Articles by " Rod Lyon"

Is major war obsolete?


August has seen a wave of reflection on major war. It’s a question we seem to revisit every time the key anniversaries of WWI and WWII roll around, but given special significance this year by the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI. Some pundits are keen to draw parallels between 1914 and 2014—though on its face it’s not apparent to me why 2014 should be more like 1914 than 2013.

Academic strategists familiar with their disciplinary history will know that the issue of whether major war’s obsolete received a detailed coverage back in Survival magazine in the late 1990s. To save readers the trouble of digging through their archives, one contributor, John Mueller, argued that it was obsolete—gone the way of slavery and duelling—while others wrestled partly over how to define obsolescence and even more over how to define major war. Was the Vietnam War ‘major’? Was the Cold War a ‘war’? Michael Mandelbaum argued that perhaps major war was just a poor policy option nowadays—because of the steep rise in the costs and the thin rewards for success. Read more

It’s intriguing that the question about the obsolescence of war is typically qualified by the adjective ‘major’. No-one seems particularly keen to claim that nasty little wars—in particular, nasty little wars in faraway places—are obsolete, perhaps because they patently aren’t. From memory, Mueller didn’t want to call those conflicts ‘wars’, though; he saw those more as ‘opportunistic predation’. (That’s the reason the cover of his book, The Remnants of War, features an image—from the Balkan conflict in 1991—of a thug swigging from a bottle.)

9/11 came along and sideswiped that whole debate. The nasty little wars of the 1990s didn’t stay in faraway places. A superpower got up and marched off to war—albeit a war against al Qaeda, its supporters, and all its works. Somewhere along the line the mission became conflated with a host of other problems, and Washington ended up obsessing about the Global War on Terror for longer than it probably should have done. But Washington’s behaviour at least answered one question related to the Big One: did great powers still go to war? Yes. Now, the question still unanswered—unanswered since 1945 if you think major war has to be hot; unanswered since 1991, if you think major war can be cold—is whether or not major powers still go to war with each other.

Psychologist Steven Pinker has recently argued that the better angels of our nature are making us turn away from violence. I’m not wholly convinced by his argument—the better angels of our nature seem pretty militant to me, and always have been. (See Ephesians, 6:12.) But academic research from a few decades back suggests that great-power wars against each other aren’t common. Jack Levy in his research on war in the international system between 1495 and 1975 found only nine of what he would call ‘world wars’—wars where almost all great powers were involved. Much more commonly, he found ‘interstate wars’—113 of which engaged a great power. I cite those figures to underline two points. First, if world wars are rare, maybe we don’t need special explanations to say why there hasn’t been one since 1945 (hot) or 1991 (cold). Second, that definition of major war is still a problem.

Let’s put aside the academic arguments and look straight at the case that most worries. Is a great-power war between US and China possible? I think we could answer that question directly: possible, yes; likely, no. Great powers, especially nuclear-armed ones, don’t go to war with each other lightly. But sometimes wars happen. And they aren’t accidents. They’re about international order. They’re about, as Raymond Aron said, the life and death of states. And the principal reason for fighting them is that not doing so looks like a worse alternative.

Moreover, the paths to war—including rare major-power war—are not reserved solely for conventionally-armed states. Where both powers are nuclear-armed we should expect a conflict, even one at the lower rungs of the escalation ladder, to be fought with a high degree of political control, and an understanding that the objectives of the conflict are limited. Naturally, it would help if both sides shared a common understanding of where the firebreaks were between conventional and nuclear conflict, and already had in place a set of crisis-management procedures, but it’s possible that neither of those conditions might exist. (Neither would prevent a war, but both would provide a better sense of the likely escalation dynamics of a particular conflict.) Indeed, it’s because major war is possible that we retain such a keen interest in war termination. Unconstrained escalation doesn’t lead to a happy place.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Jenny Downing.

The future of the US–Australia strategic relationship

AUSMIN 2014With the annual Australia–US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) recently concluded in Sydney, it’s a good time to reassess the broader Australian–US strategic relationship. I want to frame that assessment here by employing a SWOT analysis. The methodology is clunky but simple enough to allow a set of insights about the relationship’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I’ve allowed myself three of each, as follows.

Three strengths: familial closeness, shared grand strategies, a solid foundation. First, closeness. The Anglosphere’s our international family, and while it’s easy to mock the importance of belonging to an international family, states that don’t belong to one (like Japan) would beg to differ. Ties of blood and culture run deep. Second, grand strategy: the best long-term allies are those who essentially want the same thing. In grand strategy, Washington and Canberra both want a stable, liberal, prosperous global order. And that’s a good basis for long-term cooperation—because the tie isn’t just of blood but of interest. Third, the foundation: we both enjoy an alliance that’s over 60 years old and is as close today as it’s ever been. Both allies are still looking for new ways to cooperate in order to make the alliance more relevant to the 21st century. Read more

Three weaknesses: time, place, strategic personalities. After the Global War on Terror the US is a weary Titan. That effect might last another five to ten years, but—over the longer haul—US vigour will wax as well as wane. There’s a second, longer-term ‘time’ factor, and that relates to the broader pattern of regional transformation: while the US rebalance to Asia is good, Washington’s rebalancing at a time when Western influence in the region is slipping because of the rise of regional great powers. Second is geography. At the best of times, Australia’s not Washington’s top priority—geographically we sit too far back from a strategic order essentially built along the Eurasian rimlands. True, the shift of strategic weight in Asia is changing that, to some degree—but we’re never going to be as relevant as front-line US partners. Finally, personalities: the US and Australia are two different strategic personality types: Americans are Extroverted, Intuitive and Feeling; Australians are Extroverted, Sensing and Thinking. In short, we‘re British empiricists, they’re the City on the Hill. There’s a messianic core to US strategic policy that isn’t replicated in ours.

Three opportunities: a more receptive Asia, a US more interested in Southeast Asia, a treaty with an in-built capacity to engage. Evidence of the more receptive Asia abounds. Regional countries want to do more with both the US and Australia. Japan’s the obvious example, but others aren’t as far behind as some think. It wasn’t always thus: remember, we couldn’t do much more with Japan before Abe, nor much more with Indonesia before SBY. A second opportunity, a shifting US perception of Southeast Asia. Washington has traditionally seen that subregion as a set of sealanes, and after 9/11 as a possible second front in the War on Terror, but it’s finally coming to see it as a set of influential players at the intersection of two key oceans. Third, both the US and Australia are classic networkers. And the ANZUS treaty already gives them scope (in the unused Article 8) to do more networking together in the regional context. I’m amazed we aren’t doing it.

