I love the United States. I travelled across the US by car when I was a 19-year-old, and lived in Washington, DC, for five years. On returning to New Zealand, I was the chief executive of an investment bank, partly owned by Wells Fargo Bank, a role which had me travelling to the US at least once a year for a decade. I accepted an invitation to visit the US as a guest of the State Department. When I was chief executive of the New Zealand Kiwifruit Authority, and again when I was Governor of the Reserve Bank, I visited the US at least once a year for two decades. Two of my three children were born in the US, and the third holds a Harvard MBA. My only grandson has studied at the University of Washington, in Seattle. I’ve had the privilege of knowing some very fine Americans, and I still have a number of close American friends.
But as I look at the state of the world, I am increasingly worried about the US – not just at the current state of US politics, where a man who has been impeached twice and indicted for three crimes (at time of writing) is the leading candidate to carry the Republican banner into the 2024 presidential election, but also at the tens of millions of Americans who appear to have been swept up in mindless conspiracy theories, and at least as many who defend the right of people to carry almost any kind of firearm, despite the number of innocent people who are shot each year by mentally disturbed people.
If the US were just another country, there would be no great cause for concern. But the US is anything but “just another country”. It is by a substantial margin the world’s dominant Power. In 2022, it spent more on defence than the next 12 countries combined – that year, a defence budget of US$877 billion, compared with China’s of US$292 billion and Russia’s of US$86 billion. And there is every sign that it intends to remain the world’s dominant Power.
And looking back over recent decades, I worry about how the US uses its military power. The US waded into the civil war in Vietnam on the grounds that communism would remorselessly move through South East Asia unless North Vietnam, backed by communist China, was stopped. The result was nearly 60,000 US military dead and an estimated 3.5 million Vietnamese deaths, some 2 million of them civilians – and Vietnam still a communist country. But now a “friendly communist” country, with which the US is keen to develop a closer relationship.
The US invaded Iraq on what are now seen as trumped up charges about the country having weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were found of course, but nearly 5,000 US service personnel died and nearly 200,000 Iraqis also – with Iraq now a highly unstable society under the malign influence of Iran.
The US invaded Afghanistan because it was seen as the country which had nurtured those who had attacked the United States on 9/11 (even though most of those involved in the attack were Saudis). More than 6,000 US military personnel and contractors died over the 20 years of US military action in that country, while Afghan deaths, military and civilian, are estimated to have exceeded 200,000. And at the end of that long war? The Taliban back in control, enforcing policies which all civilized people regard as utterly abhorrent.
And now we see the US heavily involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine, not with troops of course but in every other way. In New Zealand, as in most other US-aligned countries, the war in Ukraine is seen as a simple case of Russian aggression against an innocent neighbour, and therefore a country warranting the utmost international support to oppose this outrageous and unprovoked aggression by a much bigger state.
But this view of the war is only possible because most of us know nothing, or almost nothing, about the background to the war. That background is crucial. In 1990, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating and West Germany was reunited with East Germany, the US gave Russia an undertaking that NATO would not expand “one inch” to the East. Ignoring that commitment, NATO incorporated Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, and seven more countries, including the Baltic states, in 2004. At a NATO meeting in 2008, when George W Bush was President of the US, NATO resolved to invite both Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, despite being warned by the US ambassador to Moscow that having Ukraine and Georgia in NATO would involve crossing the brightest of red lines for Russia because both would mean bringing NATO to the very border of Russia. That same year, Russia invaded Georgia, and still has a military presence there.
Ukraine has long been a divided country, with a Russian-speaking and pro-Russian population in the east of the country, and a Ukrainian-speaking population in the west. In 2014, a Russia-leaning President of Ukraine was overthrown by a coup which is widely believed to have been supported by, if not instigated by, the US. Shortly afterwards, Russia seized the Crimean peninsula and a low level civil war between the Russian-leaning population in the east and the rest of Ukraine began – and was ongoing at the time of the Russian invasion in February 2022.
Now the US is pretending that the Russian attack on Ukraine came totally out of the blue and has successfully portrayed Russia as entirely in the wrong, or at least has convinced the other countries in NATO and some hangers-on like New Zealand, that the Ukrainian struggle is one between a totally unprovoked Russian bully and “the little guy”.
In my view, the situation is one of grave danger. Russia has made it clear that, for them, having NATO on their border is utterly unacceptable. The US should be the very first to understand the Russian position: President Kennedy was prepared to risk World War III in October 1962 when he discovered that the Soviet Union had placed nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, even though he recognized at the time that those missiles didn’t fundamentally change the strategic balance – both the Soviet Union and the US were fully capable of destroying the other whether or not the Soviets had missiles in Cuba – and even though the US itself had placed nuclear-armed missiles near the Soviet border in Turkey.
Why the US should expect Russia to accept without a fight the presence of NATO (read US) weapons on their border is a mystery to me. And a mystery to a number of other observers as well, many with much more intimate knowledge than I have.
