President Donald Trump’s announcement overnight that he will withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement comes as no surprise. After all, this is the man who famously claimed that climate change was a hoax created by the Chinese.
While it will take around four years for the US to withdraw, the prospect is complicated by Trump’s claim that he wants to renegotiate the agreement – a proposal that European leaders were quick to dismiss. But the question now is who will lead global climate action in the US’ absence?
As I have previously argued on The Conversation, there are good reasons for China and Europe to come together and form a powerful bloc to lead international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
China is now the world’s number-one energy consumer and greenhouse gas emitter, and should it combine forces with Europe it has the potential to lead the world and prevent other nations from following the US down the path of inaction.
There are very early signs that this may be happening. Reports this week indicate that Beijing and Brussels have already agreed on measures to accelerate action on climate change, in line with Paris climate agreement.
According to a statement to be released today, China and Europe have agreed to forge ahead and lead a clean energy transition.
While it is too early to predict how Chinese and European leadership will manifest in practice, in the face of American obstruction they are arguably the world’s best hope, if not its only hope.
Decades of destruction
Trump’s announcement only reaffirms his antipathy towards climate action, and that of his Republican Party, which for decades has led attempts to scuttle efforts to reduce emissions at home and abroad. Let’s not forget that it was President George W. Bush who walked away from the Kyoto Protocol.
In just the few short months of his incumbency so far, Trump has halted a series of initiatives executed by President Barack Obama to address climate change. These include taking steps to:
Repeal the clean power plan
Lift the freeze on new coal leases on federal lands
End restrictions on oil drilling in Arctic waters
Reverse the previous decision against the Keystone XL pipeline
Review marine sanctuaries for possible oil and natural gas drilling.
This remains the real problem, regardless of whether the US is inside the Paris climate agreement or outside it. As the planet’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, what the US does domestically on climate change matters a great deal.
As a result, if China and Europe are to lead the world in the US’ absence, not only will they have to ensure that other nations, such as Australia, do not follow the US – and some members of the government hope they do – but they are also going to have to think creatively about measures that could force the US to act differently at home. For example, some leaders have already mooted introducing a carbon tax on US imports, though such proposals remain complicated.
In the meantime, while these political battles play out around the world, climate scientists are left to count the rising cost of inaction, be it the bleaching of coral reefs or increasing droughts, fires and floods.
The weird and wonderful concept of the Anglosphere is gaining a surprising salience in public debates as Britain faces up to its post-Europe future.
Angst seems to be mounting as many British voters who voted to leave the European Union begin to realise that in Brexit they might have bitten off far more than they can chew. So they are turning to the “Commonwealth”, to ask if something like the old imperial order may be resurrected. This is being referred to as the “Anglosphere”.
This kind of thinking has its devotees in Australia too, including former prime ministers Tony Abbott and John Howard. For Abbott, the bonds uniting the Anglosphere states:
… arise from patterns of thinking originally shaped by Shakespeare and the King James Bible, constantly reinforced by reading each other’s books, watching the same movies and consuming the same international magazines.
And for Howard, Anglosphere membership implies that Australia has overriding cultural, economic and strategic interests in common with the US, Canada and New Zealand. These are interests that, as Stefano Gulmanelli points out, “provide the compass in defining Australia’s national interest and its projection into the world”.
As noted in a recent piece in The Conversation, advocates of the idea of the Anglosphere are inclined to see it as a springboard for a post-Europe, “truly global Britain”.
But those advocates are rather a rum lot. They include the extreme right-winger Nigel Farage, as well as ministers Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis in Theresa May’s government. Their dreaming is an attempt to re-imagine a Britain that can turn its back on Europe and benefit from new trade agreements and security alliances with its former colonies, the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
Before Australians even start to think about joining in the Anglosphere frolic, a great deal more needs to be understood about this worrisome concept. Its roots are in proposals for an imperial federation of the white settler colonial societies within the British Empire towards the end of the 19th century.
Alfred Deakin was an Australian champion of this wild idea on the eve of federation, and it reached into the thinking of our longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies. The idea remains a nostalgic dream among the dwindling ranks of British Empire loyalists and staunch monarchists in contemporary Australia. It was probably a factor influencing Abbott’s risible adornment of Prince Philip with an Australian knighthood.
It is important to remember that the British Empire was a very ramshackle affair for almost all of its cumbersome history. To paint it in glorious hues, to thrill to the chords of Elgar’s blood and state music, or to be enthralled by Kipling’s tales of derring-do British colonial officials in far-away climes, is to be deceived by a version of history as much riddled with falsehoods and jingoism as it is a true account of what really happened in the British Empire.
While it might have instigated some modernising benefits, the empire also brought a great deal of arrogant British brutality and ignominious conquest to many noble civilisations.
Recall, for example, the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919. British troops under the command of Colonel Reginald Dyer fired into a crowd of pilgrims, killing 1,000 and wounding many more. This hideous moment is one of many stains on Britain’s imperial history in India. The Raj was an era of racialist superiority, economic exploitation, cultural crassness and bureaucratic stupidity as much as it was an era of enlightenment.
The British Empire started to come crashing down at the end of the first world war. The second world war delivered its coup de grace as independence movements swept many former colonies to post-colonial freedom.