Three threats: complacency, category mistake, distraction. Let’s start with complacency, because that’s the most insidious threat to the relationship. There’s something of a danger on both sides of the Pacific that capitals will treat the relationship as ‘business-as-usual’. Oddly, the simple regularity of AUSMIN actually increases that danger, reducing high-level political commitment to the alliance to an annual ministerial meeting. We need to work to sustain a broader base of political engagement. Second, the threat of the category mistake: that we come to see ANZUS as a barrier to our closer engagement with Asia, rather than an enabler of such engagement. It’s a simple mistake to slip into, and it typically follows from seeing ANZUS as a strategic hangover from a different era. And finally, there’s the threat of distraction. Distraction can come to both capitals from a range of sources. Washington can easily be distracted by more urgent priorities, both domestic and international; but so too can Canberra. Despite the excitable tones in which the future of our strategic partnership with the US is sometimes debated, the real threat isn’t that our relationship will be ruined by disastrous war, nor even that it’ll be traded away to accommodate China: it’s that the relationship will be eaten out from the inside, leaving a hollow, reactive partnership in the place of a substantive, proactive one.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Analysing the China choice

Choices ...

The recent posts by Peter Jennings and Hugh White outline an interesting set of thoughts about Australia’s strategic policy options in a transformational Asia.

If I can summarise the argument bluntly, Peter says we don’t need to choose between the US and China, nor even between Japan and China—explicitly making the case that ‘countries in the Asia Pacific stickily persist in cooperating with each other’, and implicitly making the argument that zero-sum strategic competitions come along a lot less frequently than many people suppose. Just as well too, says Peter, since the choice Hugh outlines is one between ‘subordination or incineration’. Read more

Hugh agrees that the objective of Australian policy should be to avoid having to choose between the US and China. But being able to do that, he says, turns critically upon how well the US and China get on with each other: ‘the worse they get on, the starker the choice we’ll face between them’. Since Hugh is a self-confessed pessimist, he doesn’t expect the two great powers to get along well. So he does think we face a looming—stark—choice between great powers. Hugh’s answer is greater accommodation of China: ‘the more firmly we resist any accommodation of China’s ambitions, the faster strategic rivalry will escalate’.

The argument between Peter and Hugh is rather more subtle than it appears at first glance, but I think it turns upon one important difference: Hugh wants Australia ‘to promote a new power-sharing order in Asia’, where I get the sense that Peter would like Australia to promote a new responsibility-sharing order in Asia. Between the two competing principles, I’m attracted to the notion of responsibility-sharing. If China’s ambitions don’t include a role as something like a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the regional order (yes, I know Robert Zoellick’s term is unfashionable these days, but it captures the right metric), why should we accommodate it?

Power is neither a good thing nor a bad thing in international relations—it’s what it’s used for that matters. In that sense, power’s like war and intelligence operations—you judge it by its political objectives rather than standing in slack-jawed admiration of power in its own right. That’s the way we’ve always judged other powers: it explains why we think now that concluding ‘peace in our time’ with Hitler was wrong, and also why we thought the Soviet Union had to be contained, even if it couldn’t easily be fought in a nuclear age.

So, the real determinant of whether we have to make a choice between the US and China isn’t how well they get on with each other. It’s ‘what does China see as its role in the world?’ The problem is that question doesn’t get a single answer, even in Beijing. Chinese grand strategy is a mish-mash of: its earlier expectations of what it meant to be a great power; a sense of entitlement now China has escaped the century of humiliations; a great sense of economic interconnectedness to the outside world; and a history of fractious relations with its neighbours.

That means Beijing likes some parts of the current regional order but dislikes others. It likes maritime security and safe sealanes so it can trade. It likes regional stability so it can concentrate on development. It accepts that US alliances help ‘tether’ Washington’s regional allies, though it’s becoming a bit more hesitant about that one. It dislikes foreign barbarians encroaching on Chinese civilisation. It resents that it’s a great power with unsettled territorial claims. It dislikes an Asian security order organised in Washington.

Hugh says that accommodation doesn’t mean giving Beijing everything it wants. That’s true. But what do we do when push comes to shove on something it wants but we don’t want? At some point, even in Hugh’s universe, the rubric of ‘choice’ cuts both ways. And choosing to resist China in a regional order we’ve designed to accommodate it might involve a set of strategic risks that we’d be unwilling to run on the day: by necessity, there’d be a set of salami-slice calculations in which the running of great risks for small gains could always be reasoned away.

Let’s go back to the nub of the problem: what does Australia want in Asia? I think the answer is relatively simple: it wants a stable, liberal, prosperous regional order. We can accommodate a China that wants that too. But power-sharing for its own sake doesn’t strike me as a recipe for strategic happiness. And arguing in Washington for a course that dilutes US influence in order to fashion a workable G2 with China means arguing for a smaller role for the one great power that’s actually built a stable, liberal, prosperous order in Asia. I’m not in favour of our doing that.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Lee.

A generational shift in the North Korean nuclear program?

The death last week of General Jon Pyong-ho, aged 88, chief architect of the North Korean nuclear program, raises the tantalising question, ‘where to from here?’. We’ve become accustomed to a North Korean nuclear program that limps rather than runs. Two factors have constrained the program: a shortage of fissile material and a lack of nuclear testing. Deals cut in the 1990s and at the Six Party Talks (SPT) have also slowed proceedings; twice now the small 5MWe gas graphite reactor (the source of all the North’s current stockpile of plutonium) has been mothballed—and subsequently de-mothballed. But with that reactor being restarted last October, and a new 25MWe light water reactor (LWR) coming on-stream, are we about to see a generational shift to a new, more energetic North Korean nuclear program?

The short answer is ‘no’. The longer answer is more complicated. Broadly, fissile material shortages seem likely to hamper the program for some time yet. Estimates vary as to the size of the current North Korean plutonium stockpile. The US Congressional Research Service figure of between 30 and 50kg (enough for five to eight bombs) seems reasonable, but that figure could be lower if the third nuclear test involved a plutonium device rather than a uranium one (something we don’t know). If the 5MWe reactor is now running smoothly again, Pyongyang can use it to produce about one-bomb’s-worth (6kg) of plutonium per year. But the process is slow, beginning with construction of suitable fuel rods for the reactor, irradiation of the fuel in the reactor, removal and cooling of the fuel, and reprocessing to extract the plutonium. Read more

Size matters. Pyongyang’s problem is that the facility is just too small to allow greater production. Had it completed construction of either its 50-MWe reactor or a 200-MWe reactor, both of which it began building some years back but subsequently abandoned, the equations would look much more unsettling. The 50-MWe reactor would have created enough plutonium for ten bombs per year; the 200-MWe reactor enough for 40 bombs per year.

