Australia is not compelled to accompany the US in a war on North Korea, as PM Turnbull has asserted. His recent statement would seem to reflect his need to distract attention from the serious disputes within his government. That it has resulted in his endorsing the possible use of nuclear weapons is a profound moral failure. Trump seems dug in and maybe that’s where the deep state wants him.
Prime Minister Turnbull’s assertion that Australia and the US are “joined at the hip” on matters of international security, was appalling in substance and timing.
On substance, it misrepresented the terms of the ANZUS Treaty. It does not compel us to support the US in any war it chooses to enter but only to consult when either partner believes it is threatened.
Turnbull’s mis-representation was subsequently corrected by Foreign Minister Bishop. That was an unusual action by her, one which itself, deserves some, separate, reflection.
On timing, Turnbull’s remarks were astonishingly ill judged. We’re told that on the previous evening he had spoken with US Vice President Pence, on the telephone. What that means is unclear, but what has utter clarity, is the state of the US administration and, the President.
Minders have been sent in, mostly former general’s, to attempt to put an end to the chaos in the White House and to try to reign in Trump’s torrent of tweets and lies. (In his first 6 months, just ended, the Washington Post fact checker record indicates that he made 836 claims that were either un-factual or clearly misleading).
Trump and his family are under investigation for possible criminal behaviour and obstruction of Justice. In that context Trump has hired a lawyer whose track record has involved defending Mafia figures.
There is also the investigation of possible collusion between the Trump electoral campaign and Russian interests. And, a suit is being advanced asserting that he is violating the US Constitution by benefitting from Federal expenditures on his personal properties.
This list of the complications of Trump is a truncated one, a summary. Overall, the consequent breakdown that has occurred since Trump took office, in the functioning of the legislative as well as the executive branches of the US system, and the bureaucracy, is extreme. This means that the dominant, the deep gut concern, at the senior levels of the US polity within both governmental and non-governmental circles, is how to mitigate the negative impacts of Trump, particularly upon the institutions of government and democracy. This concern is far deeper than any fight over policies, it is a fight for the integrity and probity of the system; the courts, for example.
Trump’s firing of the head of the FBI, James Comey, was alarming in this context as are rumours of his consideration of firing the Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller. But, nothing approaches the concern that has been raised about Trump’s ability to order the use of nuclear weapons, following his threat to do so directed on North Korea. (DPRK)
Since Trump’s two latest threats to DPRK which unambiguously implied US use of nuclear weapons, the responsible commentariat in the US, has lit up with a discussion of how does it work? Is it really true that: the President alone may authorize the use of nuclear weapons; the military will be constitutionally bound to comply with his orders; what discussion would there be before he signed off; is there an authoritative process of reaching an agreed recommendation to the President; is there a Congressional role, etc.
The factual answer to these questions boils down to the President having sole authority to direct the use of nuclear weapons. There are no mandated procedures for consultation or consent.
Given the multifarious concerns about Trump, his mental state, his declining political standing, and his attachment to bullying his way towards his goals, there has been some recollection of the steps taken in 1974 to take the nuclear codes away from President Nixon, when he was in a Watergate based terminal political decline.
It is in these circumstances that Turnbull decided to send his message that Australia would go anywhere, with the US, including into potential nuclear war. It was an appalling, unconscionable, statement on so many levels, ignoring the fact, among other things that both Trump and Kim jong- un have seemed as clones, shouting at each other identical clap -trap.
On what basis of public consent would any Australian government participate in the use of nuclear weapons, or indeed enter into any war? (See; Australians for War Powers Reform).
Australians need to know more widely, that we form an integral component of US nuclear war fighting capability through the US facilities on our soil. This makes us a target, in the event of a serious nuclear conflict. Some say this is the price we must pay for US nuclear protection. I say that is nonsense. The US bases make us a target when, otherwise, we would not be. And, in any case, “extended deterrence” is ultimately a wish not a reality, because no nuclear armed state will risk attack upon itself, as a consequence of acting to defend an ally.
The very serious question about Turnbull’s statement is, why did he make it at all? He couldn’t say it was because Mike Pence asked him to, or he gave Trump/Pence an undertakings; even if those were the facts. That would have removed the sense of his personal resolution, determination to fight the good fight against the “other”.
The answer more likely lies in his domestic political travails, in particular, the threat to the coalition posed by the marriage equality dispute. But, there are also other very divisive issues. What better distraction from the factional warfare within the government than to call attention to his determination to uphold good western causes; to go to war with our “great and powerful friend”, against a bunch Asian communists.
This analysis challenges credulity, on moral grounds. What sort of person would toy with supporting nuclear war, as a means of distracting from ideological disputes within their own domestic polity. What a profound failure of values.
The use of nuclear weapons is a horrendous act, a crime against humanity. It should never occur. Indeed, the United Nations has just agreed upon a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, which will be opened for signature next month. Turnbull’s government did not take part in the negotiations and will not sign the treaty.
The business of attempting to eliminate nuclear weapons is tortuous, facing many obstacles. But, chief amongst those is the underlying nuclear hypocrisy, of which the Korean case is a prime example.
The established nuclear weapon states insist that others must not acquire them, such as Iran and DPRK, but refuse to eliminate theirs, as called for in relevant international undertakings. This unfairness, while of virtually no interest to the nuclear privileged states, is a source of fundamental instability in nuclear arms control regimes. It has always thwarted their extension.
For this reason some have begun to suggest that the solution, for the time being, is to accept the reality that DPRK has made nuclear weapons and focus instead, as is the case virtually universally, in ensuring that they are not used. This is what the big nuclear states have done for India, Pakistan, and Israel.
Trump’s statements, now supported by Turnbull, threatening use of nuclear weapons, are anathema.
What is underway on an extensive scale, in Washington, is a competitive attempt by the established system to protect itself from Trump and by Trump to dispose of the established system. The outcome of this is yet to be determined
When Trump was inaugurated, I raised the question of whether or not he would, in fact, be a sideshow to other political factors. ( Pearls and Irritations, January, 27th, 2017). The role he has come to assume in consuming so much of the media oxygen cannot be minimized, and the role of the deep state – the military/intelligence/corporate complex, and the revived Project for the New American Century established by Cheney et al, remains somewhat obscured, but is obviously significant.
The view that Trump is unfit for his job is extraordinarily widely shared. Equally, it is clear he doesn’t think so; is obviously reveling in its trappings and ego-supportive features; and, in short, is not going anywhere.
A basic question, and anxiety however, is what will he do if it starts to look as if the game is up, for example as a result of the findings of the Special Prosecutor: attack DPRK or Iran?
Whatever his decision, apparently he can feel certain that our Malcolm will be with him.
Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations, Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State.