It is well to remember that the roots of latter-day Anglosphere imagining lie all gnarled and twisted amid the British Empire’s ruins. Srdjan Vucetic has written what is arguably the finest scholarly critique so far of the Anglosphere concept. In his exceptional book he explains:
… the Anglosphere cannot be understood without reference to the legacies and shifts in Self-Other relations inside and outside the territorial boundaries of its five core states.“
It is, he points out, a “racialised” identity.
Australia ingratiating itself into a post-Brexit, British-instigated Anglosphere would be a futile exercise in counterproductive nostalgia. Almost invariably, nostalgia entails delusional imaginings of a golden age that never existed.
Australia’s present and future security and prosperity are irrevocably involved with the country finding its way into Asia. The US and the UK are now wallowing in politically fouled nests entirely of their own making. Australia should stay well away from any entanglement whatsoever with such a ridiculous political confection as the Anglosphere represents.
Here’s some advice for Malcolm Turnbull as he prepares for his first face-to-face meeting with US President Donald Trump: reflect on how his predecessors as prime minister have performed in their interactions with a great and powerful friend.
Turnbull can choose from various examples that have reflected well – or poorly, as the case may be – on Australia’s sovereignty and independence of thought and action.
There are too many examples of poor judgement to ignore. They are born, unfortunately, from the sort of clichéd definitions of the relationship that inevitably surface at times like these.
In that regard, Turnbull’s speechwriters might give the first world war’s Battle of Hamel – in which Australian troops under the command of Sir John Monash prevailed with the help of a small number of Americans – a rest.
The Hamel connection – American involvement was scaled back by its commander – is exaggerated for reasons that have less to do with its importance in the scheme of things than it does with an Australian desire to remind the US of its ongoing security obligations.
Let’s go back to John Curtin in 1942, when he requested American assistance in waters to Australia’s immediate north in defence of what is now Papua New Guinea. This came after Winston Churchill – under enormous pressure at home – could not answer the call. Bear in mind the might of the British Navy in the Pacific had been decimated when, on December 10, 1941 – three days after Pearl Harbour – the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse were sunk in a few short hours.
The US responded without delay to Curtin’s pleas, and joined the Battle of the Coral Sea. Australian and US naval forces combined to defeat a Japanese naval armada. Australia’s security policy was redefined in the process.
From that moment, Australia would look not to Britain – which no longer ruled the waves – but across the Pacific to the US as its principal security guarantor. The ANZUS Treaty giving effect to that alliance was signed in 1951.
The Battle of the Coral Sea between May 4 and May 8, 1942 – whose 75th anniversary will be marked on board the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid in New York this week – is an event in Australian diplomatic and security history whose importance cannot be overstated.
Curtin died in office prematurely. His Labor successor, Ben Chifley, presided over a continued strengthening of security ties as the allies pushed the Japanese from their Pacific strongholds until the war ended in 1945.
Robert Menzies built on these security foundations during his long reign as prime minister from 1949 to 1966 – even though his heart remained in Westminster.
Here begin the teaching moments for Turnbull.
Menzies mistakenly aligned Australian policy with the US on recognition of the reality in China after the Nationalists were expelled to Taiwan in 1949. Here he might have been better off following the UK’s example. Britain under a Clement Attlee-led Labour government was one of the first to recognise the People’s Republic of China.
Australia would not do so until the Whitlam government of 1972, 23 years after Mao Zedong prevailed.
Australia persisted in the fiction that the Nationalists on Taiwan were China’s legitimate government, and thus entitled to its seat on the Security Council – even as US President Richard Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, were reaching out secretly to the communists in Beijing.
But back to Menzies as an example of risk and reward in the US relationship. This has relevance today, as pressures on Australia will surely ebb and flow to support US initiatives that will have a military component.
In 1965, Menzies committed Australian troops to Vietnam against Labor opposition. Labor leader Arthur Calwell’s speech in the House of Representatives opposing the commitment was almost certainly his finest hour. Seven years later, 500 Australian troops had been killed, as had many thousands more Americans. Saigon was subsequently renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Argument will persist as to whether US engagement in Indochina gave nascent states in a post-colonial era in Asia breathing space to resist China’s attempts to spread its revolution. But proponents of this point of view are hard put to justify material losses and the Vietnam debacle’s impact on US self-confidence.
From an Australian perspective, Vietnam produced some of the more dispiriting moments in our diplomatic history – from Harold Holt’s “all the way with LBJ” to describe Australia’s fealty to the alliance, to John Gorton’s “we’ll go a Waltzing Matilda with you”.
Then came Whitlam. His relations with Nixon were so bad that speculation has persisted to this day – without credible evidence, it must be said – that the CIA played a role in his downfall.
Prime ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating maintained what might be regarded as fairly conventional relationships with the US during the Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush presidencies. This included Australia’s naval support for the US in the first Gulf War.
Then came John Howard, and the fateful events of September 11, 2001. But even before 9/11 Howard had reverted – if we can put it that way – to some of the clichés that had bedevilled ties with the US in earlier years.
His description of Australia’s relations with the US as that of a “deputy sheriff” in Asia was unfortunate. And it was compounded, it might be said, by him joining George W. Bush’s other amigos – Britain’s Tony Blair and Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar – building the case for the rush to war in Iraq.
