When the 9/11 attacks struck New York and Washington in 2001 and the US armed forces went on full alert, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice immediately got on the direct line to Moscow and told Vladimir Putin not to worry: the United States was not going to attack Russia.
When Donald Trump claimed in late October that the election was being stolen, and again after the attempted putsch on 6 January, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, to reassure him that the United States would not attack China.
Rice and Milley were both grown-ups, trying to keep their people safe but operating in an international system that still runs by the rules of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Alliances are fickle; surprise attacks are common; war is normal. So you never stop talking to the people who might become your enemies, and you try to stop them from panicking.
This is how wise leaders behaved among the Yanomamo of the Amazon headwaters and the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, and it’s also how wise leaders should behave in the capitals of the great powers today. Most of the time, they actually do.
Sometimes, however, they get distracted by events – which brings us to the alliance of the week, AUKUS (rhymes with ‘caucus’). This half-formed creature has been hastily cobbled together since the fall of Kabul last month to distract attention from the shambles of the American retreat from Afghanistan.
The three leaders involved had obviously not spent a long time negotiating the nature and role of the new Australian-UK-US alliance, because Joe Biden couldn’t even remember the name of the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison.
There they were, each in his own capital with the other two on screens, and Biden managed to thank Boris Johnson by name, but when it came to Morrison the US president had to fake it: “And I want to thank that fella from Down Under. Thank you very much pal. Appreciate it.”
And there are other indications that this ‘alliance’ has not been gestating for very long. Consider the case of the French submarines.
In 2016 Canberra agreed to spend $66 billion to build a dozen French-designed submarines. The French foreign and defence ministers spoke with their Australian counterparts as recently as 30 August, and the communiqué afterwards said that “Ministers underlined the importance of the future submarine program.” But the Australians were lying.
It’s not unknown for a sovereign state to rat on an international deal, but it’s bad form to pledge undying loyalty to a deal just two weeks before ratting on it. When Australia announced last Wednesday that it will build at least eight nuclear submarines using American and British technology instead, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called it “a stab in the back.”
There were some earlier tentative discussions, but AUKUS was obviously cooked up on the secure equivalent of Zoom early this month to make US strategy in the Far East look coherent. But it isn’t.
China’s state-owned ‘Global Times’ responded by warning that Australian troops are “likely to be the first batch of Western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea.” Where are the elders when we need them? Everybody has lost the plot.
Eight Australian nuclear submarines in fifteen years’ time isn’t going to make the slightest difference to the future of the Asia-Pacific region. It’s short-term gesture politics of the worst kind, and a number of people deserve to be spanked.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.