Bewhiskered Cassandra? Professor Hugh White’s chilling suggestion, advanced to select collections of academic, military and diplomatic Kiwi experts over the course of the past week, is that the assumptions upon which Australia and New Zealand have built their foreign affairs and defence policies for practically their entire histories – are no longer valid.
WHO IS HUGH WHITE and why is he so determined to alarm us? Formally, Hugh White is the Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. Informally, he’s a disrupter of cherished fictions. Unwilling to further embellish the orthodox accounts of Australia’s and New Zealand’s strategic obligations, White dares to ask the sort of questions that make his audiences either bristle with indignation or recoil in horror. In short, White possesses the Devil’s imagination: that terrifying ability to interrogate a worst case scenario without flinching.
White’s chilling suggestion, advanced with bewhiskered geniality to select collections of academic, military and diplomatic Kiwi experts over the course of the past week, is that the assumptions upon which Australia and New Zealand have built their foreign affairs and defence policies for practically their entire histories – are no longer valid.
Both nations are the offspring of empire: peripheral adjuncts to a core imperium powerful enough to guarantee the security of both. Accordingly, the unwavering principle of Australian and New Zealand statecraft has been to keep strong the ties that bind them to their distant protectors. Up until the Second World War that meant listening intently to the voice of London. After HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sent to the bottom of the South China Sea by Japanese bombers in 1942, however, Canberra and Wellington found it more expedient to tune-in to Washington.
The key image to keep in mind is that of the “young lions”. A poster depicting Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand answering the summoning roar of the leader of the imperial pride, Great Britain. Alone, not one of the so-called “White Dominions” was strong enough to see off either Hitler or Hirohito. That is why they answered the call. The British Empire would face the “audit of war” as a unit: Albion’s “pride” would stand, or fall, together.
In the words of the New Zealand Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, broadcast to the nation almost exactly 80 years ago: “Both with gratitude for the past and confidence in the future, we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go; where she stands, we stand.”
It was the same (minus the eloquence) with Uncle Sam. When he hollered, the Aussies and the Kiwis came a-runnin’. Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Iraq: one way or another both countries made it their business to show up. The Australians were always more demonstrative of their love for Uncle Sam than the Kiwis. Even before the break with Washington in 1985, occasioned by New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy, Wellington generally contrived to contribute only the very least it could get away with. Where Robert Menzies sent thousands of young Australian conscripts to South Vietnam, Keith Holyoake sent a few hundred volunteers – albeit with Howitzers.
White’s unnerving propositions posit a strategic situation in which not only does Uncle Sam cease to holler, but also – and much more alarmingly – ceases to come when called. He sees a new, multi-polar, world in which the principal nation-states have withdrawn behind their nuclear-fortified walls in watchful suspicion. A world frighteningly similar to that of the 1930s, in which a feeble and increasingly despised League of Nations simply ceased to matter. When leaders closed their mailed fists around the hilts of their swords and no longer bothered to pay even lip-service to the principles of international law.
This grim strategic position, so far from the “amazingly benign strategic environment” inherited by Helen Clark in the dying days of American hegemony, is made much worse by the USA’s ability to cast-off the ties that bind without significant cost. Great Britain depended on the food and raw materials of its far-flung dominions in a way that the USA, a vast continental power, does not. Abandoning the Western Pacific will not break the American economy, nor will it cause its people to starve. Indeed, the reverse may be true!
Which leaves us facing the one power which does evince an interest in what Australia and New Zealand have to offer – the Peoples Republic of China. White taxes his audience with questions about how far we Anzacs are prepared to go to preserve a modicum of freedom of action within the new imperium radiating from Beijing.
More importantly, how much are we willing to pay?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 September 2019.