If there is a recent indelible teaching moment for Turnbull it is the rushed invasion of Iraq, which has cost the US in excess of US$2 trillion and counting, and helped destabilise the Middle East. Turnbull would be wise to resist pressure to commit Australian ground troops to combat in the Middle East under present circumstances.
Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard avoided, for the most part, mistakes of some of their predecessors – although Gillard’s cloying speech to the US Congress in 2011 might have been avoided. This ended with a lachrymose prime minister talking about her belief the US could “do anything” after viewing the moon landing.
Rudd should be given credit for his efforts in pushing for the establishment of the G20, and then its important role in combating a global financial crisis in 2007-08.
Tony Abbott made no secret of his belief that a Barack Obama presidency was not sufficiently forward-leaning in its efforts to contain Islamic State, and its reluctance to exercise a more muscular approach to its security obligations more generally.
This brings us back to Turnbull and his meeting with Trump.
Turnbull has not been short of advice from former ambassadors, commentators and virtually anyone else with access to a media megaphone. But he should disregard the sort of advice that suggests he might seek to pander to a US president like no other in recent memory.
What Turnbull needs to do in his private meetings with Trump and his advisers is assert Australia’s belief in the need for a continued – possibly expanded – US presence in the Indo-Pacific, and the absolute requirement for the administration to manage its relationship with China effectively.
Concerns about North Korean adventurism might be an immediate preoccupation. But, in the longer term, nothing is more important from an Australian perspective than continued US engagement in Asia, and thus its ability to manage a relationship with a rising power.
History confers on Turnbull an obligation to get the balance right between Australia’s economic and security interests.
He should also be mindful of a shift in Australian domestic opinion regarding the US relationship, and take it upon himself to acknowledge it is better if alliance policy rests on a bipartisan consensus.
Calls by prominent Labor figures, including former prime minister Paul Keating and former foreign minister Gareth Evans, for Australia to be less “reflexive” in its dealings with the US – as Evans put it – represent significant viewpoints in the centre and on the left of Australian politics. But Turnbull should resist the temptation of his predecessors – notably Howard in particular – to deploy differences that might exist in Australia about the alliance as a wedge issue.
Most of all, Turnbull needs to define Australia’s relationship with the US as partner not supplicant.
Whatever judgements might be made about Trump – good, bad and indifferent – what is clear is he is above all else a transactional player. In other words, what value might he place on the US relationship with Australia and his own personal relations with Turnbull?
Turnbull might look to Canada’s Justin Trudeau for guidance in getting the tone right – not too hot, not too cold, and certainly not too mushy.
Alarm bells are ringing a mere three months into Donald Trump’s presidency. The two global flashpoints, Syria and North Korea, are worrying enough.
More troubling still are America’s relations with Russia and China. These are now mired in angst, uncertainty and mutual suspicion. They underlie the failure to create a viable system of crisis prevention and crisis management.
Global power shift
Trump’s first 100 days as president have dramatically demonstrated this failure. For all the rhetoric about “making America great again”, Trump is rapidly discovering that the US has limited capacity to impose its will on the rest of world.
The trend is visible everywhere – in international trade and finance, diplomacy, and numerous conflicts around the world.
In Russia and China, the US now faces two centres of power that are no longer willing to comply with America’s interests and priorities.
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has been busy reasserting its influence after years of humiliation following the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Starting from a low base, China has sustained over the last three decades the most remarkable rate of economic growth in modern history. Now it is seeking to exert the political influence commensurate with its new economic status.
America’s relative political decline goes back to its military defeat in Vietnam. Temporarily obscured by the end of the Cold War, it became fully apparent during the Bush and Obama years. But Trump is the first president to have run on a platform openly stating that the US is in decline and promising to reverse the trend.
We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.
The nationalist card – the one unifying plank of his otherwise chaotic discourse before and since his election – is meant to strike a chord with the many disenchanted Americans hankering for a “golden age” that has long since passed. Trump now faces the immense challenge of delivering on this pledge despite intractable problems at home and abroad.
On the international stage, he has chosen to rely on showing off America’s unmatched military might. This position is supported by some of the most powerful voices in the US military and political establishment.
Soon after taking office, Trump gave the military expanded authority in the conduct of operations against Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. In support of the Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, the US carried out 70 airstrikes in March alone. This is more than twice the number for all of 2016.
In the first two weeks of April, the Trump administration:
announced plans to increase US military spending (already four times greater than China’s and nine times greater than Russia’s) by US$54 billion;
Yet the utility of military power is diminishing. As one centre of power declines and another rises, new faultlines and tensions emerge, and with them new uncertainties. This helps explain why the US finds it so difficult to set a clear policy direction for relations with Russia and China.
Hoping to deflect attention from his campaign’s links with Russia, Trump has allowed relations with Russia to continue on their downward slide. Perhaps it was never his intention to reset the US-Russia relationship.
In any case, he is under considerable pressure from his most senior security advisers to act tough with Russia. Almost certainly, he failed to appreciate that his actions and statements on Syria would provoke Putin’s fury.
The end result is clear. In Trump’s words, US relations with Russia have reached “an all-time low”. Not surprisingly, he has now reversed his previous position on NATO, and announced the alliance is “no longer obsolete”.
Russia, for its part, remains unbending in its support of the Assad government in Syria. It has mercilessly denounced the illegality of the US missile attack, and used its veto power to block a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons.
