MIKE SCRAFTON. “I’m afraid of Americans”

The opinions to which we should pay most critical attention are those of commentators best placed to influence government. Peter Jennings, Executive Director of ASPI, is one. Now he is claiming a ‘new cold war with China is playing out in all but name’.

The Cold War rhetoric evokes strong negative responses and raises fearful associations that confound the clear headed and fact-based analysis required of policy makers in these demanding times. The struggle between the Soviet Union and the US was seen widely as existential by both sides. The Soviet Union threat was more than a military one. Communism was regarded totally incompatible with Western democratic values, norms, and interests and market capitalism.

Moreover, the Americans were convinced Soviet policy ‘calls for the complete subversion or forcible destruction of the machinery of government and structure of society in the countries of the non-Soviet world and their replacement by an apparatus and structure subservient to and controlled from the Kremlin’. It was a zero sum game. The current situation in no way resembles that.

Why employ the provocative and alarmist language? From with the ASPI bunker every Chinese action hides a dark purpose directed at Australia. Jennings is part of an incessant campaign for an ‘increase in defence spending beyond the current target of 2% of GDP and doing even more to build Australia’s military presence in the region’.

He claims that ‘These days, even a British audience understands that China presents the biggest strategic threat to global stability’. However, a PEW survey published last October shows 49 percent of UK citizens have a positive view of China opposed to 35 percent with a negative view. It’s important to recognise that the Jennings is not pushing a view of China that is widely held globally, and especially in Europe.

The Europeans are cautious and prudent in their dealings with China, as they are with Russia and the US. A more recent PEW survey found that the US was regarded as a bigger global threat than China in France, Germany, Greece, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and the UK. In addition, in the African and Latin American countries surveyed PEW found the US to be considered a greater threat to global security than China.

Even after its aggression in Georgia and the Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and facing the Russia massive military at their borders, Europeans regard the US a greater threat than Russia! The 1997 song, “I’m afraid of Americans” by David Bowie and Brian Eno is a more appropriate anthem for our times than Jennings’ constant refrain.

The Administration of President Trump is not simply dysfunctional, unpredictable, faction riven, and diplomatically clumsy and inept. The US’s approach to foreign and security policy is positively corrosive of the institutions and norms that have allowed the world to avoid a repeat of the major wars of the twentieth century. Jennings claims Australia is not ‘a neutral bystander in a cold war that pits authoritarianism against the international rule of law’. This simply avoids the reality that the US is the greatest threat to rule of law.

Unilateral American decisions are eviscerating the Security Council’s standing; through the relocation of its embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and withdrawing from the JCPOA. The long term damage being done to the reputation of the Security Council, the peak security body of the post-war international rules-based-order.

Trump’s handling of nuclear related issues, including the diplomacy over Iran and Korea and handling of the INF Treaty, has damaged global security more than anything the Chinese have done. As has his tolerance and license of illiberal authoritarian regimes.

The US and Australia cannot be said to still fully share the same values and beliefs, rules, or commitment to democracy and human rights, that underpinned the ANZUS alliance. Whether or not Trump himself is an anomaly, or a one or two term president, his tenure has allowed some noxious tendencies to blossom. Future US administrations will find a shattered domestic consensus on America’s role in the world and over the types of strategies and relationships it should pursue.

An irreducible nationalist core has solidified in the electorate, orbited on its periphery by diverse extremist groups—white supremacists, Islamophobes, and alt-right provocateurs. A core that overlaps with an evangelising tendency that wants foreign policy to be coloured by religious positions on matters important to Christian voters, such as abortion and religious freedom, and which also envelopes more apocalyptic, end times attitudes toward the Middle East and Israel.

Even were the next president interested in the promotion of democracy and human rights, the support and maintenance of international institutions, and multilateralism; a divided American political landscape will not provide the freedom of action domestically to prosecute those aims. Nor would such objectives necessarily be perceived internationally as genuine, reliable, and irreversible.