True, Pyongyang might choose to pursue simultaneously a second path to fissile materials—as the US did during the Manhattan Project. If it used its uranium-enrichment facility solely to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU), it could produce about 40kg per year. The IAEA defines 25kg of HEU as a ‘significant’ quantity, so let’s say that 40kg equals a capability to make one and a half bombs. But the enrichment facility must spend some time creating low-enriched uranium-oxide fuel pellets for the new LWR. And each new nuclear test will subtract one bomb’s worth of material from the stockpile.

Won’t the LWR provide an alternate source of plutonium for Pyongyang when it begins operations? Yes. Depending on how it chooses to run the reactor and how often it wants to—or can—refuel it, Pyongyang could use it to produce plutonium. Estimates vary about how much. Charles Ferguson, from the Federation of American Scientists, has recently argued that Pyongyang could extract 30–40 kg of plutonium each year (enough for five to seven bombs) from just that facility. That seems a high figure; others suggest lower ranges. Siegfried Hecker suggests a plutonium figure of 10–15kg per year might be more realistic.

The LWR isn’t an ideal producer of weapons-grade plutonium for Pyongyang. The fuel is in the form of ceramic pellets, each fuel-load requires low-level uranium enrichment (unlike the Magnox fuel being fed into the small reactor) and the plutonium reprocessing facility has previously been set up to reprocess metallic fuel, not ceramic. Some analysts—Hecker for example—argue that the LWR’s inherent proliferation-resistance means the North will probably use the LWR for electricity production rather than plutonium production. Further, the fact the North’s restarted its small reactor suggests it wants to retain its present plutonium path.

Still, the possibility for misuse of the LWR—while low—is sufficiently concerning that getting a handle on the program is becoming more important. Recent developments have certainly not been lost on the South Koreans, who have stated that a freezing of the North Korean program at its current level should be a precondition for any resumption of the SPT. Hecker used to champion a proposal called ‘the three nos’: no more bombs, no better bombs, and no export. If Pyongyang keeps going in its current direction, the first two nos seem unlikely to be satisfied.

What can Australia do? Unfortunately, not much. We don’t control the supply of uranium to North Korea, we can’t influence how Pyongyang uses its nuclear infrastructure, and we can’t shape its decisions about missile and nuclear weapon testing. Our intelligence community might be able to lead an effort to clarify stockpile numbers, which would be valuable but not game-changing.

Despite the concerns of the international community, Pyongyang in recent years has constructed a new reactor and enrichment facility, tested longer-range missiles and nuclear devices, and declared that it’s a nuclear-armed state. It isn’t about to turn over a new leaf. But its nuclear program still lives on Struggle Street—and will for some years yet. That certainly doesn’t make it irrelevant; further testing, for example, could help North Korea miniaturise its weapons. Still, it buys us a little time—if we can find a way to use it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of yeowatzup.

Australia, Japan and the future of strategic relationships in Asia

His Excellency Shinzo Abe, PM of Japan & Mrs Akie Abe visit AWM 8/7/14

The rapidly-warming strategic relationship between Australia and Japan has drawn considerable attention this week. Some are for it, some are against it. Some see it as a mechanism to reinforce the growth of a responsible Japanese strategic role in the Indo-Pacific. Others see it as likely to entangle Australia in an emerging zero-sum strategic contest between China and Japan. And still others believe it’ll enable us—finally—to solve the issue of Australia’s future submarine.

I tend to favour the first of those views, but want to explore a different side of the relationship here: what does the emerging ‘special relationship’ between Canberra and Tokyo tell us about future strategic relationships in Asia? Since the early days of the Cold War, the Asian security architecture has been characterised by three core elements: a set of US alliances; a range of countries pursuing national, self-reliant defence policies; and (since the late 1960s) a set of multilateral security dialogues. Actual, close, bilateral or trilateral defence cooperation between Asian countries has been rare. Yes, the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) have provided a framework for Malaysia and Singapore to interact, but FPDA tends to be an exception that underlines the more general rule. Read more

As Asian transformation unfolded (and continues to unfold), it was always an open question what effect it would have on that architecture. Obviously, rapid economic growth and industrialisation would enhance national defence force capabilities. But would more alliance ‘spokes’ gradually be added to the hub-and-spokes model? Or would there be fewer spokes as US allies gravitated towards actual self-reliance and Washington quietly encouraged greater intra-Asian cooperation? Would the multilateral structures become more influential in shaping the regional order, or less so? And would particular Asian countries form closer bonds with each other and, if so, what might be the nature of those bonds? In short, Asian transformation did more than raise uncertainties over which countries might be the positive security contributors of the 21st century; it raised uncertainties about the shape of future regional strategic relationships.

For a long time, one of those questions—the one about Asian bonding—tended to receive only a glib answer: we would see the growth of ‘strategic partnerships’ in Asia, complementing the other elements of the earlier structure. In reality, though, such partnerships have been difficult to form. True, both Tony Abbott and Shinzo Abe have used the vocabulary of strategic partnership when speaking about their new bond. But they’ve also used a more exclusive term—a ‘special relationship’. In the international arena, that terminology is comparatively unusual. It’s a term that’s certainly been used in relation to the US–UK relationship, and sometimes in relation to the US-Germany relationship. It’s a phrase that bespeaks an unusual closeness.

My impression is that the term’s similarly rare in the Australian strategic lexicon and, again—when used in its genuine strategic context, and not merely as diplomatic flattery—tends to be reserved for allies. Some academics have used the term to describe the US–Australia tie (‘the other special relationship’). But, on the whole, Australian strategic policymakers haven’t spoken much about ‘special relationships’ between Australia and Asian countries. That we’ve done so in this case actually suggests a much deeper form of strategic connection between Japan and Australia than some might have imagined.

That connection has been driven by leaders: Abe and Abbott have made the connection happen, overriding the hesitancy of some in their ranks. Abbott gives every sign of being someone who’s not afraid to bite the bullet on Australian strategic relationships in Asia. His early success in strengthening the Australia–Japan relationship might be a harbinger of a more energetic Australian strategic policy towards Asia as a whole, not just towards Tokyo. Given Australian policy towards Asia has been primarily transactional, signs of deeper-level engagement are probably overdue. Meanwhile, Abe has wrought a quiet revolution in Japanese strategic policy, and shows no sign of slowing the momentum of reform running through Tokyo. But if the connection really is going to allow cooperation on something as sensitive as submarine drive trains, or even whole submarines, the degree of Japanese buy-in to the special relationship is indeed extraordinary.