And now Russia has forced the US to accept a significant watering down of the UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s latest missile launch.
During his election campaign, Trump repeatedly lambasted China for its currency manipulation and threatened to apply tough restrictions on Chinese exports. Before and immediately after his election he flaunted America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security, and challenged China’s military build-up in the South China Sea.
Yet the tone has since changed markedly. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US became an occasion to discuss differences on trade and agree to a 100-day plan for reducing the current US trade deficit with China.
At least in public, Xi stuck to his script about the virtues of bilateral co-operation. Trump presented the talks as forming the basis for “an outstanding relationship”.
The North Korea crisis has exposed the limits of US power. Neither increased US economic sanctions nor the threat of military action are likely to force the North Korean regime into submission.
The US needs China’s help to have any chance of reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. China’s response has been to increase pressure on North Korea while issuing a stern warning to both parties.
And so, the relationship remains at best unpredictable. As much as China and the US need each other, the hawks in the Trump administration – and there are many – will not easily abandon their plans to contain China, challenge its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea, and maintain the US military’s pre-eminence in the region.
However, none of this will halt China’s rise.
What does the future hold?
The months ahead are less than promising. The use and threat of force will do nothing to resolve any of the longstanding conflicts in the Middle East or east Asia.
The projection of military muscle and modernisation of nuclear arsenals are far more likely to produce greater local and regional instability, and heighten the risk of miscalculation from any of the three major centres of power.
Pursuing “America First” or “Russia First” policies in conditions of such mutual vulnerability is an exercise in futility.
A more profitable course for these three centres of power is to recognise each other’s legitimate interests, expand the opportunities for economic and diplomatic co-operation, and develop a co-ordinated approach in the management of actual and potential flashpoints.
To bear fruit, such efforts need to have solid foundations – in particular decisive steps to eliminate nuclear weapons, enhance the effectiveness of international law, and strengthen the UN’s capacity for conflict management and peace-building.
Professor Camilleri will explore these issues in depth at a keynote lecture to be delivered at St Michael’s on Collins, Melbourne, on May 9 and 16.
Malcolm Turnbull has flagged he expects to meet US President Donald Trump in New York next week, although late Tuesday his office said the government was still waiting for the formal invitation.
The occasion is the 75th anniversary of the Coral Sea battle.
Speaking at the Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates during an Anzac commemoration trip that included Iraq and Afghanistan, Turnbull said he looked forward to discussions with Trump “at an early opportunity”. “We’ll be making announcements very shortly about that,” he said.
Turnbull would only make the visit for the Coral Sea anniversary if it provided an opportunity for his first face-to-face meeting with Trump. Even though it would be brief, the timing is awkward – he would be overseas only days before the crucial May 9 budget.
Turnbull, who has had talks with senior administration figures in the past few days, is anxious to get a first-hand feel for Trump.
During his visit to Australia at the weekend, US Vice-President Mike Pence briefed Turnbull on the new administration’s defence and foreign policy assessments, as tensions ramp up with North Korea.
Pence also reaffirmed the US would honour the deal to take refugees from Manus Island and Nauru, while again making clear Trump’s dislike of the agreement the Australian government forged with the Obama administration. Trump expressed this displeasure forcefully in his now-notorious phone conversation with Turnbull earlier this year.
While in Kabul, Turnbull had the opportunity for talks with US Defence Secretary James Mattis.
Asked at his news conference whether Australia needed to do more in the Middle East region, Turnbull said that in both the Afghan and Iraq theatres “there is going to need to be a long-term commitment”.
“But it is one of supporting, above all of training, the Afghan and Iraqi security forces, both military and police, to ensure that they have the ability to defend their own country, to push back the terrorists where they’ve made gains, and to secure the territory that the government is holding.”
He said that as the situation evolved “we’ll consider requests for further support”.
The government on Tuesday announced humanitarian and stabilisation help for Iraq worth an extra A$110 million over three years. This brings to more than $530 million Australia’s humanitarian help for Iraq and Syria since 2014.
During his trip Turnbull met both Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Viewed through the lens of a traditional relationship between close allies, all might have seemed well as US Vice-President Mike Pence and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sprinkled emollient words on a media contingent gathered on the lawns of Sydney’s Admiralty House.
Ferries traversed Sydney Harbour in the background, yachts tacked back and forth, and the sun shone. But that pastoral scene hardly shielded a troubled world beyond, and one that is weighing on the US alliance.
In the age of Donald Trump and “Trumpism” – defined by its unpredictability – Pence’s mission was to reassure an alliance partner the US remained committed to an Asia-Pacific presence, and America’s relationship with Australia in particular. Pence put it this way:
I trust that my visit here today on my very first trip the Asia-Pacific as vice-president of the United States and the president’s plans to travel to this region this fall are a strong sign of our enduring commitment to the historic alliance between the people of the United States of America and the people of Australia.
Importantly, from Turnbull’s perspective, Pence put his imprimatur on a refugee deal that would see asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island resettled in the US subject to severe vetting.
The plain vanilla former Indiana governor and long-term congressman – polar opposite of the flamboyant Trump – did a reasonable job in his efforts to calm concerns that might be held about a new administration’s commitment to the region.