Future administrations will find it difficult to regain the level of trust and partnership that had characterised the US’s important alliances or to re-establish the influence and leadership the US once exhibited.

China is an illiberal and authoritarian state that needs to be dealt with on that basis. It is single-minded and focused in the pursuit of its interests. As is the United States. But the strategic, moral, religious, political, and economic situation that fuelled the cold war has not returned. The views expressed by Jennings are not consistent with the broader consensus on international strategic environment.

It is to be hoped that ministers and their advisors will not have their judgement clouded by inaccurate and ahistorical narratives.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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7 Responses to MIKE SCRAFTON. “I’m afraid of Americans”

  1. Colin Cook says:

    From the ASPI website:-
    ‘ASPI is an independent, non-partisan think tank that produces expert and timely advice for Australia’s strategic and defence leaders. ASPI generates new ideas for government, allowing them to make better-informed decisions for Australia’s future. ASPI is one of the most authoritative and widely quoted contributors to public discussion of strategic policy issues in Australia and a recognised and authoritative Australian voice in international discussion of strategic issues, especially in the Asia-Pacific.’
    Major sponsors are listed as:
    Northrop Grumman, Jacobs, Lockheed Martin, Thales, Raytheon Australia, Austal.
    The Australian Government is listed after the Silver sponsors as a Bronze sponsor.

    Who is funding ASPI should be more widely appreciated – and maybe given some prominence in the media when ASPI is quoted.

    There have been recently some well-produced, even slick images and TV news stories on ABC and ABS of China’s strong measures to counter terrorism in its western provinces that have ASPI personnel quoted as experts and ASPI has featured amongst the credits. The tone, totally negative toward China.

  2. Sam Lee says:

    Australians are being brainwashed and bombarded with US-nationalistic (not Australian) memes, rhetoric and imagery every day. It’s much more intense in Australia because the US (by this I mean the spy agencies and the hidden hand of the Nova Scotia lot) appears to be incredibly insecure about its grip and control over Australians.

    Sometimes I wish we were simply federated into the US rather than being a colony plus protectorate in anything but name. At least we will enjoy the protection of the US constitution including the Bill of Rights rather than being on the extreme end of totalitarian surveillance and control (it’s superbly ironic our Human Rights advocates and anti-China brigade bullies China all day all week all year, and nary a whisper is heard when the same is imposed – albeit indirectly – on Australians by the US).

  3. The ASPI needs to stop promoting a false and misleading narrative that a new cold war in upon us in all but name in order to advocate for increased defence spending and closer servitude to the Trump Administration.

    Unfortunately, this year the Morrison Government provided a huge grant of over $20m to ASPI to continue lobbying on behalf of the military and industrial complex.

    A much better deal for Australia is for us to invest in independent foreign policy, diplomacy, international development assistance and relationship building with all nations in the Indo-Pacific.

  4. Andrew Glikson says:

    History testifies that, once major powers build up large military forces. war follows under one excuse or the other .

  5. Bruce George says:

    Great article! The USA, not the American people per se, but those who are the puppets of the elite, executing the policy of creating world wide chaos in order to bring in a one world fascist government in which all rights and freedoms would be scarified for the mantle of supposed protection from some imagined enemy, is certainly the greatest threat to peace and stability and as such truly is a ‘Dangerous Alley’ of Australia. With our disastrous policy of being ‘joined at the hip’ to the American military and being host for the most important communications base in our region, cold war of not, taking out Pine Gap would have to be a very high priority for any military strategist being threatened by a military build up on one’s doorstep, as China currently is being.
    The only sensible solution for Australia is to close Pine Gap and all USA military bases on our sovereign soil, and make a clear stand of neutrality in the face of ongoing USA military aggression.

  6. Michael McKinley says:

    Congratulations and very many thanks for this contribution, Mike. The conditions you refer to have had a long gestation but were either ignored or worse, denied or derided by policymakers. Trump, in this context, is not so much an aberration as a semi-colon in a freight train sentence. Perhaps we need to see the present as a crisis?

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