It’s kept me thinking for a week. Could it be true?
Browsing through The Weekend Australia (14-15 January) I spotted an excellent piece by economics correspondent, Adam Creighton, on the would-be Republican Presidential candidate, Ron Paul.
In the article I found this fascinating observation:
“A Ron Paul presidential victory would be a disaster for the Australian-American military alliance, owing to Paul’s avowed isolationism.”
For a country like Australia, which has reaped huge security benefits from the American imperium, the possibility of an America turned inward will make the world a much more dangerous place for us.
So, yes, a Ron Paul Presidential victory would certainly debase the value of the Australian-American military alliance.
But would that, necessarily, prove a disaster for Australia itself?
No, not necessarily. It could be a salutary wake-up call: a challenge for this country to throw off the carapace of arrested development and to renew the natural growth cycle toward national maturity.
One of the fixed features of post-war Australian national life is that we idolize our warriors and, accordingly, spend them thriftily as a premium upon our American-provided defence insurance policy.
It’s true that our view of world events, and their implications for us, very often converge – for strategic, historical, linguistic and cultural reasons – with those of the USA. Since September 11, 2001, for example, our views on Afghanistan have been very much at one.
And yet, and yet …
And yet, for fighting a war considered by three Prime Ministers – Howard, Rudd, and Gillard – as vital to Australia’s interests, we have made only a token effort. At present we deploy 1,550 troops to Afghanistan including 300 in the Special Operations Task Group and 730 in the Mentoring Task Force.
In comparison, the Brits deployed 9,500 troops and the Canadians (who have now withdrawn) deployed 3,000. Both fielded integrated forces based around mainstream infantry battalions with supporting arms. Despite requests from the Americans, Australia has pointedly refused to do the same. We’ve chosen, instead, to trade off the high reputation of our SAS and Commandos and to restrict, as far as possible, aggressive military operations to them.
War, fear, killing, wounds, maiming and death are not token affairs for the soldiers who fight the battles, however small and unreported. And they are not token matters for their families, especially for those who have lost husbands, fathers and loved ones. But when considered against the alleged strategic importance of Afghanistan in the “war on terror”, and the supposed imperative of sending our soldiers there, the size of the forces committed, and the restraints upon their deployment, suggest that Australia is pretending.
Set the rationale for the Afghanistan war against what we’ve actually done, and we come up with three possibilities:
- That Australia believes in the Afghanistan mission, and deploys all the right “war on terrorism” rhetoric, while privately it rates the campaign much lower in importance than the Americans and thus discounts proportionately our commitment to the war.
- That Australia believes the battle is worth fighting, but is unprepared to make a serious commitment to the struggle beyond paying our dues to the Americans.
- That Australia does not believe in the Afghanistan “story” and is simply going through the motions only to maintain payments on our defence insurance policy.
Looking back to the time when President George W. Bush used to call his ally and friend, John Howard, a “man of steel”, we might find cause to re-evaluate the kind of friendship Howard offered the Americans. Always a great mate, this “man of steel” was unwilling to pump heavy iron. And, for all their anti-Howard posturing, and assertions that Afghanistan (unlike Iraq) was a ‘good war’, Rudd and Gillard come out of the same mould: more talk, less give.
I just wonder when the Americans are going to tire of their little Aussie mates: we perpetual cultivators of the “special relationship” and under-performers when the crunch comes.
Perhaps that is exactly how it should be in the world of realpolitik. But my point is not that Australian has played a cynical game. My point is that the game has been played in such a way that Australia avoids – like an adolescent nation - its responsibility to develop mature armed forces capable of defending itself without the benefit of allies. Yes, we love our soldiers; but we hate raising a real army.
To prepare to defend oneself alone is not an antipodean species of that isolation espoused by American “paleo-conservatives.” An underpopulated, geographically isolated, trading nation like Australia cannot seriously contemplate isolation. In any event, isolationism is simply not in the national character. We are a country of gregarious, extrovert, inveterate travellers driven by our remoteness to explore the world beyond our shores: and we don’t want to be ignored, side-lined, or otherwise ‘done-in’ by other folk on the planet. Isolationism is not an easy persona for the national character to carry off.
We could well find ourselves, however, alone in a war even if a Ron Paul never makes it to the White House. You see, the true depth and extent of the American economic crisis has yet to be fully understood; and the capacity of the American political system to deliver sustained debt reduction, banking reform, and re-industrialisation is very much in doubt. America’s future war-fighting capacity has been profoundly weakened.
Whatever the outcome of the next Presidential Elections, America will “pull in its horns”. In fact, it is already happening. That a liberal interventionist like President Obama has presided over a drastic rewriting of American strategic doctrine - from having the capability to fight two wars simultaneously to fighting a war on one front and deterring an enemy on another - ought to be ringing alarm bells.
Australian defence spending has long been …. I won’t say a joke … but certainly far short of the mark, if that mark is a “stand-alone” defence capability.
Australians have sometimes made pointed criticisms of the half-hearted - not to say pusillanimous - contributions made by some NATO states to the Afghanistan war. But, generally speaking, they have contributed larger and better equipped forces than we have.
Furthermore, NATO countries spend on average 2% of GDP on defence compared to Australia’s 1.9% (based on 2009 figures). That level of spending, however, has fallen since the 2011 cutbacks in defence spending made by the Gillard Government. We are presently sitting at around 1.8%. The United Kingdom, even after last year’s swingeing cuts to its defence budget, is still spending 2% on defence.
What we need to shell out to create a “stand alone” defence force for a “stand alone” nation, I can only guess at here. But it is difficult to imagine that it would be less than 3% and could easily be as much as 4%. My old mate Greg Sheridan has argued that Australia would need to spend three times as much as we currently do to develop a serious defence force.
Outside the box
If America decided to turn its back on the big bad world, we would not be without allies. If China were to prove our biggest future security threat, then we have obvious allies in India and Russia, both of whom want a check upon China. Not that either of them could replace, even together, the conventional forces that America can now deploy in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Nor would they, had they such forces, deploy them for the same strategic purposes with which we have become so comfortable. But they would become our allies, willy-nilly, if America were to become unwilling or unable to deploy its power in our arc of strategic interest. I reckon that we shouldn't wait until that scary day to begin thinking outside the box.
“The Russians!” I hear you explode.
Yes, the Russians.
Remember, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The Cold War is over. We are really back to Czarist times. Russia is a power like any other; and, in so far as they also must tackle Islamic-inspired terrorism and insurgency, the Russians are on the same side as us. Moreover, because of their well-founded fears of China, India and Russia have very good relations.
Australians can get their minds about dealing militarily with the Indians. We are beginning to do that already. They play cricket after all; and their upper-crust types speak English much better than we do.
But the Russians?
Yes, I know, it’s difficult so see around the edges of our Anglo-American blinkers. But military collaboration with the Russians would make a lot of sense if America chose to contemplate its splendid navel. We could start by taking a leaf out of the Indian book and have a long hard look at some of Russia’s military aircraft. I am thinking particularly of the superb Sukhoi family of fighters.
Also, and more immediately, we could try to develop joint training exercises between our special forces. If Australia can work with the dubious Kopassus of Indonesia and provide training to our outright enemies, the highly Islamised Pakistani Special Forces, then it would make a lot of sense to develop good working relations with the Russian Federal Security Service’s Spetsnaz forces. At least they are fighting on the same side as we are in the struggle against Islamic terrorism.
Get used to them. It’s time to part company with our adolescence and to grow up.
Related articles on the theme of 'Australia - alone and friendless'
*Gary Scarrabelotti is Managing Director of the Canberra-based consulting firm Aequum: Political & Business Strategies.