His message was similar to those delivered on previous stops in Japan and South Korea. America would stay the course, and it would stand with its allies against threats to regional security. If anything, it would act more assertively in seeking to preserve Asia-Pacific peace and stability.
Pence made no reference to the previous administration’s “pivot” to Asia, or its commitment to broaden engagement in the region via diplomatic means. If there is a defining characteristic of the new White House in its early months, it is that the threatened projection of American power is back more overtly as a diplomatic tool.
Had former vice-president Joe Biden been standing on the Admiralty House lawns, his words of reassurance to an Asia-Pacific ally would not have been much different. But the context has shifted significantly – and so, too, has the rhetoric.
North Korea’s belligerence, its provocations, its prosecution of a potentially deadly game of bluff, its quirkiness, its threats to launch ballistic missiles against the west coast of the US and as far afield as Australia, all are hardly new. But what has changed are the players: or to put it more bluntly, one player in counterpoint to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Trump’s arrival in the White House has added a new layer of unpredictability to a set of circumstances North Korea’s neighbours have lived with for many years – that country’s development of a nuclear weapons capability.
The world might regard Kim as a cartoonish figure. But the reality is that he presides over a country whose firepower could leave swathes of the Korean peninsula in ruins.
More than half-a-century after the end of the Korean war, the Korean peninsula remains on a hair trigger. The South Korean capital, Seoul, is in split-second range of the north’s artillery and missile batteries.
If a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens provided the first significant foreign policy challenge for a new administration, North Korea’s bombast represents a test of a different order.
No responsible public official can afford to ignore such threats, whatever judgements might be made about that country’s endless displays of brinkmanship.
Speaking of brinkmanship, America’s allies would be foolish not to recalibrate their own expectations of American behaviour under a Trump administration. In this regard Australia is – or should be – no exception.
While Turnbull might have emphasised his fealty to the alliance, the reality is that the Asia-Pacific – or as Australian officials emphasise these days, the Indo-Pacific (to include India and the Indian Ocean that laps at our shores) – has to accept that regional security increasingly will depend on Chinese engagement, whether we like it or not.
Both Turnbull and Pence made it clear they were looking to Beijing to help lessen tensions on the Korean peninsula and bring North Korea to heel. China has proved reluctant to assert its influence over its neighbour, but indications now are the Chinese accept that it is in their interests to calm the situation.
China has taken several significant steps to put Pyongyang on notice, including turning back coal shipments.
If Chinese and US pressure proves able to calm current tensions – and even bring about a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – this may come to be regarded as an historic moment in regional security. It may also be a possible forerunner to the development of more formalised regional security arrangements.
American media reported that Pence’s visit to Australia and other regional countries was prompted partly by concerns in Washington that relations needed to be smoothed to combat reservations about the Trump administration’s commitment to the region.
Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, his criticisms of China so-called “currency manipulation”, his threats to launch a trade war with China, his description of efforts to combat global warming as a “Chinese hoax”, and other intemperate statements have rattled traditional allies.
If the American embassy in Canberra had been paying attention to local media it would have reported back to Washington that there is a groundswell of opinion in Australia that would like to see the country reposition itself between its traditional ally and its most important economic partner.
Influential voices, including those of former foreign minister Gareth Evans, have been calling for less “reflexive” support for US policies. Opinion polls indicate the majority of Australians have a poor regard for Trump.
Whatever Pence and Turnbull may have said on that sun-filled day on the shores of Sydney Harbour, the world is changing fast and with it the context within which Australia interacts with its security guarantor. And perhaps just as importantly, with its principal economic partner.
Pundits often cite the North Korean regime’s crimes against its citizens as proof of Kim Jong-un’s irrationality as a leader. These crimes, as exhaustively documented by former High Court justice Michael Kirby for the UN Human Rights Council, are monstrous and inexcusable.
Grave as they are, they do follow a discernible logic from the perspective of Kim’s efforts to consolidate his regime’s hold on power. Perversely, US President Donald Trump’s sabre-rattling plays into Kim’s logic of domestic power that positions the US as a dire threat, justifying the regime’s political repression.
William Perry, US under secretary of state during the Clinton administration, has contended that Trump’s military brinkmanship increases the likelihood of coercing North Korea back to denuclearisation negotiations. This is the ground that a heightened threat of American attack will prompt Kim to recalculate the benefits of continued nuclear proliferation.
But this scenario is only credible if Trump intends following through on the threat. This now appears more questionable given the controversy over the exact location of the USS Carl Vinson.
Having established the foolishness of attacking North Korea in my previous article, I’d now like to prompt discussion on a couple of points.
The first is how the “irrational Kim” rhetoric limits our ability to understand the complexity of the crisis in North Korea. This creates risks that perversely would compromise human rights and humanitarian goals.
The second is to explore other options for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for North Koreans beyond the threat and application of military force.
There is much emotion in debates over North Korea, and rightly so. Many North Korenas have experienced much suffering and trauma, as well as the lingering anguish of the Korean War and the separation of families by the partition of Korea.
This is precisely why analysts need to carefully weigh up the risks and rewards of policy choices: to do justice to that suffering, and to ensure we do not recommend misadventures that could add further misery to the North Korean people.
First, don’t make things worse
Considering the risks to civilians posed by a war of regime change, it is difficult to mount a case for war as a vehicle for improving human rights and humanitarian outcomes for the North Korean people.
