much like today.
Thankfully by 1930 the wrongly-named Spanish flu, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, had run its course. But between 1936 and 1939 Spain was torn apart by a civil war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The rest of Europe was starting to recover from World War I when the Great Depression hit. Germany was in chaos with the collapse of the Weimar republic early in the decade and then the rise of the Nazi Party. The Soviet Union was seeking to build industry but introduced collectivisation that saw a dramatic drop in Soviet farm production and famine. Japan invaded China in 1937 and Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Britain and France then declared war on Germany and Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies told Australians that it was his melancholy duty to say that as a result Australia was also at war.
So who does Morrison see himself as? Another Churchill with his “We will never surrender [our sovereignty]” declaration?
Surely not. More likely Menzies, the conservative leader who, like Morrison never served in the forces, but happily sent young Australian off to Vietnam, arguing that the war “had to be seen as part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.” And this statement — ignorant as it was of the fact that the Vietnamese had a long history of resisting the Chinese — was not a throwaway line either but part of Menzies’ speech to the House of Representatives on 29 April 1965 announcing his government’s decision to join the American war. (Menzies claimed to have had a request from the South Vietnamese government for military assistance and committed Australia to the war even though at the time of his speech no formal request for assistance had been received.)
Another Liberal Prime Minister John Howard took us to war in 2003 based on another false US claim, this time that Iraq had an arsenal of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Morrison’s comparison between today and the global and regional collapse of the 1930s and 1940s is a big call and if we’re not careful, the way today’s cold war cheer-squad is going, we may well make the comparison a reality. The new cold warriors will create a situation that is as dangerous as the cold war that came close to being a hot war during the Cuban missile crisis. It’s worth recalling how a more assertive shirt-fronting stance can turn into an actual existential crisis.
In 1962 the United States discovered that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear armed missiles off the coast of the US on Cuba. The Americans demanded the withdrawal of the weapons and a US maritime blockade was established. As tensions mounted and President Kennedy considered his options US destroyers located a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine, B-59, in international waters approaching Cuba. Policing the blockade, US destroyers began dropping depth charges to force the submarine to the surface.
On board the submarine the three officers authorised to launch a nuclear torpedo had no way of knowing whether World War III had begun and argued over whether to launch a nuclear weapon to blast the US aircraft carrier Randolf out of the water. One of the officers, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, opposed the launch and without unanimous agreement it did not go ahead. Thanks to Arkhipov and a level-headed President John F Kennedy, who resisted pressure from his military advisors to start a war they believed they could win, the world dodged a catastrophe.
Today we still have a nuclear armed US, Russia and China, and the other hotspot nuclear-armed states of India, Pakistan and Israel. The Cuban missile crisis is far from the only occasion when the cold-war came close to nuclear war. In June 1980, shortly after the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan and the US was leading the boycott of the Moscow Olympics, US foreign policy adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was woken from his sleep by a staff member who told him that Soviet submarines had launched 220 missiles on the United States. Brzezinski asked for an immediate check and the caller came back this time saying 2200 missiles were on their way. Strategic Air Command bomber crews ran to their planes and started their engines. Missile crews were told to open their safes. But early warning radar and satellites detected nothing. It turned out that a forty-six cents defective computer chip in a communications device at North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) headquarters had generated an erroneous warning.
Finding fault with every Chinese action achieves nothing. The Corona virus may have originated in China but the Chinese no more wanted this than did any other country. Seeking to join President Trump’s China blame game, with a call for an “independent” inquiry into the outbreak rather than a cooperative, constructive investigation, only revealed Australia’s subservience to the United States. We achieve nothing when we characterise China’s Belt and Road initiative as a threat, rather than action to further China’s development and economic goals. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we accept that Trump’s Make America Great Again is good for Australia when America is often a rival in our markets and trade with China is complementary. By all means develop further cyber security measures but let’s not pretend that it’s only the Chinese and Russians who seek to hack into computer networks. And the media would do well to stop giving airtime to “experts” who claim without the slightest jot of evidence that, for example, the Chinese brought down our electronic census.
A cold-war state of fear, distrust and arms build-up increases the chances that a mistake or a bit of bluff will bring about something that really does threaten our very existence.
Paul Malone is a journalist and author with over 30 years of experience having worked for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review and the Canberra Times, where he was Political Correspondent for five years and wrote a weekly column until late 2017