Inside Story

Fear and loathing in the American alliance

Australia is sleepwalking into a strategic and logistical mess

Hamish McDonald Books 3 July 2024 2702 words

US secretary of state Antony Blinken at talks last July between US and Australian defence and foreign ministers in Brisbane. Darren England/AAP Image

Even before Joe Biden’s dismaying performance in the first presidential debate, Australia’s political and defence establishments were assuring us, perhaps a little too shrilly, that the alliance — and the nuclear submarine deal latterly pegged to it — would survive unscathed if Donald Trump returned to the White House.

They lauded Kevin Rudd’s opening up of Australia’s Washington embassy for a launch of Scott Morrison’s folksy book about his intertwined Pentecostal and political beliefs as a deft diplomatic overture to the Trump camp. Indeed Morrison, after quitting parliament, has joined Trump’s former CIA chief and secretary of state Mike Pompeo in a defence-oriented consultancy. If Trump is elected, he would be pushing Australia’s interests with gusto and no doubt taking a cut.

Former senior defence official Allan Behm is not so sure the future will be anything like normal. “With or without the re-election of Donald Trump, America is already in crisis: a crisis of confidence, a crisis of democracy, a crisis of equality, a crisis of leadership,” he writes in The Odd Couple, his fine new study of the US–Australia relationship. “Even if America is not on a path to self-destruction, it is certainly moving towards self-absorbed irrelevancy.”

Behm believes that Australia’s greatest strategic risk is “the political and social collapse of the United States of America. America’s strategic collapse would follow.” It is a grave challenge for Canberra: “To sit idly by, worrying interminably and pointlessly about the threat from China when the threat of America’s political and social collapse is infinitely more serious, would be a tragedy from which Australia would find it difficult to recover. For neither America nor Australia is helplessness an option.”

Behm is son of a cold war–era deputy chief of ASIO and a former head of strategy and international policy in the defence department. In the latter role he was privy to the deepest secrets of the US alliance, including negotiations over access to the intelligence flow through the Pine Gap satellite base. He was adviser to Penny Wong in opposition and now runs the international arm of the Australia Institute, Canberra’s least compromised think-tank.

Coming from a figure so immersed in the American relationship and Australia’s strategic thinking, a warning like this has to be taken very seriously. The Odd Couple is no diatribe: in a relatively concise book, Behm shows an immense and affectionate knowledge of both Australian and American history — and an appreciation of a relationship far wider than the ANZUS pact’s supposed “insurance policy,” to which our governments keep paying premiums.

His feared US breakdown would come from divisions among Americans: toxic racism; class divides among Blacks; tensions between ex-Cubans and ex-Mexicans among the Latinos and between north and south among the Whites; “structural misogyny”; the gutting of blue-collar America by the neoconservatism and globalism of Reagan and Clinton; post-truth new media; and a Republican Party captured by conspiracy theorists.

Has America been here before? Well, yes. Behm reaches back to the 1972 US election campaign and its acerbic chronicler, journalist Hunter S. Thompson. As he wrote in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72:

This might be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

The tragedy of all this is that [Democratic candidate] George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talks about “new politics” and “honesty in government,” is one of the few men who’ve run for president of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.

America did recover from that episode. But in our era, if they haven’t succumbed to oxycodone or fentanyl, alienated White males are responding to Trump’s call to “take back control” and “make America great again.” Political discourse has become so coarsened that threats of violence are commonplace. A survey in 2022 found one in three Americans believing violence against the government can sometimes be justified. “There are emerging signs that America’s democracy is being devoured from within,” Behm says.

What can be done by America’s friends? Behm is scathing about the timidity of Australian diplomacy. For a country that boasts about “punching above our weight” Australia usually hides in the crowd, content to play it safe in the “Western European and Others” group at the United Nations. It talks of “shared values” with countries as diverse as the United States, India and Japan, and has “comprehensive” or “enhanced” strategic partnerships with a scattering of countries including Indonesia, China, and France. The values are never defined, and in a crunch they are always traded away to protect “interests.”

“The mantra of most Australian foreign ministers, and the standard by which they measure themselves, is the claim that they ‘deal with the world as it is, not as one might wish it to be,’” Behm observes wearily. “So what is the point?” The result is a foreign policy without ambition, he says, a foreign minister lacking energy and imagination, investing in the status quo, without attempting to contribute to change.