Does that mean we could see other special relationships emerge in Asia as other national leaders grasp the nettle? I suspect not. The unfolding Australia–Japan relationship looks likely to be atypical of what emerges. It’s likely to set a benchmark in strategic cooperation that few other such relationships could achieve. But it does suggest that important levels of strategic cooperation among a select group of Asian states are going to be a part of the new regional architecture. And the government has done well to reach both that conclusion, and the resulting agreement, so adroitly.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Australian War Memorial

What’s Australia’s strategic narrative?

As work on the Defence White Paper begins to quicken, I think there ought to be a broader public debate about what Australia’s strategic role should be. This is the under-discussed part of every White Paper. We seem to have endless coverage of what the strategic environment is like; and almost as much on how we manage the constraints on our role, such as defence budgets and legacy force structures. But it’s the bit in the middle—the section that joins together the environment and the constraints—that’s always undercooked. What role does Australia want to play in the world and how does it want to play it?

I was reminded of how little we address the question when the topic surfaced unexpectedly in a recent discussion at ASPI. We were discussing Asian strategic narratives when a visitor asked what Australia’s strategic narrative was. It’s a deep question, and mimics the classic question of grand strategy: what’s Australia’s project for the world? Large questions of identity and history swirl together here. Identity, because the question asks in part how we see ourselves. History, because there’s no Australia that comes to the 21st century but the one that played the role it did in earlier centuries. Read more

Australian identity is now complex and multifaceted. Undoubtedly there are still vestiges of ‘the Japanese colony in Africa’ as William Hudson used to call us—a colony established on the far side of the earth from the mother country, populated initially with prisoners and their guards, fearful of engagement with its neighbours, and 200 years after white settlement retaining the British Queen is its Head of State. Being so far from our home protector, we thought naturally that our security was tied to that of the Empire. And we were born to think of naval power as our creator, supplier and protector, nurturing a strategic inclination to partner with the dominant Western maritime power of the day.

But since at least the 1970s, a growing strain of nationalism has been echoing in Australian foreign and strategic policy, reflecting the emergence of a generation that found dependency shameful and wanted a more independent strategic voice. In the years since, we’ve unpacked a doctrine of defence self-reliance, explored the idea of Australia as a Good International Citizen, and embarked upon a debate about whether Australia is a middle power, a pivotal power, a second-tier power, or something else. Blending those roles with our traditional great-power-partnering role hasn’t been smooth. And given the likely shifts in strategic weight that’ll unfold over coming years, both within Asia and beyond, our relative power status is likely to be more of a topic for discussion rather than less.

We’ve also become more comfortable with the notion of Asian engagement. True, we don’t fully agree where on the possible spectrum of engagement we want to place ourselves: from mere functionalism at one end of the spectrum, to identity issues (thinking of ourselves as Asians) at the other. Critically, we want to play several strategic roles in Asia: as multilateral architect, order-builder, trading nation, muscular Asian power, strategic partner, and US southern anchor in the region. The roles don’t all pull in the same direction. At a time when Asia is experiencing transformational change, it’s unsurprising when we’re uncertain which role we want to play when.

The effect of regional transformation has been to fracture Australia’s strategic narrative even more than it already was. From various corners of the strategic prism, voices now shout out for us to stay linked to the dominant Western maritime power, to strengthen ANZUS for a new century of challenges, to be self-reliant in key missions and capabilities, to be an order-builder in Asia, to partner with the rising like-minded Asian players, to muscle-up for a new round of regional coercion, to accommodate China’s rise as US power declines, to step back from entanglement in possible Asian conflicts, to reinforce the strategically cohesive effects of closer economic cooperation, and to step up to the new benchmark of good international citizenship and accept our Responsibility to Protect. Lest you think I’m over-egging the pudding here, let me caution that those are just the mainstream voices.

For each of those possible roles, there’s a supplementary question. How much of the role do we want to buy into? A strategic role can be pursued either proactively or with greater restraint. If we were proactive, we would define our strategic interests broadly, use our security instruments frequently, accept a leadership role in terms of costs and burdens, and decline the option of being a passive bystander. If we were restrained, we would define our strategic interests narrowly, use our security instruments rarely, share out costs and burdens with other players, and choose the observer option more frequently. It might be we choose to be proactive on some issues or in some regions, but not in others.

This post can’t resolve all the tensions in Australia’s possible strategic role, but it can underline how much the undercooked middle section of the White Paper debate contains a set of deep and problematic questions. The questions are every bit as serious as ‘Is China an order-builder or a revisionist?’ And every bit as serious as ‘Do we need a bigger submarine or a smaller one?’

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Marko Mikkonen.

Sole purpose and strategic crises: where’s the beef?

I thank Crispin Rovere for his thoughtful response to my original post on US declaratory nuclear policy. But I must take issue with the guts of his argument in relation to the sole purpose issue. In particular, I want to touch upon his two specific cases: Russian conventional aggression against the Baltic states; and, some form of US–China conflict close to the Chinese mainland.

Let’s start with the Baltic. Crispin says the US simply won’t use nuclear weapons to defend the Baltic states against Russian aggression, even though those states are members of NATO. After all, he notes, the Baltic territories were earlier occupied by the USSR for fifty years and no-one contemplated fighting a nuclear war over them. There’s a logic to that position. But two points need to be made. First, President Obama has specifically stated that there’s no difference between new NATO allies and old ones. And NATO’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review states clearly that ‘the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies is provided by the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance, particularly those of the United States’. If that assurance turns out not to be true, it’ll raise questions about the credibility of US extended nuclear assurances elsewhere, and not just in the rest of NATO.

Second, even if the US is pretty unlikely to use nukes to defend Lithuania (for example), does it really want to stand up in advance and promise Putin that, no matter what level of conventional force he uses to seize Lithuania, the US won’t cross the threshold? That’s what a sole purpose declaration does. Such a declaration says unequivocally that nuclear weapons exist only to deter other countries’ use of nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t we want a potentially pushy Putin to have even a small doubt in his mind about whether the US extended nuclear assurance to Lithuania might actually turn out to be real? I don’t see how a sole-purpose declaration helps. Read more

What then of the second case, the hypothetical US–China conflict? Here Crispin says the US has a clear incentive to use nuclear weapons first against China, because of its nuclear advantage, especially once American ballistic missile defences are factored in. The implication is that a sole purpose declaration would make China less anxious, and so less inclined to pursue an expansion of its nuclear capabilities in ways that would make Asian neighbours nervous. Mate, China already is expanding its arsenal. But it’s not the growth of China’s nuclear arsenal that most worries neighbours; it’s the expansion of its conventional power—which it’s not shy of using.

Exactly the same argument applies here as in the Russian case; why would the US want to tell China that regardless of how it uses its conventional power, and regardless of the costs it imposes on US forces or those of its allies, such actions won’t carry any risk of nuclear escalation? How, exactly, would that make US allies and partners in Asia feel safer?

