WHEN the 9/11 attacks struck New York and Washington in 2001 and the United States armed forces went on full alert, National Security adviser Condoleezza Rice immediately got on the direct line to Moscow and told Vladimir Putin not to worry: the US was not going to attack Russia. Putin replied that he understood and was standing Russian forces down.
When Donald Trump claimed in late October that the election was being stolen, and again after the attempted putsch on January 6, General Mark Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, to re-assure him that the US would not attack China.
The Chinese were understandably frightened, because Trump was getting frantic and behaving quite erratically. So Milley went further on the second call: “General Li, you and I have known each other now for five years. If we are going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”
Rice and Milley were both grown-ups, trying to keep their people safe, but operating in an international system that still runs by the rules of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Alliances are fickle; surprise attacks are common; war is normal. So you never stop talking to the people who might become your enemies and you try to stop them from panicking.
This is how wise leaders behaved among the Yanomamo of the Amazon headwaters and the San Bushmen of the Kalahari, and it is also how wise leaders should behave in the capitals of the great powers today. Most of the time, they actually do — but sometimes they get distracted or confused.
And the notion of distraction brings us smoothly to the alliance of the week, AUKUS (rhymes with “caucus”), which has been cobbled together since the fall of Kabul last month to draw attention away from the shambles attending the American retreat from Afghanistan.
You could tell that the three wise leaders involved had not spent a lot of time negotiating the nature and role of the new US-UK-Australian alliance, because Joe Biden could not even remember the name of the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison.
There they were, each in his own capital with the other two on screens, and Biden managed to thank Boris Johnson by name, but when it came to Morrison the US president had to fake it: “And I want to thank that fella from Down Under. Thank you very much pal. Appreciate it.”
You may say it is just a brain fart and you might even be right, but there are other indications that this “alliance” has not been gestating for very long. Consider the case of the French submarines.
The French Foreign and Defence ministers spoke with their Australian counterparts as recently as August 30 and declared: “Both sides are committed to deepen defence industry co-operation and enhance their capability in the region. Ministers underlined the importance of the future submarine programme.” (In 2016, Canberra agreed to spend US$66 billion to build a dozen French-designed submarines.)
It is not unknown for a sovereign state to rat on an international deal, but it is bad form to pledge undying loyalty to a deal just two weeks before ratting on it. When Australia announced last Wednesday that it will build at least eight nuclear submarines using American and British technology instead, French Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called it “a stab in the back”.
Then there is the fact that the US, the UK and Australia will spend the next 18 months trying to fill in the details of how this nuclear submarine deal and the alliance it serves will actually work. That’s because there was no time before announcing it: AUKUS was obviously cooked up on the secure equivalent of Zoom early this month to make US strategy in the Far East look coherent. But it is not.
The Chinese responded to the creation of AUKUS just as foolishly, with the state-owned Global Times warning that Australian troops are “likely to be the first batch of Western soldiers to waste their lives in the South China Sea”. The US and Nato pull-out from Afghanistan was long foreseen and no big deal, but everybody has lost the plot.
So it is probably time to bring in the Yanomamo elders or some other wise leaders to calm all these excitable politicians and journalists down. Remind them that alliances always look frightening to those they are aimed at and that threatening to kill the other side’s people almost never has a positive outcome.
Even if we must now talk about “sides” in the Asia-Pacific region (and we really shouldn’t), eight Australian nuclear submarines in 15 years’ time is not going to make the slightest difference. It is short-term gesture politics of the worst kind and a number of people deserve to be spanked.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. His new book is titled Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).