The Global Strategic Landscape – present realities, and prospects under Trump. Quo vadis series.

Nov 28, 2016

Quo vadis – Australian foreign policy and ANZUS.

Australia should call on all the nuclear weapon states – in particular, the two major arsenal-holders US and Russia – to return to the prudent protocols and courtesies of classical great power diplomacy, within the protocols and disciplines of the UN Security Council system of global collective security.

As the world moves from an Obama to a Trump US presidency, the global strategic landscape looks increasingly dangerous. As the London Financial Times reported recently, ‘the nuclear gun is back on the table’ in the NATO-Russia confrontation which has become toxic over the past three years, since the long-running Ukraine political crisis boiled over in the Kiev Maidan Square violent uprising in February 2014 which installed a nationalist, anti-Russian regime.

This triggered the Crimean population’s referendum vote to secede from Ukraine and request integration into Russia, and the April 2014 decision by the new Kiev regime to suppress with full military force the Eastern Ukraine rebel provinces. This brought Russia overtly into the civil war in Ukraine as protectors of their Russophone cousins, triggering a major worsening of Russia-West relations. War by accident or serial miscalculation on the NATO land frontier with Russia, now in Latvia only 600 kilometers from Moscow, or in the Baltic Sea where navies and air forces jostle, is now increasingly possible.

Risks of US-China nuclear war are also rising in the contested seas east of China, with hawkish American strategic think-tanks pressing for the US Navy to take China on – and some prominent Australians echoing those calls.

There is room for debate on which sides are more to blame for these worsening tensions. Nor is it necessary to reach agreement on this. The international security issue, which should concern us all, is responsible risk management.

What sort of East-West international security risks were we expecting had Hillary Clinton been elected? Answer – more dangerous than under Obama. Second, does Donald Trump’s election ease those risks? Probably not.

After 1991, 25 years ago, the West no longer worried about nuclear war with Russia. The Cold War had ended in Russia’s defeat as the West saw it. Russia’s economy was broken and its nuclear arsenal rusting away. Though Russia might still possess some theoretical second-strike nuclear deterrent, it did not matter because Russia was a demoralised country without pride, ideology or vision.

Putin since 2001 changed all that. He revitalised Russia’s economy and technical prowess, including every element of its nuclear deterrent Triad and its conventional military forces. He drew strategic red lines in Russia’s ‘near abroad’, and blocked Western efforts to push regime change in Russia itself. He claims – and 80 per cent of Russians agree – that he was provoked by the NATO military alliance’s broken promise not to expand to Russia’s borders, and by Western-promoted violent regime change in Russia’s soft underbelly, Ukraine. For the Kremlin, this is now about Russia’s national survival. The Kremlin rejects Washington’s caricature of Russia as a declining state and is determined to defend Russia’s sovereignty and independence. Internationally, the conservative Russian state (unlike its interventionist Soviet predecessor) stands for national sovereignty, the rule of international law, and a strong UN-based collective security system.

East-West relations are now in chronic crisis. There is no longer any regular international security or nuclear arms control East-West dialogue, only spasmodic and fragile talks on flashpoints like Ukraine and Syria.

A new generation of Western policy-makers built their government or military careers in a world dominated by American hegemony and norms of conduct. They complacently doubt the resolve of their Russian and Chinese adversaries. They downplay risks of nuclear war by provocation or crisis escalation. They talk of ‘setting limits’ on Russian or Chinese behaviour, as if these powers’ nuclear deterrents did not exist. They assume that these great nations will knuckle under to the logic of overwhelming American broad-spectrum military power: a dangerous assumption where Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China are concerned.

Western hawks now provoke and abuse their adversary governments without restraint. Boundaries have been erased between the mutual courtesies of traditional diplomacy, and the abusive propaganda of information warfare, that is designed to mock, discredit and demoralise adversaries.

Technology has destroyed the old firewall between nuclear and conventional deterrent weapons.   Both sides now deploy in the NATO-Russia theatre smart precision-targeted missiles with interchangeable conventional or nuclear warheads. NATO has arrays of so-called defensive anti-ballistic missile systems in Poland and Romania, which could quickly be nuclear-armed and retargeted on counter-force targets in nearby heavily populated Western Russia, creating what some claim as a first-strike capability.

We are rushing back towards a 1960s ‘Doctor Strangelove’ world. NATO generals speak of tactical nuclear weapons in place ready to ‘deter Russian aggression’ at many levels of warfare, but without – they surmise – lighting the match to nuclear Armageddon. What idiocy. Even smart well-aimed counterforce nuclear strikes would cause huge devastation and death across wide areas of European Russia. Do these generals really think there would be no nuclear retaliation into Central Europe? Putin has made clear not to count on this. Once it starts, the escalation to full-scale global nuclear warfare would be a matter of mere minutes, as Des Ball understood.  Reagan and Gorbachev rightly declared in Geneva in 1995, ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. It seems that lesson has been forgotten.

Governments must return to the prudent protocols and courtesies of classical great power diplomacy. They must wind back their current high levels of information warfare. A major risk with information warfare at its present intensity, apart from brutalising and dehumanising the adversary, is that it creates a false alternative reality in decision-makers’ minds: they become prisoners of their own propaganda. This was as true for the Obama as for the George W Bush presidency. The pictures the West has of Russia today, and in different ways of China, are a false basis for prudent decision-making.

How will Trump’s victory change things? In my view, it gives the world no more than a short breathing space. In the end, Trump might not be able to change very much at all. Indeed, some of his contemplated national security appointments would seem to make things worse. Shifting the dominant mindset of the American military – defence economy – State Department – NATO Alliance – media complex is like turning the Titanic around.

Trump, not a systematic thinker, starts with a vague intuitive insight that there is no real reason for US-Russian relations to have gotten so bad, that he wants to get on with Putin, that their real common enemy is violent Islamic extremism.

Putin is doing his best to encourage Trump’s friendship, but Putin knows there is a high chance Trump will buckle under relentless 24/7 domestic pressure in Washington and from allies, locked into the new Cold War thinking. As in so many ways Obama buckled, in letting regime-change policies for Libya, Ukraine and Syria become orthodoxy in Washington and NATO. Russia will continue to plan for worst-case scenarios of erratic, untrustworthy Western international behaviour.

Australia’s security is vitally affected. Whether or not we distance ourselves from the US in ANZUS – establishing some ‘elbow room’, making some ‘smart accommodations’ (Tony Milner) with China, without abandoning ANZUS or closing the crucial Pine Gap surveillance and nuclear war-fighting communications station that we host and share product from – we would still go down with the rest of the world in a nuclear Holocaust. Even in the earliest stages of tactical nuclear exchanges, Pine Gap would be a first-priority target, as Des Ball knew. The fallout would drift over Eastern Australia.

So what Australian policy changes should we consider in this area? I suggest, two: First, we should move to support the goals and process of the March 2017 Conference on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

Second, we need to call on all the nuclear weapon states – in particular, the two major arsenal-holders US and Russia – to return to a responsible classical practice of great power diplomacy, within the protocols and disciplines of the UN Security Council system of global collective security. This would be a major change in how Australia has gotten used to talking to our senior ANZUS partner. It would require a ‘transformational’ rather than a ‘transactional’ Australian diplomacy towards the US. (Allan Behm).

It is time to remind the US and Russia that at no level of military contingency planning should nuclear weapons ever be used, or be contemplated to be used. If our major ally does not like us speaking to him so bluntly, too bad. This is about clear and present dangers to our children’s and grandchildren’s futures – to their very lives.

Tony Kevin is a former diplomat and currently Emeritus Fellow at ANU.

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