The discourse on human rights in North Korea has long been framed through the lens of national security. Policy issues become “securitised” when proponents of an issue area frame it as an existential security threat, of high priority, that requires extraordinary measures and rapid action to tackle.
Because such issues become framed in the language of security, military-based solutions often come to dominate policy prescriptions. The “crazy Kim” argument has been central to the security rhetoric around human rights in North Korea. This locks possible solutions into a narrow spectrum focused on military force and coercion.
Just as doctors undertake to “first do no harm”, so too should foreign-policy-makers be wary of strategic choices that carry a high risk of making things worse.
Many Korea analysts have pointed to Seoul’s vulnerability, and the risk to millions of South Koreans, posed by a cascading escalation of US military action into full-scale war. That risk also applies to people living in population centres north of the demilitarised zone.
As the Iraq example again illustrates, removing a dictator in a war of regime change is not a guarantee that human rights and humanitarian outcomes will improve.
Either way, this death toll and suffering escalated well beyond the scale of human rights abuses and deaths that occurred under Saddam Hussein’s regime. This is not to downplay the suffering of those persecuted under Hussein, but to recognise that the invasion of Iraq made a bad situation worse.
Could we see similar casualty numbers in a war in North Korea?
North Korea is an urbanised country. Approximately 60% of people are concentrated in larger urban centres. In the event of full-scale escalation, air strikes are likely to target critical infrastructure in an effort to weaken the fighting and logistical capacity of the Kim regime. Many of these targets will be in urban centres, exposing civilians to attack.
We should be mindful of the humanitarian cost of the damage of war to the North Korean economy, industry, agriculture and key infrastructure. Targeting of critical energy, transportation and sanitation infrastructure will no doubt weaken North Korea’s fighting capacity, but also eliminate those critical services for civilians. Food production and distribution networks are likely to be disrupted.
For a country that is already chronically food insecure, any damage to food production and distribution systems will have immediate impacts on increasing malnutrition and starvation. Consider that estimates of deaths from North Korea’s “Arduous March” famine in the mid-1990s sit at approximately 600,000 after the collapse of the country’s food production and distribution system.
The elimination of services for civilians is likely to increase the risk of non-combat casualties from malnutrition, disease, and the elements – particularly during North Korea’s harsh winter.
If such a war ends quickly and an occupation force arrives in North Korea to restore security, casualty figures will be still be high. However, some of the longer-term impacts of human insecurity might be avoided.
However, in the event the post-regime environment is unstable, then casualty figures for North Koreans on a scale similar to Iraq become more likely.
Creating an environment for positive human rights outcomes
Removing Kim Jong-un as the head of the regime does not automatically translate into a win for human rights. A lot of post-conflict nation-building has to take place if a war scenario is to transcend the immediate humanitarian disaster and create an environment in which human rights for the North Korean people can be improved.
Human rights are best guaranteed by stable governance, strong political institutions, legal protections, active civil society, and broad material wellbeing. A post-conflict North Korea in which the Kim regime has been removed would effectively be a failed state. None of these facilitating conditions for human rights guarantees would yet exist.
It takes time and resources to cultivate the institutions of a stable state. It requires many years of patient networking, conversation and compromise to develop a social movement that could evolve into an active civil society. It takes even longer to cultivate a political culture in which the citizenry respects the integrity of the political system even when their faction is not in power.
Without this social infrastructure, Kim Jong-un’s removal is likely to lead to the disintegration of North Korea into a failed state, paving the way for the emergence of another authoritarian strongman.
In South Korea, it took more than 40 years after the conclusion of the Korean War, an ongoing American military occupation, and the development of a broad-based pro-democracy movement, for an imperfect democratic political system to evolve.
To suggest this process could be circumvented in North Korea does not accord with the findings of research into democratisation and social movements. These norms, rules and institutions should ideally be developed by the North Korean people over time, not impatiently imposed from outside by other powers.
It is doubtful that Trump – and, more importantly, his core political support base – has the stomach for the massive long-term, high-cost commitment that nation-building in a post-Kim North Korea would entail.
Where to from here?
One could be forgiven for observing the current US-North Korea standoff as a game played by privileged men in suits on either side, gambling with the lives of ordinary citizens. Millions of lives on both sides of the demilitarised zone and beyond are placed at unnecessary risk through such high-stakes brinkmanship.
It is easy for leaders to talk tough on non-proliferation and human rights enforcement. But it is quite another to bring about international norms in these fields in such a tricky strategic context as the Korean Peninsula.
Unfortunately, Trump’s penchant for military posturing does little to increase the likelihood of denuclearising North Korea, or improving human rights outcomes for its citizens.
Instead, the Trump administration’s bellicose rhetoric inadvertently legitimises North Korea’s justifications for its nuclear weapons program, along with the domestic coercive apparatus that persecutes North Korean citizens.
Guaranteeing human rights in North Korea will ultimately require new institutions, new laws, a domestic civil society, cultural change, and a process of justice for past abuses.
This is a project far beyond the scope of military action, requiring patience, innovative thinking and disciplined strategic restraint on the part of policymakers. And they must recognise the unique strategic circumstances of the Korean Peninsula.
A week has passed since US President Donald Trump rained 59 Cruise missiles down on Al Shayrat airfield north of Damascus, in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. But we are not much closer to answering the question: what next?