At a time when hard power is increasingly pushing its way back to centre stage, it doesn’t make sense for the US to declare that its nuclear arsenal is reserved solely for the deterrence of nuclear coercion. It’s like owning a car, but declaring you’ll only use it when other people use theirs.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist.

No first use, sole purpose and the intricacies of declaratory nuclear policy

"Fat Man" was the codename for the type of atomic bomb that was detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, by the United States on 9 August 1945.

Nuclear arms control has always involved two separate efforts: designing arsenals to ensure they are threatening but not destabilising; and enunciating declaratory policy to clarify expectations about when and why nuclear weapons might be used. The second of those efforts involves both positive security assurances (provided by nuclear weapon states to allies and partners), and negative security assurances (provided by nuclear weapon states to non-nuclear weapon states and potential adversaries). A pledge not to use nuclear weapons first during a conflict, for example, is one variety of negative security assurance. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union made such a pledge but NATO, fearing forward-deployed Soviet armour, did not. For the US to provide such a no-first-use commitment to its adversaries might well have weakened the assurances it provided to its European allies.

The Soviet pledge was never entirely credible—Moscow certainly had an interest in early nuclear use in naval contests, where it was conventionally weaker—and Russia withdrew it in the early 1990s. But over recent years, the notion of ‘no first use’ has started to make a comeback—albeit disguised as a declaration about ‘sole purpose’. What, you may ask, is a sole purpose declaration? It’s a declaration that nuclear weapons states make to the effect that ‘the sole purpose of the possession of nuclear weapons is to deter the use of such weapons against one’s own state and that of one’s allies’. Read more

When the Evans-Kawaguchi International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament made its final report, it gave an enthusiastic endorsement to the notion of ‘sole purpose’ declarations. When the Commission explains the attractions of such a declaration, it’s perfectly honest about what those are: a sole-purpose declaration is essentially a no-first-use commitment disguised under a different formulation (see paragraph 17.28 of the Final Report). Indeed, read strictly, a sole-purpose declaration might be interpreted as an even more severe restriction than a no-first-use commitment, because if the purpose is solely to ‘deter’, there’s not necessarily a recognition of the entitlement to retaliatory second use. If deterrence fails, nuclear weapons have failed in their sole purpose.

For its proponents, the attractions of a sole-purpose declaration lie precisely in its ability to reduce the mission of nuclear weapons and thereby the likelihood of use. In principle, it makes disarmament more achievable, because all nuclear weapons are strategically related only to each other. But doesn’t a sole-purpose declaration trip over precisely the same hurdle that made a no-first-use pledge sound incredible? Would a nuclear-armed state facing conventional defeat actually abide by the pledge? Many states build nuclear weapons because of security worries—including a worry about the prospect of conventional defeat.

At a deeper level, why would we want to corral nuclear weapons into an artificial, strategically-separate world within which they deter only each other? Why should nuclear weapons deter nuclear use, but not anything else—not great power war, not major conventional attack, not use of chemical or biological weapons, not dangerous contests in escalation. In reality, nuclear weapons have a wider rather than a narrower role. They help set ceilings on conflict wherever conventional imbalances exist—and those either already do exist, or potentially might exist, across a wide range of possible conflicts. Even a conventionally-strong nuclear weapon state, like the US for example, might find itself tested trying to project conventional power against a strong regional state, close to that state’s home territory.

The concept of sole purpose has purchase in Australia precisely because for much of the nuclear age we have lived a long way from conventional front lines. We came to see extended nuclear deterrence as the deterrence of a remote scenario—an actual nuclear attack upon Australia. I don’t believe any Australian minister ever actually said that we thought it should apply only in such a scenario, but in practice that’s where we thought it most relevant. Most US allies lived close to serious threats, and didn’t have the luxury of thinking about extended nuclear deterrence applying in such limited circumstances. The question for Australia now, as it thinks about the sole-purpose issue, is whether our security blanket of distance is likely to be as effective in the future as it has been in the past.

The previous Labor government gave muted support to the notion of sole purpose. My own view is that persuading our ally to move towards such a declaration isn’t in our interests. Given that we live in a nuclear age, and that the spread of such weapons is still more likely than not, we should be thinking about ways that nuclear weapons can make a positive contribution to international security: capping large-scale conflict, regardless of whether it involves conventional or nuclear attack; strengthening the credibility of positive assurances to allies and partners in order to deter proliferation; and ensuring that nuclear deterrence plays just as effective a role in the Asian century as it did in the European one.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Iranian nuclear deal—what’s happening?

1370th Board of Governors Meeting. IAEA Headquarters, Vienna, Austria, 24 January 2014.The six-month temporary agreement between Iran on the one hand and US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China on the other is rapidly running out. The Joint Plan of Action (JPA) took effect on 20 January, and therefore expires on 20 July. The JPA is renewable by mutual consent, so no great drama necessarily ensues in late July. But readers might like a quick summary of what’s happening.

In truth, reports of the negotiations paint a confused picture about how much progress is being made towards a comprehensive agreement. Iran’s insistence on being able to manufacture sufficient low-enriched uranium to avoid a reliance on foreign suppliers for nuclear fuel is clearly a major sticking point. Much depends on how the parties eventually define Iran’s ‘practical needs’ for enrichment technology. But if those needs include the capacity to supply fuel for the current reactor at Bushehr and other planned reactors there, Iran would need centrifuges in the tens of thousands. Iran’s nuclear chief has estimated it would need 50,000 centrifuges, which is about 30,000 more than it has now. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to fly. Read more

Since needs aren’t wants, the key question is just how self-reliant do the Iranians need to be? The logical place to source fuel for Bushehr is Russia, which already has the contract to supply the current reactor until 2021. So the self-reliance claim might be merely a negotiating tactic, intended to wrest concessions from the great powers. For their part, the great powers are probably willing to live with an enrichment capability that might allow for a few thousand closely-monitored centrifuges, but 50,000 is right out of the ballpark. A comprehensive agreement can’t allow Iran a breakout capability that would let it quit the NPT (like North Korea did back in 2003) and move quickly down the road to nuclear weapons.

Over at the Foreign Policy journal, Jeffrey Lewis insists the real problem isn’t Iran’s having the capacity to refuel Bushehr, but the possibility of hidden facilities—because those would fall outside IAEA monitoring. In truth, both capacities should be cause for worry. Obviously, a small, covert facility would let Tehran manufacture and hoard small stocks of enriched uranium. But a large number of centrifuges supporting an open civil program, and providing the basis to enrich uranium relatively quickly, would always be something of a worry while fissile material remains the long pole in the proliferation tent.