The remedy he urges is to move beyond “Panglossian” references to the alliance, beyond the constant invocations of the “international rules-based order,” beyond trusting in the condescending US attendance at annual foreign and defence minister talks, and beyond faith in John Howard’s free-trade agreement (“the Americans could see the antipodean hayseeds coming, and gulled them for all they were worth”). Spend more on diplomacy (currently a fraction of the hundreds of billions committed to nuclear submarines). Wrest control of the relationship away from the defence–industrial complex. Shift attention to the broader cultural, educational and economic ties (both America and Australia have a trillion dollars Australian invested in each other, and Australia’s super funds are only getting started in the US). Advise against military follies instead of going along for the ride. Invest in a US lobbying operation, like those of Israel and Taiwan, working on Congress and key states.

Despite the book’s title, Behm considers the two countries very alike and compatible, and thus able to hold this kind of discourse. He could have added that Canberra might find a Japanese partner in America-whispering, as Malcolm Turnbull did with Shinzo Abe during the Trump presidency.

He sees Australia, after eighty years of dependency, clinging to America. “On whom would Australia depend… if it could not depend on America?” he asks. “Without America, Australia would be alone, adrift on its continent in a region that it does not understand and with which it has no affinity.” It could then revert into fearful isolationism or be thrust into constructing its own community, under different rules from Pax Americana.

Behm doesn’t pursue this latter line of thought, which would be interesting as he is an Indonesianist too. But after twelve years of Xi Jinping and ten years of Narendra Modi, and with Prabowo Subianto’s imminent ascension in Indonesia, perhaps too many elements of uncertainty have been added to the Keatingesque idea of “security in the region” rather than from the region.

For journalist Andrew Fowler, writing in his new book Nuked: The Submarine Fiasco that Sank Australia’s Sovereignty, Australia is already locked in a dangerous vassaldom thanks to a succession of agreements that allow the United States unilateral use of Australian territory — from the surveillance base at Pine Gap, the US Marine “rotation” through Darwin and the expanded Tindal air base for B-52 bombers — for war operations. The final instrument of servitude, he argues, is the AUKUS defence agreement that Scott Morrison sprung on the Labor opposition and the public in September 2021.

The merits of the plan for the Australian navy to acquire nuclear-powered submarines are still debated, with strong arguments against it mounted by academic Hugh White (like Behm a former head of defence strategic policy) and the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen. Doubts remain about whether the US navy can ramp up its submarine program to spare the initial three, four or five Virginia-class boats, whether Britain can design the follow-on AUKUS submarine, and whether Adelaide’s shipyard is capable of building it. The plan is nevertheless steaming ahead, with the navy dispatching sailors to the US for nuclear training.

Nuked is most revealing in its tracking of the decision to abandon the conventional French-designed Barracuda Shortfin submarine. That option was adopted in 2016 by Turnbull’s government after a competitive tender in which the French vied against a German proposal and the existing Japanese Soryu-class. For France’s president at the time, Francois Hollande, it was a $50 billion coup, the biggest defence deal his country had ever landed.

“Neither Turnbull nor Hollande could have understood at the time that powerful forces were already working assiduously against them — risking everything, including Australia’s national security — to undo the deal from the moment it was signed,” Fowler says. Figures in high office, including intelligence agencies, didn’t want Australia to move closer to France and away from traditional allies Britain and the United States. The challenge of adapting the Barracuda Shortfin, designed as a nuclear-powered boat, and wrangles over building the submarines in Adelaide fed media leaks suggesting the deal was in deep trouble. With Morrison’s toppling of Turnbull in 2018, these anti-French conspirators were in a position to strike.

Fowler sees a key agent on the Australian side as former diplomat Andrew Shearer, who had been an adviser to prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, was exiled for a time to Washington’s hawkish Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, and returned to Canberra as, successively, deputy chief of the Office of National Intelligence, Morrison’s cabinet secretary and head of the ONI (where he remains, extended by Anthony Albanese in 2022).

If the navy had decided on Japan’s Soryu boat, might Shearer and counterparts like the CSIS Japan expert Michael Green (now heading the US Studies Centre at Sydney University) have let it ride? When Abbott was prime minister, Shearer would have written the rather sentimental speech he delivered about elements of “chivalry” in the Pacific War; overtures like that made prime minister Shinzo Abe think the Soryu would be the choice.

Exactly who decided that Australia needed nuclear-powered submarines, and why, is still unexplained in Nuked. Neither Morrison nor Albanese has given any formal statement about the deal to the Australian parliament or public. Only Labor backbencher Luke Gosling, a former army officer, has tried to fill the gap in a recent Lowy Institute paper, arguing it gives “deterrent” power by being able to strike at very long range.