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow late this week hardly answered that question, with the two sides agreeing to disagree – but not necessarily agreeably – on Syria’s responsibility for the chemical weapons attacks.
“There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson told reporters after meetings with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister and with President Vladimir Putin.
This might be regarded as an understatement.
Tillerson also re-stated what had been the position of the Obama administration: a resolution of the Syrian crisis could not involve President Bashar al-Assad.
Where all this leaves Australian policy on Syria is unclear beyond a hardening of Canberra’s position on Assad continuing to hold power.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for the Syrian leader to go, and indeed face war crimes charges.
Turnbull’s liberal interventionist line posed some problems for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has been on the record for several years insisting that Assad should be part of any transition arrangement.
Now Bishop says Australia’s position on Assad is “hardening”, thus indicating a shift.
If nothing else, she is displaying characteristic nimbleness in bringing herself into line not only with her leader’s position, but that of an evolving American attitude. During Trump’s first 100 days, his administration has been more antagonistic towards the Damascus regime.
At last the penny seems to have dropped with the Canberra foreign policy establishment – conspicuously light on for Middle East expertise – that Assad cannot be part of any solution that hopes to bring order to his civil war-ravaged country.
In any case, the Syrian pieces may well have moved far beyond being put back together again and we will be looking at best at a sort of Dayton Accords Bosnian solution in which the country becomes cantonised.
But all that is far off, as warring factions continue to tear each other and the country apart. Assad has demonstrated there are almost no limits beyond which he will go to defend his regime.
From Canberra’s perspective, these are testing moments in a broader chess game as Australian policymakers seek to make sense of a Trump foreign policy not only towards Syria and the wider Middle East, but in a confrontational US stance towards North Korea.
It is much too soon to begin talking about a Trump Doctrine, but whatever was said on the campaign trail by an “America First” candidate intent on avoiding foreign entanglements that position now seems to be fungible.
Based on Trump’s actions in Syria and his threats against Pyongyang, backed up by the deployment of an American battle group, what is emerging is an apparent willingness to use force, or at least employ the threat of force overtly to advance US foreign policy interests.
How then should an Australian government respond to what is shaping as a significant departure from business as usual under a restrained Barack Obama administration, whose preferred approach was to use drone strikes and other such methods to assert American foreign policy interests more subtly?
Australian policymakers would be advised to proceed with extreme caution. Turnbull and his advisers should be especially wary of any moves that would involve Australia more deeply in Middle East conflict.
Australian military forces are in the region to help the Iraqi government stabilise Iraq, not become enmeshed in a vicious civil war in Syria beyond limited air strikes against Islamic State strongholds in central and eastern Syria.
Turnbull and his national security team need to be mindful of the risks involved in any sort of deeper engagement, including especially the commitment of ground troops.
Syria is a mess, and a treacherous one.
What remain unclear is whether the Trump missile attack was a one-off strike aimed at sending a message to Assad not to resort to chemical weapons again, or whether it will be followed by other such actions.
At this stage, it seems to be of a piece with missile strikes that Bill Clinton launched against Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan when those countries crossed a line, in Washington’s view. But you can’t be sure.
What is the case is that Trump’s warning shot has got Moscow’s attention.
As things stood, Vladimir Putin more or less had his way in Syria in a loose alliance with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, in support of the toxic Assad regime.
Now, Moscow has been put on notice. There are limits to Western tolerance of Assad’s war against his own people, in which more than 400,000 have died and half the country’s population of 22 million displaced.
This brutal campaign has involved the widespread use of barrel bombs and other such cluster devices that inflict carnage on those in the vicinity. These devices have been used mercilessly, and have drawn the condemnation of governments and human rights organisations under various Geneva conventions.
Putin may be willing to put pressure on Assad to forego the use of chemical weapons again, but it is hardly likely he would abandon him, or his regime.
Russia has too much invested in Syria, including an agreement on Mediterranean berthing rights for its navy, use of airstrips and other such facilities, and perhaps most important the message Russian involvement delivers to the rest of the Middle East.
Russia is back four decades after it was bundled out of Egypt by President Anwar Sadat, and is not about to withdraw.
What vastly complicates Western policy in Syria is how to sanction Assad on one hand and deal with Islamic State on the other, without the country unravelling completely, thus enabling a jihadist takeover.
Western policymakers tell us the aim is to “defeat’’ IS, but what does this mean?
IS might be pushed out of Mosul in northern Iraq and its stronghold in Raqqa, but it will not be “defeated’’ in any formal sense. There will be no armistice agreement in which both sides negotiate a truce.
Whether we like it or not IS, or whatever its mutations, will remain a threat to regional peace and stability, and further afield a continuing terrorist menace across the globe.
What we have on our hands is a generational struggle. This is all the more reason to hasten slowly in Syria outside an internationally-backed settlement involving the US and Russia that would end the bloodshed.
This would represent the best case outcome, but how to fashion such an arrangement given Moscow’s resolute support for Assad is the question.
A bloodstained Assad or his immediate henchmen should not be part of these transitional arrangements. Their place is before a war crimes tribunal at The Hague.