There’s a parallel set of negotiations underway between Iran and the IAEA, intended to resolve outstanding questions about the Iranian nuclear program in earlier years. So far, the degree of Iranian cooperation with the IAEA to resolve those concerns—including questions about the extent of Iranian weaponisation efforts, for example—is variable. The IAEA Report on Iran (dated 23 May, but ‘derestricted’ only on 4 June) is cautiously phrased. The overall tone of the Executive Summary suggests Iran is making a serious effort to meet designated targets. The stock of uranium enriched to 20%, for example, has fallen dramatically, though the quantity of uranium enriched to 5% continues to rise as Iran steadily builds that part of its inventory.

But the detail of the report (see paras 53-59, for example) suggests Tehran still has some way to go to answer questions about the possible military aspects of its nuclear program. True, Iran has shown some willingness to discuss the issue of exploding bridgewire detonators, which it argues were tested with a civilian application in mind. But other questions remain. And there’s debate about the level of transparency that Iran is showing. Metrics about transparency aren’t as clear-cut as they are on enriched-uranium quantities—after all, how much detail is enough to satisfy the IAEA’s concerns?

The picture is also murky away from the negotiating room. The Iranian supreme leader says, in public, that the US has taken ‘off the table’ the option of using military force to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. (What President Obama actually said was ‘We reserve all options to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon’.) What’s Ayatollah Khamenei doing? Is he intending to reassure hardliners within Iran that a bargain can be struck with the great powers that dismantles the sanctions regime against Iran but doesn’t expose it to new threats? If so, the statement could be read as Khamenei freeing President Rouhani’s hands in a bid to reach a final settlement, but the evidence is too mixed to be persuasive. The recent US deal with the Taliban over POWs—and the inequitable trade therein—might be hardening opinion in Tehran against further concessions.

It’s always difficult to make judgments about how well negotiations are going from outside the negotiating room. At this point, the most likely outcome is a renewal of the six-month bargaining period. Precipitate agreement on a comprehensive deal looks unlikely. But so too does a breakdown in the talks—no-one’s talking about walking away. What’s becoming clearer is that even a final agreement will leave Iran with some breakout capability—and one of the key issues is whether that capability will be small or large.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user IAEA Imagebank.

The significance of D-Day

Landing ships putting cargo ashore on one of the invasion beaches, at low tide during the first days of the Normandy invasion, June 1944. Among identifiable ships present are USS LST 532 (in the centre of the view); USS LST 262 (third LST from right); USS LST 310 (second LST from right); USS LST 533 (partially visible at far right); and USS LST 524. Note the barrage balloons overhead and the Army "half-track" convoy forming up on the beach.To commemorate the 70th anniversary, ASPI invited a range of contributors to reflect, briefly, on why D-Day was significant. Their contributions are posted here.

D-Day: A bright and shining moment for liberal democracy

Seventy years ago on 6 June 1944, the Western allies launched the Great Crusade across the English Channel on to the beaches of Normandy to free Europe from what Churchill called the ‘new Dark Age’ of Nazism. Code-named Overlord, the assault was, and remains, the greatest amphibious operation in the history of modern arms. As the US-led Allies stormed Hitler’s Festung Europa to free all those under the shadow of the swastika, the day became a bright and shining moment for all that’s noble in modern liberal democracy. Indeed, there has seldom been a date with greater moral clarity in the history of humanity at war than 6 June 1944. Read more

Yet the Allied liberation was always in the balance. The Germans had built a formidable Atlantic Wall of concrete, wire, machine guns, mines, and artillery. SS panzer divisions lurked in the wings and Erwin Rommel, the legendary ‘Desert Fox’ was on hand to hurl the Allies back into the sea. As Rommel famously remarked, ‘the first twenty-four hours of the invasion will be decisive, the fate of Germany depends on the outcome … for the Allies as well as Germany it will be the longest day’.

And so it was for all those who fought on 6 June. The battle for Normandy turned on a combination of luck, surprise, chaos, elation and terror as the fog of war descended on its participants. General Dwight Eisenhower gambled on clear weather and succeeded; the Germans, expecting an invasion through the Pas de Calais, were taken by surprise; and in a twist of fate, the Wehrmacht’s martial talisman, Rommel, was away on leave in Germany. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was unable to unleash his panzer divisions to repulse the invasion because Hitler was asleep and no one dared wake the Führer to obtain authority.

Despite bitter German resistance, especially at Omaha Beach, the Americans, British and Canadians carried the day on 6 June and established a precious beachhead for the onward march of freedom. As Rommel had predicted, the longest day sealed Germany’s fate. It inaugurated the shortest year of the Nazi Reich, which eleven months later crumbled onto the scrap heap of history.

Michael Evans is the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University.

The historical significance of D-Day
We look at D-Day rather differently now than was the case even 30 or 40 years ago. The end of the Cold War and several decades of research in the former Soviet archives have rectified the tendency in the 1950s and 1960s to accord battles like Alamein and Normandy a primacy and pivotal status that they didn’t and don’t deserve. We now recognise, and can admit, what was always true: the German Army was destroyed on the Eastern Front by the Soviets who incurred unimaginable casualties in the process. The bulk of the German Army fought in the east and the bulk of German casualties were incurred there.

That correction shouldn’t diminish the importance of the return of the Western allies to the European continent even as it contextualises it. It was vital that the Allies take a full part in the defeat of the Nazis on land, and the ensuing 12 months would involve much hard and sometimes desperate fighting and relatively heavy casualties in their turn. Films like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers have reduced the scale on which we imagine D-Day and have tended to focus on it as an individual or small-group experience. It was both of those things, but it was also an enormous, complex and high-risk operation where the outcome was by no means certain. Its importance symbolically, strategically and operationally shouldn’t be underestimated.

Jeffrey Grey is a professor in the history program, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at the University of New South Wales.

D-Day 70 years on
If any single day can credibly be presented as the defining moment of a century, it’s 6 June 1944, the day of the allied landings at Normandy. In a strategic sense Germany was well on the way to defeat at this stage of the war. The Wehrmacht had been broken in the east and was retreating, overwhelmed by Russian numbers and weather; German cities had been smashed by constant allied bombing and the Luftwaffe reduced to tiny pockets of resistance. What remained of German military power in France was significant but not of a scale that defeat could be resisted for long. But Normandy wasn’t a side show. Had the invasion been blunted the Soviet Union might well have been able to extend its control over much of Western Europe. As it was the successful allied landings announced America’s arrival as the world’s leading power, created the basis for Europe’s future wealth and stability, and established the claim that democracy and international collaboration would ultimately overcome totalitarianism.

