Strategic culture and the AUKUS echo chamber

Apr 7, 2023
AUKUS banner with USA, UK, Australia flag icons. American, British, Australian security alliance pact design. Vector illustration.

Despite some brilliant analyses of the AUKUS agreement from credible and informed commentators, it is hard for critics to get a hearing, much less influence policy.

It will not have escaped the notice of regular readers of these pages that some of the smartest people in Australia have serious concerns about the AUKUS alliance and the related agreement to buy nuclear submarines from the United States and/or the United Kingdom.

Perhaps what is more surprising and takes some explaining is why the views of the likes of former Prime Minister Paul Keating, security specialists like Brian Toohey, and former senior public servants like Pearls and Irritations’ editor John Menadue aren’t taken more seriously.

Although P&I is not without influence, the reality is that its audience is small and most Australians have probably never heard of it, much less read it. This is a great shame as, paradoxically enough, it seems that more than half the population also thinks that the subs are either not worth the money or completely unnecessary.

So, one possible explanation⎯the Albanese government thinks that national security is a potential electoral liability for any government that looks ‘weak’ on defence⎯isn’t entirely convincing. Recent elections in NSW and Victoria demonstrate that Labor remains significantly more popular that its political opponents led by the quintessential ‘hardman’ Peter Dutton.

To be fair, Dutton is undoubtedly correct about one thing, though: in the event of the US getting in a conflict with China over Taiwan it’s ‘inconceivable’ that Australia wouldn’t fight alongside its American ally⎯as it always does. While this may be an entirely unsurprising view from the leader of the coalition, perhaps, Labor’s equivocation on the Taiwan question is rather unconvincing given its support of AUKUS generally and the submarine project in particular.

The possible risks of this folly have been rigorously analysed by others in these pages. The consensus is that the subs are unlikely to deter China or keep Australia safe, will infringe on national sovereignty, will almost certainly cost more and preform less well than advertised, and are likely to be obsolete and vulnerable given rapid advances in cheaper forms of military technology anyway.

Given the opportunity costs associated with the largest acquisition in Australian history, it is remarkable⎯and rather depressing⎯that it is a Labor government that is pursuing a deal dreamed up by its thoroughly discredited predecessors. After all, the assumed $368 billion the subs will cost could have paid for the electrification and decarbonisation of the nation’s energy supply and solved the crisis in social housing, amongst a host of other worthy initiatives.

Given that the quality of the ALP’s front bench is significantly more competent and informed than the Morrison government’s⎯not least because Morrison held 5 of them himself, of course⎯how do we explain the degree of bilateral conformity on security issues? As P&I’s distinguished roster of commentators and a number of other luminaries like Malcolm Turnbull make clear, it is simply not the case that the mainstream strategic arguments are irresistibly compelling.

Part of the explanation can be found, I think, in the dominance and durability of Australia’s ‘strategic culture’. To be sure, policymakers, security specialists and the military establishments in China and the US are also invariably populated by ‘realists’ who help to shape the conventional strategic wisdom.

In Australia, such thinking is reinforced by sympathetic think tanks like ASPI and powerful media outlets like the Murdoch empire. But it is important to recognise that in the strategic arena, at least, even the ALP doesn’t seem to take much persuading that China is a direct threat to Australia’s security and that spending vast amounts of money on unproven military hardware is the best way of keeping us safe.

This chronic sense of anxiety about Australia’s literal place in the world has well known and longstanding antecedents. To Keating’s credit, he was at the forefront of trying to rethink ties with Asia while prime minister, but it is also noteworthy that he did little to change or even question Australia’s relationship with the US. Much the same criticism could be made of Turnbull or even more strikingly, Malcolm Fraser, who became a prominent critic of American policy, but only after he had left office and could do nothing to change it.

No doubt some Australian policymakers’ heads are turned by being taken seriously by our powerful, if sometimes unreliable and ill-advised ally. John Howard didn’t take much persuading either, of course, as Australia’s participation in the disastrous conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan remind us. But with the possible exception of Gough Whitlam, no serving prime minister has done anything to undermine the strategic status quo while in office.

The dangers of strategic groupthink have been understood since the Cuban missile crisis, and tragically reinforced in Vietnam and Iraq. And yet despite these epic follies, Australia’s strategic elites, like their counterparts in the US, remain insular, self-referential and impervious to external, much less ‘critical’ voices.

And yet the reality is that the conventional wisdom has got us to where we are today: discussing the possibility of nuclear war in Europe, wargaming conflict with China, while simultaneously failing to deal with the imminent threat of a ‘climate apocalypse’, not least because our leaders have wasted the money elsewhere.

I’ve been banging on about the need for a more independent and creative foreign and strategic policies for more than 20 years – to absolutely no discernible effect. While reading the insightful comments of P&I’s contributors is mildly therapeutic, quite how even the most prominent of them will influence the dominant discourse, much less reverse the ‘worst deal in history’, is less clear – to this contributor, at least.

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