James Mattis’ national defence strategy and us
15 Feb 2018|

Commentary on the character of our security relationship with the US rarely examines what type of ally Australia is. We first, and often exclusively, focus on what type of ally the US is. However, the best way to calculate the impact of US policy on us—as revealed in Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ summary of the national defense strategy (NDS)—is to start with us.

We’re a unique ally. For the entirety of the Cold War and since, we alone of substantial US allies have contemplated no threat to our existence or our major interests that would oblige the US to consider an existential threat to itself as it assists us. None of its major northern hemisphere allies offer that comfort.

We’re also among the few allies of the US determined to defend themselves. This raises the threshold of American obligation further. We’re prepared in the South Pacific and, to a degree, in Southeast Asia—through alliances such as we have with Malaysia and Singapore, and agreements such as that with Indonesia—to raise the threshold again for the US. In addition, through joint facilities, we’ve been prepared to take on what might be existential burdens to render the US effective globally.

Diplomatically and militarily, we’ve committed ourselves to all facets of the social, economic and security elements of the post–World War II ‘rules-based order’. These are constructions that, while not American, sustain values to which they’ve been committed. In recent times, we’ve been prepared to commit forces for lengthy periods, particularly in struggles against Islamist terror.

Overall, our force structure has primarily been based on the exigencies of inter-state violence. The alliance has rendered our strategic environment transparent through the intelligence relationship; our weapons potent by accessing equipment from an ally staying ahead of the game; and our troops sharp as a result of training with, and being interoperable with, the best our ally can produce.

In recent times, as military forces undergo another revolution in capability and operation in cyber and space, we’ve sustained an ability to participate in the research and development of new systems. We see defence affordability, in our stretched budgetary circumstances, as resting exclusively on this US connection. The American NDS is therefore a critical document for us.

It’s rendered more critical because the Trump administration at its outset challenged many of the assumptions that were key parts of the platform on which our security has been based—particularly in attitudes to its allies and our friends in North Asia, and the rules-based order.

An early shock for us was an irascible conversation between Trump and the Australian PM. On close examination though, it was evident that Trump was venting because he realised he confronted an embarrassing legacy agreement obliging the US to take refugees from areas from which he’d decided to take none. His anger was inflamed because he saw that the character of the relationship required that he honour the agreement. The doubts cast on American commitments to other allies, and the dismissal of key approaches to the rules-based order, have been problematic for us.

In the NDS perhaps, the most comforting statement was that the US saw that its rapidly renovating joint force ‘combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard free and open international order’. Trumpism slammed into reverse. Defined further, our region, the Indo-Pacific, was top of the alliance and partnership list, ahead even of NATO: ‘We will strengthen our alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific to a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability and ensuring free access to common domains.’

Less comfortable was the identification of China as an adversary. We were more at home with the Obama formula of ‘partner and competitor’. This was mitigated, however, by the return of inter-state violence as the top priority in US force structure developments. Terror was relegated, not because it doesn’t retain importance, but because from the defence point of view, current technologies and existing forces are competent for the job. The new priority sustains a focus on weapons and systems that we identify as crucial to the way we prioritise defence. The document, one of the most superbly argued and succinct I have seen, gives confidence that the focus will be sustained.

Two questions arise. The first is Trump himself: Does he understand what his defense secretary has said and is doing? His major statement since the release of the NDS, the State of the Union address to Congress, contained little about the themes in the NDS. Instead, terror and, in particular, North Korea were dealt with at length. Will the NDS be derailed by accident in the fraught tangle as the US deals with that appalling regime’s efforts to create a nuclear threat to the US? Will Trump’s efforts at rebalancing trade with friends and trading partners in North Asia impede the balances that Mattis desires? And if Mattis falls under the proverbial bus, will the NDS be sustained without him? Answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this piece.

The second question is one of affordability: Can the US afford the NDS? The short answer at the time of its release would’ve been ‘no’. That he feared ‘no’ was much in evidence in Mattis’ remarks at the time. ‘As hard as the last 16 years have been, no enemy in the field has done more to harm the readiness of the US military than the combined impact of the Budget Control Act, defense spending cuts and operating in nine of the last 10 years under continuing resolutions … wasting copious amounts of precious taxpayer dollars’. He might have added that this handicap on sensible planning, particularly on the evolution of new weapons systems, was augmented by Congressional determination to sustain useless legacy systems, facilities and unjustified emoluments for local political purposes.

Then in the last fortnight came an extraordinary budget deal that delivered more than Trump had asked for on defence, sending spending from $634 billion to $714 billion over the next two years. Caps have gone. Planning, crucial to new systems, is possible. Unfortunately, Congressional backscratching remains, but its damaging effects have been lessened by the huge dollar increase. Undoubtedly, if sustained, the new defence spending makes Mattis’ objectives achievable.

Unfortunately this budget, when combined with recent tax cuts (under which the US Treasury is losing $10–15 billion per month) and with still-to-come infrastructure appropriations, is fiscal madness. The US budget deficit clears a trillion dollars. It will stay there, rising over the decade to two trillion. That’s a deficit almost the size of the Australian economy each year. The vocal director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney (the equivalent of our finance minister), has been rendered mute. It’s happening when the economy is thriving, a stimulus right out of the normal cycle. Nothing like this has been done in a crisis, let alone in prosperity. In it might lie the next economic crisis. The Republican Tea Party has become a college fraternity party.

At some point such spending will have to be reined in. The Federal Reserve will start by raising interest rates. The question will arise, ‘When will they be assisted by disciplined budget measures?’ Until then, however, it has to be said that Mattis will have his resources. If the strategy in the NDS permeates the rest of the administration, particularly in trade policy and US diplomacy, then the priorities we’ve sustained over the decades for the alliance will be underpinned by our ally.