On the 70th anniversary of the landings we’re sure to mark those strategic achievements as the founding moment of all that came after in terms of the global balance of power and the western model of organising societies. But even the largest wars are no more than the sum of individual experiences. My father, Ron Jennings, was one of thousands of British soldiers that went across the beaches of Normandy, in his case as a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. His unit saw tough fighting through France and into Germany where, in 1946 as part of the British Army of the Rhine, he married my mother, Mary Strachan, a staff car driver in the Auxiliary Territorial Service. D-Day was the defining event in my parents’ lives. The British Army lifted them from the poorest parts of London and Glasgow and gave them the skills that ultimately propelled them to Africa and later Australia. The war also left a darkness in them that was impossible to bridge for those who hadn’t been through the same experience. In this they were no different to millions of individuals who survived the war scarred but stronger. The world is a poorer place for the passing of this tough-minded, softly-spoken generation.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI.

A tale of two narratives
Post-war generations in the Anglosphere learned to feel that while the world could be a harsh place, good guys eventually win and live happily ever after. In that broad narrative, D-Day was the moment when good began to triumph decisively over evil. Then the Keynesian revolution opened seemingly endless vistas of prosperity.

There were shadows of course: Cold War crises, Vietnam, the stagflation of the 1970s all clouded the Manichean paradigm. But the narrative was resuscitated by the amazingly painless end of the Cold War. Wars continued in less fortunate parts of the world, even close to the heart of Europe in the former Yugoslavia, but in the Global West—expanding inexorably—tranquility and prosperity held sway.

D-Day and the successful campaign in Western Europe that it set in motion were epic achievements. But from the outset there were downsides. While Stalin’s view was that D-Day came too late, in retrospect he must have been grateful for the chance to reach Berlin and set up puppet regimes in central-east Europe. And the Yalta settlement enshrined his triumph, ensuring that Europe was still far from whole and free.

Twenty years on from Gorbachev’s democratising revolution, Moscow has invaded and seized territory from a second country on its borders. Military exercises menace its neighbours, and aggressive overflights extend to NATO members, neutrals and Japan. Moscow has embarked on a $750 billion rearmament program to be realised inside a decade.

Simultaneously Putin’s domestic crack-down threatens to make Russia a police state. Moscow’s spying activities equal or exceed Soviet levels. In its external relations, Russia seemingly aspires to become Beijing’s junior partner in a new Holy Alliance to safeguard tyranny. An essentially Stalinist version of WWII has become holy writ in Russia. Some are proclaiming a new cold war.

The state of the Western alliance is just as depressing. The noughties brought sharp reverses for the West, resulting in its current introspection and loss of confidence. The Eurozone economic crisis drags on, and Snowden’s Verey pistol disclosed a diplomatic battlefield of transatlantic tension. The disunity and weakness of the European Union before an adversary with an economy one eighth its size leaves new members feeling exposed to Russian aggression.

D-Day was a formative moment in the Western narrative. But while it led to the fall of Hitler, it led too to Yalta, the imperfect legacy of which lives on.

John Besemeres is a visiting fellow in the ANU Centre for European Studies. He previously taught politics at Monash University and served some 30 years in several Australian government agencies, including PM&C and DFAT.

The critical decision
The single most important decision of WWII was announced on 29 March 1941, almost eight months before the United States actually entered the war. Secret discussions had been proceeding between American and British staff officers since January. Although the imminent invasion threat to the United Kingdom had passed, London was suffering nightly bombing raids, Rommel had just begun his offensive in North Africa, and Yugoslavia and Greece would fall within a month. Adolf Hitler was everywhere triumphant.

Winston Churchill’s policy of resolute defiance was appearing increasingly pointless. Facing political attack at home and military defeat in the field, pressure for a political settlement mounted. The British leader needed a reason to believe he might be eventually victorious. The outcome of the staff talks gave the PM a reason to hold on.

What made D-Day important wasn’t what happened on 6 June—far more crucial was the decision that it would, eventually, occur. That was the only action that held any hope of an Allied return to the continent and, in turn, the eventual prospect of victory.

It was the prospect of D-Day that convinced Churchill he would, eventually, win and thus kept the Empire in the war. And later, although the possibility that Hitler and Joseph Stalin could ever have brokered a separate peace was always remote, the pledge of eventual invasion helped bolster Russian resolve, ensuring it would keep fighting.

D-Day was vital. Not simply because of what it meant militarily but something far more important— a promise to keep the grand alliance together.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times.

The strategic meaning of D-Day
Seventy years on, we tend to think of 6 June as the anniversary of an especially important event in WWII. For those of us who weren’t there on the actual day in 1944, the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan give some sense of what it might’ve been like. But I’d like to paint its strategic importance on a broader canvas, by making three points: about Eurasia, WWII, and history.

First, by early 1944 two authoritarian great powers—Germany and the Soviet Union—were locked in a titanic struggle on the Eurasian continent. Democracy had been largely eradicated from western Europe, and so from the continent that Halford Mackinder had described as the World Island. D-Day was about more than defeating fascism; it was about the reseeding of democratic regimes on the Eurasian landmass.

Second, in terms of the war itself, D-Day should be seen as a roll of the dice on a global scale. Given the allies’ strategy was to win the war in Europe before turning their attention to Japan, the future course of the war in two theatres rested on its outcome. A setback at Normandy would’ve had echoes in Australia’s own region.

And third, we should see D-Day in its broader historical setting. True, if the D-Day landings had failed, the allies could’ve regrouped and tried again. The continental United States was still largely free of war’s damage. But a D-Day that failed in 1944 might’ve seen nuclear weapons used in a second attempt. And Eurasia in the meantime might’ve fallen more extensively under the control of the other authoritarian great power—an Iron Curtain that came down rather closer to the English Channel than the inner-German border.

Few days in any century can match the strategic significance of 6 June 1944.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. 

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Obama after West Point

President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address at the United States Military Academy at West Point commencement ceremony at Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y., May 28, 2014.President Obama’s explanation of his foreign policy has come and gone, but he has won few converts. True, he tells a credible story about continuing US leadership, exceptionalism, and the intermeshing of unilateral and multilateral approaches. But that’s largely a story about mechanics—about how the US acts in the world. And it’s a story told at a time when allies and partners aren’t just anxious about the how, they’re also worried about the when, where, and why.

Obama’s presentation shows he’s someone who fits naturally in the Joseph Nye-John Ikenberry school of international relations. No surprises there. He doesn’t rush to use of hard power, he accepts unilateral use of force is justified in defence of core interests, and he’s interested in using multilateral institutions and regimes as a means of promoting and extending US leadership.