Fowler did talk to Turnbull, but doesn’t seem to have got to the main players after he lost office, including Morrison, Shearer, the key navy officers or defence secretary Greg Moriarty. As the author of a sympathetic book on Julian Assange and a journalist with Four Corners, he would probably have evoked mistrust in these quarters.

But James Curran, a Sydney University historian and international editor of the Australian Financial Review, did gain access to a fuller cast of characters for his substantial two-part exploration of AUKUS earlier this week. Using extensive information from Morrison, it takes us beyond Fowler’s account.

In brief, Curran shows the Australian navy had considered acquiring nuclear-powered submarines in the past but was always rebuffed by the Americans, who hold the technology close to their chests. In 2020, with the French deal encountering problems, Morrison revived the idea. Until Joe Biden took office it was going to be a British–Australian project, even though US would need to approve access to the engine design used in British submarines.

Biden’s officials came in with the idea of transferring US submarines to the Australian navy while it was waiting for the British-Australian boats to be built. It was touch and go for Morrison until Biden gave approval at a meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Cornwall in June 1921; then followed three months of keeping the French as a fall-back, which involved deceiving president Emmanuel Macron and keeping Anthony Albanese in the dark. The possibility of a delicious “wedge” if Labor had refused to go along was a bonus.

This timeline fits with Fowler’s identification of Kurt Campbell, a senior Biden national security official, as the driver on the American side. Earlier in his career, Campbell had masterminded Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” of which the Darwin marine rotation is a feature. Campbell had long been working to get Australia off the fence when it comes to China, and now clearly thinks he has succeeded. In testimony to sceptical US congress members about the transfer of the Virginia-class boats, he declared: “When submarines are provided from the United States to Australia, it’s not like they’re lost.”

Has AUKUS driven the final nail in Australia’s independence? It could be argued it’s only a step further down a longstanding track of “interoperability” with the American military. According to defence commentator Brian Toohey, our F-35 fighters — declared an asset of “sovereign power” by Morrison — can only be fully serviced by hooking up to a computer in the United States; unlike its Israeli counterpart, our air force hasn’t been given the source code for the software. If that’s wrong, I haven’t seen a denial. Our forces need US satellites to function.

But it would be hard to refuse to send Australian Virginia-class submarines — the subs the Americans have pledged to sell us — if a conflict blew up with China. Already the navy’s submariner talent is being drawn off for training and assignment on US nuclear submarines, possibly at the cost of finding crews for its existing Collins-class conventional boats. Pulling out those submariners, as Malcolm Fraser did with Australians assigned to British ships in the Falklands war, would be difficult if war did break out. Meanwhile, harking back to the imperial days of the Royal Navy’s Sydney-based Australia squadron, British and American nuclear submarines will soon be operating from the naval base near Perth.

As Curran shows us, a group of retired admirals and submarine experts concur with Fowler. Identifying many potential tripping-up points, they argue that AUKUS could well fail and leave us with no submarines of our own and reliant on the Americans and the British by the mid 2030s. That would indeed be a loss of sovereignty. The group has presented a Plan B for a derivative of the Virginia-class subs to be built entirely in Adelaide, but its analysis has so far fallen on deaf ears in Canberra, where the Albanese government still fears Morrison’s wedge.

Other questions niggle. If the range and speed of a nuclear-powered submarine was suddenly seen as essential, why did the navy not explore the original nuclear version of the French submarine? Although the conventional version was far ahead of its rivals in meeting the tender terms, Fowler reveals Turnbull had written into the contract an option to switch to nuclear power down the production line. The low-enriched uranium power plant on the French subs has fewer non-proliferation and other issues than the bomb-grade high-enriched uranium used in US and British boats. It is smaller, better suited to the shallow waters of Australia’s northern approaches, and requires less than half the crew of the Virginia-class or the projected joint design with Britain. Either version would have accommodated US weapons and combat systems.

Earlier this year the French president Emmanuel Macron offered to help the Brazilian navy develop a nuclear submarine. It may get one before we do. •

The Odd Couple: The Australia–America Relationship
By Allan Behm | Upswell | $29.99 | 264 pages

Nuked: The Submarine Fiasco that Sank Australia’s Sovereignty
By Andrew Fowler | Melbourne University Press | $34.99 | 198 pages