Richard Butler. An act of faith and a blind eye.

Mar 11, 2016

The Defence White Paper 2016 has now been published. An engaging, critical, analysis of it has been offered by Professor Hugh White, ANU, (Pearls and Irritations March 10th ).

Rightly, the purpose of the White Paper is to outline how Australia’s security can be assured in the current and expected environment.

A central assertion of the paper, with respect to that assurance, can be found at page 121, in paragraph 5.20.

“ Only the nuclear and conventional military capabilities of the United States can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia. The presence of United States military forces plays a vital role in ensuring security across the Indo-Pacific and the global strategic and economic weight of the United States will be essential to the continued effective functioning of the rules-based global order.”

This assertion about the US role in assuring the security of Australia, would make sense to the many Australians who have absorbed the notion that Australia’s security requires what Prime Minister Menzies declared, in 1955, “a great and powerful friend”.

Consequently, candidates for election to our national Parliament, from both major parties have demonstrated, for years, their belief that they would ignore Menzies’ doctrine at their electoral peril.

This stance has led Australia to support the United States in all of its wars, from Vietnam to Iraq and Syria.

In this light, Paragraph 5.20, deserves analysis.

First, it posits the existence of possible nuclear weapons based threats to Australia. Given the existence of nuclear weapons able to strike Australia, that can be seen to make sense, even be prudent. But, there needs to be an assessment of the likelihood of their use. This is complex, involving strategic motivations of others, the costs and benefits of the use of nuclear weapons and, above all, the notion and mechanics of nuclear deterrence.

It also engages “the security dilemma”; the notion that the act of arming to appear to be of superior strength to a perceived adversary, simply brings about an increase in their armament directed at you, thus increasing the danger and probably beginning an arms race.

We have sought to avoid a nuclear security dilemma by eschewing nuclear weapons of our own. The Gorton Government dallied with nuclear weapons in 1969, delaying our accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT), but a decision on acquisition was not supported and we joined NPT.

It is generally calculated that nuclear weapons would not be used on states that do not possess them and, nuclear weapon States have given assurances to that effect. But, Australia’s continuing participation in US nuclear strategy could be taken as invoking the security dilemma. Specifically, that Australia has on its soil US nuclear control and Command systems can be seen not only as facilitating a US nuclear threat to others but also as making more likely the use of nuclear weapons against Australia, in the event of a nuclear crisis, say, between the US and China.

Secondly, the fundamental assertion that the US would act to defend Australia against a nuclear threat, including through the use of its nuclear weapons, needs to be questioned. The US can be expected, as a rational actor, to consider the full implications of any such use or threat of use. This would obviously engage far wider considerations than the security of Australia.

In the past, a simplistic, perhaps crude way of posing this question has taken the form of asking; “ Would the US, in reality, be prepared to trade Los Angeles for Sydney, if those were the alternatives in a nuclear crisis?” The answer seems obvious, unless of course the bases in Australia had to be saved in order to ensure the US’ wider ability to conduct nuclear war.

As already noted, this is all very complex, but all that can be said of it accurately, is that paragraph 5.20, represents an act of faith.

Thirdly, the assertion is also made that what is at stake in all of this is not simply Australia’s security, but something possibly even more fundamental; “ the continued effective functioning of the rules-based global order”.

It is on this notion, that the White Paper reveals its glaringly blind eye.

There is a rules-based global order. It is the one set forth in the Charter of the United Nations and derived solemn agreements, not least the NPT.

The central point to be made about that order, is that it has come to be routinely ignored and abused, particularly by those powers intended to be its main guardians: the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Outstanding results of this have been; the emergence of DAESH, following the illegal invasion of Iraq by two such permanent members, US and UK, in which Australia participated (consistent with its record from Vietnam onwards), the failure of the Council for 4 years to agree on action on the Syrian civil war, and the western attack upon Libya, engineered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (see the NY Times’ analysis of Clinton and Libya, February 28th, 2016 ).

That action in Libya exceeded the Security Council mandate to afford protection to Libyans from its government and moved on to regime change, an event never authorized and for which no replacement Government was seriously planned. This resulted in the chaos now seen not only in Libya, but across northern and western Africa and added to the conflicts already underway in Iraq and Syria.

The massive humanitarian and refugee crises in the region are the profound outcome of these failures of the rules-based order; and, they are beginning to threaten another deeply important rules-based system, the EU.

In addition to these disasters, the US and Russia have resumed the development of new nuclear weapons, in violation of their NPT obligations.

There seems to have emerged a preference amongst key States to return to power and interest as the determinants of policy not the compact agreed at the end of the Second World War and Colonialism, as set forth in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (see my; Nuclear North Korea, Pearls and Irritations, November 1st 2015).

Is this “rules- based order”, now in disarray, the one of which Australia’s Defence Department speaks?

Clearly not. What it manifestly has in mind is the US version of order, presumably because it represents “our side”.

The problem with this is that so many others in the world, West and East, not just obvious adversaries or actors with whom we have little or no sympathy, but also friends, do not look comfortably upon what the White Paper declares to be “US leadership”. How could they, when the US has declared itself to be the “exceptional country”, meaning that it does not have to obey the rules that they say all others must keep?

And now, the US election campaign is revealing that there is a widespread notion, in the US electorate, that the US has been abused and exploited, by the rest of the world.

Whether the ever more grotesque Trump or the proven to be bellicose Clinton prevails, we cannot expect any diminution in the militarization of US foreign policy.

Indeed President Trump may break new ground in revealing how disturbing it can be to be obligated to an Alliance that is shaped by the forces and psychology of US domestic politics

The White Paper, inevitably deals in detail with force structure, equipment, military resources. But, a major resource Australia has at its disposal, for the protection of its security, is its skilled diplomacy. It needs to exercise much more of it, especially in its region. For example, as I have argued previously, (Pearls and Irritations, An Independent Australian Foreign Policy, May 13th, 2015), we must not accept that our relations with both China and the US are an either/or proposition, in which we must make a choice. We can maintain constructive and principled relations with both.

And, we must reassess with a clear, not a blind eye, and not simply as a matter of faith, our alliance relationship with the US.

Finally,we should also strive, with others, to restore authority to the only valid rules-based system in existence, the Charter of the UN, and seek a new dispensation in the constituency and decision making methodology of the Security Council.

An overwhelming majority exists in the General Assembly of the UN in support of major reform of the Security Council. This must be pursued, because surely the point about rules is that they will only attract faith in them, be followed, if they are applied equally to all.

Richard Butler AC is a former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations.

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