He didn’t just talk about his academic settings, though, but his emotional ones as well, presenting himself as a figure ‘haunted’ by the deaths and injuries of US soldiers in wars. The Obama of 2014 is a less assured figure than the Obama of 2008, and it comes across even in the style of his speeches: the oratory is less sweeping, the practical limitations on grand designs are more pronounced. (As an oratorical exercise, Obama’s commencement speech at West Point can’t hold a candle to this one.) Read more

The overall effect is that Obama’s foreign policy is less a clarion call and more a wavering trumpet. Allies and partners will be scratching their heads attempting to figure out what US strategic policy will look like for the next 30 months. Ok, there isn’t an existential threat to the US; yes, NATO and the UN are worthy multilateral organisations, albeit somewhat dated; true, Russia isn’t now the threat it was in Cold War days; and agreed, most Ukrainians still want democracy and a market economy. Moreover, the US economic picture looks better in 2014 than it did in 2009.

But Russia doesn’t need to be the threat it was in Cold War days to make Western and Central Europeans nervous. It doesn’t need an ideology of global domination or a Warsaw Pact to coerce its neighbours. On the other hand, China’s a much stronger power now than it was in Cold War days—and it’s challenging the existing security order in Asia, not embracing it. The mood of triumphalism in Beijing isn’t a manifestation of Chinese satisfaction that they’re finally going to be admitted to the current security order. On both sides of Eurasia, authoritarian great powers are pressing their claims.

In short, there’s an edginess in the current international strategic environment that Obama’s speech will have done little to quell. Clearly, the US president can’t be responsible for every sparrow that falls. But institutions and regimes are built by victors—that’s why Germany and Japan weren’t permanent members of the UN Security Council when it was first designed.

For Australian policy-makers, there’s a big question and a set of smaller ones. The big question is ‘Why has Obama done this?’ Does the speech signal a new coherency in US foreign and defence policy? Or is it the defensive speech of a US president feeling the pressure on that front? So far, the second view looks more accurate than the first, though it’s always interesting to see how presidents stitch together the disparate parts of their strategic framework. Smaller questions swirl around the place of the ‘rebalance’ in US strategic policy (not addressed at all in the speech), and the relative weighting of the different US alliances. The different structures of the US-European and US-Asian alliances seem to matter in Washington more than we might have thought. NATO, for example, is seen as a key component of the global multilateral structure, in a way that the hub-and-spokes arrangements of Asia aren’t.

Perhaps just as important for us is the question of how the speech will be read elsewhere, including within the US. So far, the response has been muted. The Editorial Board of the Washington Post didn’t seem to like it much, and reactions elsewhere among the US commentariat were comparatively negative. Chinese and Russian reactions are more opaque, but it’s likely Beijing and Moscow both see the speech as a president trying to answer his domestic critics, and not aimed at them. Other countries may have a similar view, and count the speech as merely one more straw in the wind of US foreign policy. In a few, perhaps, forensic analysis may lead to a novel interpretation or two. But the key message of the speech is there for all to see; Obama is explaining his policy, not rewriting it—and that suggests he doesn’t intend to change course in the last couple of years of his presidency.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of the White House.

A fraying Asian security order?

FrayedThe Asian security architecture has long been defined by two sets of arrangements: a US-centred set of alliance arrangements, and an ASEAN-centred set of institutions. The conundrum of the modern Asian security environment is that both sets of arrangements—devised during an era of relatively weak Asian powers—are struggling for leverage in an era of stronger Asian powers.

China’s rise lies at the heart of the problem. While scholars debate the extent to which Beijing even has a deliberate grand strategy, I think China currently pursues two distinct objectives. It seeks a culture of deference towards China’s interests among its neighbours, and a Great Wall at Sea to hold US naval power away from the Asian mainland. Those objectives are of course related: it’s easier for China to create a deferential regional hierarchy if a maritime buffer zone makes a US naval presence in the western Pacific less assured. The Great Wall at Sea pursues that goal of a weakened US presence in the maritime domain, and President Xi Jinping’s advocacy last week of a region free from US alliances is intended to pursue it on the land. Read more

The problem for China, of course, and Brad Glosserman depicted it well in his recent National Interest article, is that its pursuit of those objectives has generated a new wave of anxiety along the Asian rimlands. Countries large enough to respond to the Chinese challenge—like Japan—have begun to do so. Smaller countries, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, have indulged in some balancing behaviour. But Southeast Asia more generally is haunted by the concern that its classic preference in favour of rule-and-norm-generating institutions no longer seems an effective counter to growing Chinese power. For most ASEAN members, that haunted feeling hasn’t yet translated into harder-edged strategic options. Nor has it translated into greater accommodation of Beijing.

In both Northeast and Southeast Asia, demands for assurance from the US are climbing steeply—more steeply, indeed, than Washington could hope to satisfy. US relations with its allies and partners are starting to be dominated by two questions: how much assurance is required, and how best might it be delivered? Such questions aren’t easily answered at the best of times, since assurance is a much more difficult task than deterrence. The US alliance system seems unlikely to grow more spokes—even if the administration were to offer new alliances, the US Senate might struggle to ratify them. And not all of the answer lies within Washington’s gift. After all, exactly how close a relationship does a country like, say, Indonesia want with the US? We might well be looking at some form of more robust strategic partnership between the US and Indonesia. But how robust? How would that partnership mesh with ANZUS? Does ANZUS empower such a partnership, or distract from it?

In today’s circumstances of rapidly-shifting strategic relativities in Asia coupled with shrinking US defence budgets and President Obama’s reluctance to become involved in new potential conflicts, the assurance task is daunting.

That leaves Asian countries with a range of supplementary strategies. The easiest—though probably the least effective—might be an attempted revival of institutionalism. Harder options include modernising their own defence forces—effectively a self-help strategy—or cooperating more closely with each other on practical defence tasks. The self-help option is likely to pull some states down the gamechanger route, in the search for asymmetric solutions to the problems of a fluid strategic environment. Greater defence cooperation is also a difficult choice. There’s a good reason that US alliances in Asia tend to be bilateral: regional countries have only weak traditions of security cooperation. That’s why we find it so hard to answer the questions above in relation to Indonesia.

Australia isn’t a front-line state in the shifting regional security environment. It has the luxury of standing back from the key friction points. But we have deep interests in how the regional future unfolds. At the recent Nikkei Conference in Tokyo, the Singaporean Prime Minister sketched two possible scenarios of that future: a cooperative, prosperous, status quo future and a riven, competitive one, teetering on the brink of conflict or falling into it. His speech is an indicator that the region’s senior statesmen are starting to focus on the possibility of more unpalatable futures.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Martin Kenny.