_This column has been corrected. The paragraph beginning “Australian military forces are in the region …” went on to read “air strikes against Islamic State strongholds in central and western Syria”. It has since been corrected to central and eastern Syria.“ _
The devastating gas attack in Syria, attributed to the Assad regime, and the swift US missile response is a game-changer for all parties involved in the Syrian conflict. This is a complex war, but it helps to look at the key players in three interlocking layers.
In the first layer are the local players within Syria. Since the 2011 Arab spring uprisings, all local players wanted to get rid of the 17-year-old regime of Syrian President Bashir Al-Assad. He desperately tried to cling to power and proved surprisingly resilient under immense political and military pressure.
Assad’s strength comes from Russian, Chinese and Iranian support – as well as support from the large portion of secular Arab Syrians and religious minorities (Alawites, Assyrian Christians and Druze).
Initially, there were three main insurgent groups opposing Assad. The first was the moderate Islamic coalition made up of Sunni Syrian elite who established the Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up of officers who had defected from the Assad forces. The FSA’s initial promise soon gave way to pessimism, as it could not deliver a decisive blow against Assad.
Second, Kurds in northern Syria organised themselves as the YPG (a militia group whose name translates to “People’s Protection Units”) and established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They received widespread acclaim and support, particularly from the US and other Western nations, for their strong defence against Islamic State (IS) forces.
Third are the Salafist jihadist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which changed their name to the Front for the Conquest of the Levant, and claimed independence from al-Qaeda. It was these jihadist groups that led the chief military opposition to the Assad regime for the last six years, including in Aleppo until its fall in 2016.
IS emerged as a key political and military force in Syria in 2014. Unlike other insurgent groups, it did not fight Assad. Rather, it opportunistically claimed large swathes of uncontrolled land and declared an independent caliphate state, becoming the chief source of radicalism threatening Western societies.
The second layer in the Syrian conflict is occupied by regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Iran has been a longstanding ally of the Assad regime because of its sectarian, political and economic interests. Assad and his entourage are Alawites, an off-shoot of Shia Islam.
Syria is an important corridor for Iran to press its influence over Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah and provide access to the Mediterranean. Iran’s regional ambitions require the continuation of the Assad regime.
Worried about Iran’s growing influence in the region, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Salafist insurgent groups. Fearing the spread of IS ideology and popularity in its realm, the Saudi government has supported US-led air strikes on IS since 2014.
Turkey has been the most active regional player in the Syrian conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has supported all Sunni insurgent groups with weapons, training and logistics since the beginning of the conflict, with the exception of the Kurdish YPG.
Turkey fears that an independent Kurdish region in Syria (combined with Kurdish northern Iraq) would encourage its Kurdish population to also seek separation.
The third layer of the Syrian conflict is occupied by Russia and the US. They are major geopolitical players whose conflicting interests over Syria are the source of the current impasse, and the reason why removing Assad has become exceedingly difficult.
Unhappy with the increasing US and Western influence in the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to expand his economic and military interests in the Syrian conflict, and staged a challenge to the geopolitical world order.
In the course of the Syrian civil war, Putin has become the custodian of the Shi’ite alliance between Iran, Syria and Shi’ite political forces in Iraq and Lebanon. Deep down, Russia fears a destabilised Syria falling under IS control would mobilise radical Muslim groups within its borders.
Under the Obama administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Barack Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to YPG and FSA, hoping they could muster enough opposition to dismantle Assad.
This is why it was bizarre that Assad would launch a gas attack at this crucial juncture. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Assad vehemently denied the use of chemical weapons, while Russia claimed the Syrian air strike hit a rebel chemical munition depot.
The reason is now irrelevant, as the swift US missile attack has sealed the issue. US President Donald Trump served notice not only to Assad and Russia, but all the players in the conflict.
However, this is not likely anytime soon. Western powers suffer from a dissidence – they would like Assad to go, but cannot see a viable alternative. With his secular outlook and promise of protecting religious minorities, Assad still wields much support.
Trump’s impulsive nature is the US’s greatest weakness in world diplomacy, but counter-intuitively, is its greatest strength in a conflict like Syria.
The impulsive courage of Trump, coupled with the military prudence of the Pentagon, gives the US the best advantage in the region and disturbs the Assad, Iran and Russian alliance. They can no longer act with impunity, knowing Trump would have no qualms about hitting Syrian regime targets, which were untouched by the Obama administration.
Trump has tasted the rush of being commander-in-chief. He is likely to follow with other bold military steps, and insist on the demise of the Assad regime.
Assad’s future lies with Putin’s obstinacy and ability to withstand US pressure. As the FBI investigation into the Trump election campaign’s Russian links deepens, Trump is likely to use Assad card to deflect attention and prove his disassociation with Russia.
Betting all his money on Assad, Putin will use the Syrian leader as a bargaining chip to press Trump to accept a place for Assad in the post-IS Syria, at least in the Western part of the wrecked country. This could save Assad’s skin, but at the expense of Syria remaining a divided country.
The YPG will emerge as the main winner securing an autonomous polity in northern Syria in exchange for its help in the US-led Raqqa military offensive, driving another wedge toward the eventual division of Syria. It will follow the trajectory of the northern Iraq Kurdish region, with the prospect of future independence.
Sunni insurgent groups are likely to be the biggest losers. They may have to contend with the remaining remote regions while Syria harbours the propensity to be another Iraq and a breeding ground for IS-inspired radicalism threatening societies the world over.
Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University