In a little noticed speech – good in parts, redundant in others – to the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, Abbott dramatised Australia’s security challenges at a moment when an idiosyncratic US president is trashing a Western liberal order.
Australia needed to do more to gird itself for a perilous future.
“A new age is coming,” Abbott said. “The [American] legions are going home. American values can be relied upon but American help less so. This need not presage a darker time like Rome’s withdrawal from Britain but more will be required of the world’s other free countries. Will they step up? That’s the test?”
Leaving aside the colourful reference to the chaos and bloodshed that accompanied the withdrawal of Roman legions from Britain in the fifth century, Abbott makes a valid point and it is this.
Whatever direction America takes under an idiosyncratic president, our world has changed and is unlikely to revert. Whether we like it or not we are now living in a Trumpian world, nasty, brutish and devoid of consistency.
The latter are my words, not Abbott’s.
Just as Trump has shattered an Australian security glass half full, so, too, is China upending our world.
In Australian defence policy the age of certainty, characterised by a naive attachment to an American security umbrella in perpetuity, is over – or, at least, it should be.
This naivety extends to a mistaken interpretation of the ANZUS treaty as a gilt-edged American security guarantee. Article III simply requires the parties to “consult” in the event of a threat to each other’s security.
This contrasts with Article 5 of the NATO treaty that specifies “armed attack on one or more … shall be considered an attack on all”.
No amount of silly “100 years of mateship” marketing campaigns to remind America of its obligations to a steadfast ally alters this reality.
In light of what proved to be a disastrous Donald Trump foray into Europe in which he insulted NATO allies, humiliated a British Prime Minister, and made a fool of himself in his interactions with a Russian president, Abbott’s intervention is timely.
His speech came on the eve of Trump’s catastrophic (as far as America’s Western allies are concerned) European tour, and thus did not have the benefit of further evidence – if that was needed – of an unravelling global order.
“My instinct is that acquiring a capacity to strike harder and further and the need to give our country and our armed forces greater protection could soon require military spending well beyond 2 per cent of GDP. Our armed forces need to be more capable of operating independently even against a substantial adversary because that is what a truly sovereign nation must be prepared to do,” he said.
Abbott does not specify what he means by a “substantial adversary”, but clearly he is referring to China. Put colloquially and making allowances for some typical Abbott sabre-rattling, what he is saying is Australia needs to give itself the capacity to send this simple message.
“Don’t f— with us.” Those, again, are my words.
Provided defence dollars are spent wisely, and not on vainglorious projects like an open-ended $50 billion submarine project that no one believes will be completed on time and within budget, Abbott’s views are worth noting.
We’ll return to the vexed issue of defence expenditures.
Interestingly, Abbott’s speech preceded a contribution to the debate from Labor’s foreign policy spokeswoman, the super-cautious Penny Wong, who canvassed a call for Australia to recalibrate its relations with Washington.
“The global community is still coming to terms with this new America. The reconfigured way the US is setting about conducting itself in the management of global affairs is generating something of a global rethink about how best to work with the US,” she told the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.
While Wong strives to limit any possibility of criticism Labor is weakening its commitments to Washington, she nevertheless edged in that speech towards the Gareth Evans view that Australia should rely less on the United States.
Or, as the former Labor foreign minister puts it, “Australian foreign and defence policy for the foreseeable future is going to have to be founded on three core principles: more self-reliance. More Asia. Less United States.”
Thus Abbott on the right and Wong-Evans on the centre-left are reaching similar conclusions from different perspectives, at least when it comes to self-reliance.
Abbott’s calls for increased defence spending beyond a statutory 2 per cent of GDP would likely separate him from Wong and Evans.
Given Australia’s security environment is likely to become more – not less – fraught, the case for increased spending will become difficult to resist.
In this year’s defence budget Australia is more or less on track to achieve its target of 2 per cent of GDP by 2020-21. Spending in this financial year will represent 6 per cent growth in real terms and 1.9 per cent of GDP.
Globally, Australia ranks 11th in defence spending, ahead of Brazil and behind South Korea, according to Jane’s.
American expenditures dwarf those, in aggregate, of the next seven military powers: China, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and France.
In other words, American firepower far exceeds that of its likely adversaries and friends combined; but as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) makes clear, the weight is shifting to the Indo-Pacific, and away from the Euro-Atlantic.
China’s share of world military expenditure has risen to 13 per cent in 2017 from just 5.6 percent in 2008. China’s expenditures at $228 billion are now getting close to half those of the US at $610 billion.
Abbott concludes his Heritage Foundation speech thus in reference to Trump’s calls for American allies to do more to provide for their own security.
“When you think of what Trump is making clear – to us and to others – is what should always have been screamingly obvious: that our nation’s safety rests in our own hands, far more than in anyone else’s.”
Whatever you might think of Abbott’s judgment on a range of issues, on this, as we said, he has a point.