It looked like a raised middle finger. A stark, mocking figure 1 - the number of votes garnered when Australia put itself forward a couple of years ago for membership of the United Nations Security Council. Even Iran found 32 supporters when it stood for election in the same round. Australia, apparently, was friendless. So why did the international community shun Kevin Rudd’s ambitions for greater recognition on the world stage?
A similarly cool response was visible when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited Australia in early 2010. Amid the warm glow of mutual public compliments came a blast of scorn for the Prime Minister’s proposed “Asia-Pacific community”. Yudhoyono’s people declined to be drawn into a debate on the initiative, saying merely that “Jakarta’s foreign policy priority lay instead in strengthening the Association of South-East Asian Nations”, according to the account in The Australian.
There’s an important clue here: Rudd’s use of the word “Pacific”. If governance, even decision-making, for the East Asian region is conceived in a Pacific framework, that is significant, because on the other side of the world’s greatest ocean lies, of course, the United States, its land mass stretching, as the song goes, “from sea to shining sea”.
On America’s further seaboard, US interests extend through “Atlanticism”, notably in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), in which Washington is lead partner with 27 countries of Europe. According to the Pentagon’s (in)famous 1992 memo, Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), Europe and East Asia are two of three regions - the Middle East being the other - in which American dominance must be reasserted.
The challenge, according to the DPG, was how to replicate the existing “US-led system of collective security” in the post-Communist era. Of particular importance, the memo said, was “the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the US”. To this end, “we must prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements that could undermine NATO”.
Why bring up an 18-year-old internal memorandum? Defense Planning Guidance still resonates because it reads, in retrospect, like a blueprint for US foreign and security policies in the period since its publication: Sidelining the United Nations in favour of ad hoc “coalitions of the willing” - check. Building up American military might to a sufficient extent to deter anyone else from contemplating renewed superpower rivalry - check; with the US continuing to outspend the rest of the world put together on its armed forces.
So how are the strictures of DPG playing out today in our quadrant of the globe, and what are the implications for Australia?
The Kosovo precedent
Consider, first, an early example of this US strategy in action: the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. A persistent regional conflict involving the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo turned nasty with the emergence of a well-armed irregular force, the Kosovo Liberation Army. The KLA rapidly sidelined the leading political party in the province by such expedients as “kangaroo courts” and “summary executions” of unco-operative municipal officials: the words of a UN report.
Later, journalists revealed the KLA had been equipped and trained by western intelligence agencies, notably the CIA. A peacekeeping mission, deployed by the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe, was given a lopsided brief and failed to suppress guerrilla attacks. The Yugoslav army went back in, with trademark heavy-handedness. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair led calls for “humanitarian intervention” to prevent “repression”. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reached a backstairs deal on independence with KLA leaders that effectively scuppered peace talks, and NATO had its pretext for 78 days of aerial bombardment.
What had been a political problem, albeit a knotty one, was transformed into a military problem. In the process, the identity of the obvious candidate to provide a solution switched - from the European Union, a political organisation, to NATO, a military one. The other important difference, of course, is that the US is excluded, by definition, from EU membership, whereas it is the de facto leader of NATO. European-only security arrangements had been, to quote Defense Planning Guidance, effectively “undermined”. To secure continuing US influence in the vital interests of its European allies, conflicts had to turn violent to justify the application of military means.
Implications for East Asia today
A similar syndrome risks being replicated in our own quadrant of the globe. Australia has committed A$16 billion to purchase 100 US-made Joint Strike Fighter planes, with an initial order for 14 of the aircraft placed last year, as part of our “defence” budget (pushing us into 11th place on the global list of arms spenders). The combat range of this aircraft is a little over 1,000 kilometres, which puts, by my reckoning, just two countries within its reach: Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Defence Minister, Senator John Faulkner, gave rather more of the game away as he announced the initial tranche of the order in the federal parliament. It would, he said, position Australia “to join in future coalition operations”.
Coalition operations where? Erik Paul, in his memorable study, Little America: Australia, the 51st State, shows how Australia under John Howard grew into its role as a regional “deputy sheriff” in maritime South-East Asia, coming to be regarded in the process as “an integral part of US-UK global geo-strategy”. The Defence White Paper of 2009, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, evokes the possible “threat” of South-East Asia being used as “a conduit for the projection of military power against us by others”, only to then downplay this threat by saying that stability “should” continue in the region. In this and other sections of its rhetoric, however, the White Paper brings to mind George Lakoff’s aphorism: “even negating a frame evokes a frame, and evoking a frame strengthens a frame”. (If you want to test the proposition for yourself, try, as a thought exercise, to comply with the following instruction: “Don’t think of an elephant”.)