Originally published in The Australian
What do Australians think about a more powerful country invading and subjugating a nation of 44 million people; how ready are we for the global economic disruption that would accompany the first big European war in seven decades; and are we psychologically prepared to become more like Israel in the much less safe and secure world now looming before us? To the extent that Australians are worrying right now about anything other than personal issues, it’s probably coping with Covid or with climate change. Pretty soon, though, a moderating pandemic and some degrees of warming several decades hence might seem comparatively minor problems.
The basic issue is that while the democratic West, the Anglosphere especially, has been worrying about its own health and the health of the planet, or agonising over our race record (even though for minorities in our countries things have never been better), countries with less well-intentioned governments have been building up their military and economic clout with a view to overcoming historic grievances and changing the global order. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia wants to re-establish its Soviet-era control over Eastern Europe. Under Xi Jinping, China wants to become the world’s dominant power within 30 years. Immediately standing in these dictators’ way are: Ukraine, an infant democracy, to be sure, but entitled to its freedom after centuries of foreign domination, especially Stalin’s man-made famine that wiped out millions of its private farmers; and Taiwan, formerly an impoverished dictatorship, now a prosperous democracy, and proof that there’s no totalitarian gene in the Chinese DNA.
Understandably enough, most Australians’ distaste for brutal autocracies does not run to making fights over faraway countries our fights too. But just because our first instinct is to avoid them doesn’t mean they won’t affect us. The crushing of Ukraine would mean a new iron curtain in Europe. Even worse, the takeover of Taiwan would derange the US-led global order under which the whole world has been freer, safer and richer by far than at any time in human history. Paradoxically, this success has fed so much cultural self-doubt that the question now arises: does the West, in particular the Anglosphere that’s at its heart, have the material and mental resilience to stand up for its ideals; and how ready are we to defend our own freedom if we won’t make sacrifices for anyone else’s?
For the thought-crime of wanting to look west rather than east, Russia has been waging grey-zone and cyber warfare against Ukraine ever since the 2014 proxy invasion of the Crimea and stooge-led uprising in the Donbas. The West’s response has been pinprick sanctions while much of Europe has actually increased its dependence on Russian energy. Only now, with the Russian army mobilised on its borders, have Britain and America rushed anti-tank weapons to Ukraine (with British military transports forced to fly around German airspace).
To punish their desire to be at least practically independent, the Chinese airforce is now mounting almost daily sorties into Taiwanese air defence zones and China is engaged in a maritime build-up exceeding that of the United States at the height of World War Two. While the democracies fret about how many lives might the freedom of Taiwan be worth, China has already amassed what looks like military superiority over the United States in the Western Pacific.
On the bright side, it’s possible that the Ukrainians have been using the last few years to prepare themselves for a Russian onslaught: that they’ve hardened their systems and their installations to survive a first strike and successfully to counter-attack once the Russian supply lines have extended. Even at the eleventh hour, remembering Russia’s Afghan quagmire, Putin might pocket some diplomatic concessions and pull back; or the likelihood of devastating US financial sanctions, or possible help to Ukraine from the other Eastern European states with recent memories of Moscow’s cruelty, could lead to a tactical retreat. But rather than “peace in our time” this would more likely be just a breathing space before the next Russian aggression and further machination to subvert Eastern Europe and to detach Western Europe from the US.
What’s suddenly become shockingly apparent, to the horror and bewilderment of everyone accustomed to think that major war had been consigned to the dustbin of history, is that it’s not goodwill or even common sense that keeps the peace between nations but armed forces powerful enough to make aggression futile; and in the case of small countries challenged by big ones, alliances that can be relied upon to turn the temptation of war by the strong against the weak into the deterrent of war by one against many. Just as the presence of US, British and French troops in West Germany kept the peace in Europe for 70 years, my instinct is that the best way to keep the peace through the decades to come would be to place allied troops as a tripwire against aggression into those countries that might be subject to it. While potential aggressors will always denounce the presence of allied troops as a provocation, by far the surest way to prevent war is to raise its costs.
While Australia is just a middle power, we should not underestimate ourselves. We have been instrumental in the reinvigoration of the Quad. Our refusal to allow Chinese companies into strategic IT has stiffened the world’s spine; as has our insouciance in the face of Beijing’s trade boycotts. The AUKUS nuclear submarine pact is the most important decision any Australian government has made in decades, even if our need is for second hand nuclear subs in months rather than years. Any decision to forward-base Australian ships and planes under the new treaty with Japan would be a potent signal that Taiwan might not have to fight alone.
Still, while the democracies have been distracted, the dictatorships have been preparing their march. Late have the alarm bells rung and even now we’re hardly listening. We can only hope that doing little and late is enough, and that we don’t have to live for decades in a much more militarised world pondering our culpable neglect.