A few days ago, I came across an article written by David Stockman, a two-term Republican Congressman and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan. He wrote:
“Since the Munich Security Conference in 2007, the man (Putin) has said over and over, then over again, that Ukraine’s accession to NATO is an absolute red line. And anyone with their head screwed on right would have no trouble accepting that declaration by answering one simple question.
“To wit, how would Washington react if Russia put missiles and nukes in Mexico, or Cuba, or Nicaragua, or Granada or Venezuela or even Tierra Del Fuego?
“Of course, President John F. Kennedy resolved that matter 61 years ago. Yet the whole Vilnius [NATO] confab amounts to a wink and nod pageant telling the world that exactly what JFK said could not stand on our own doorstep back then, in fact, must stand on Russia’s now. One day soon the Great Hegemon on the Potomac [the US] will plant US/NATO missiles 40 minutes from the Kremlin and the purported ‘aggressor’ domiciled there needs to shut-up and eat his geopolitical spinach.
“Holy moly. The very idea is an affront to rationality and is a reckless invitation to permanent friction between two nations holding upwards of 12,000 nukes between them.”
Other Americans, such as John Mearsheimer, who holds a chair of Political Science at the University of Chicago, make the same argument: the US provoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine and is steadily escalating the weaponry provided to Ukraine, gambling that Putin will be willing to accept defeat without using any of the nuclear weapons at his disposal. It’s a gamble that could lead to World War III.
US policy in Asia is similarly risky. In Asia, the US has its armed forces surrounding China’s eastern border, with substantial military forces in South Korea, Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Australia, to mention just a few of the places where the US maintains a military presence. Indeed, when asked how many bases the US has outside the US, Google advises that “despite recently closing hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States still maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories abroad, from giant ‘Little America’ to small radar facilities.”
By contrast, China has one naval base in Djibouti and eight bases on man-made islands in the South China Sea. In other words, with the exception of the base in Djibouti, China’s “overseas” military bases are in close proximity to China itself.
The US expects China to accept the close proximity of US armed forces in a situation where the US would be totally unwilling to accept Chinese forces anywhere close to the Western Hemisphere. Just last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “made very clear” during meetings in Beijing that the US “would have deep concerns” about China increasing its intelligence or military activities in Cuba.
The US began an aggressive economic campaign against China when Donald Trump was President: he imposed high tariffs on a range of Chinese imports to the US in the apparent (and ill-informed) belief that running a trade deficit with China proved that China was somehow exploiting the US; and he tried, largely successfully, to persuade a number of countries to boycott telecommunications equipment built by Huawei. President Biden has left Trump’s tariffs largely in place – and indeed has adopted a protectionist policy against a number of traditional US allies as well – and in addition has imposed strict embargoes on the sale to China of a range of sophisticated chips, not only those made in the US but also those made in other countries where any US technology is involved. Unsurprisingly, China feels under attack and has responded with a range of export embargoes of its own, including involving rare minerals needed for the batteries of electric cars.
And where is New Zealand in all this? We’re no longer a full member of ANZUS of course, and governments of both main parties have made it clear that we do not want nuclear weapons in our neck of the woods.
But we are closely allied with Australia, which in turn has committed to the AUKUS alliance involving Australia, the United Kingdom and the US, and Australia’s purchase of eight nuclear-powered submarines – submarines which would have limited value in the defence of Australia but potentially considerable value in a conflict in the South China Sea. (The commitment to purchase these submarines, a decision made by the Liberal-Country Party Government and confirmed by the current Labor Party Government, was described by Paul Keating, a former Labor Prime Minister of Australia, as the worst decision made by any Australian Government in the last 100 years.)
Moreover, we remain a member of the so-called Five Eyes Group – made up of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – countries which share confidential intelligence information.
Both Jacinda Ardern and current Prime Minister Chris Hipkins have attended NATO meetings in Europe, and appear to have indicated New Zealand’s willingness to be part of an anti-China grouping loosely affiliated with NATO involving Australia, South Korea and Japan. Australia is also a member of the so-called Quad group of countries – the US, Japan, Australia and India – another explicitly anti-China grouping.
In my own view, being aligned with groups which are explicitly or implicitly lined up in opposition to China, our largest trading partner by a very considerable margin, is nuts.
Nothing we could contribute militarily to the US side of any conflict with China would make the slightest bit of difference to the outcome, and in any event it is not at all clear that we have any interest in opposing China. China is not a democracy in any sense, but plenty of US allies are not democracies either – one thinks of Saudi Arabia as an example. The US itself is classified as a “flawed democracy” by the Economist magazine. Vietnam is explicitly a communist country but now a US ally. The US opposition to China has nothing to do with China’s internal governance but everything to do with the fact that the US sees China as a rapidly rising Power, which by its very rise is seen by the US as threatening the proper order of things.
I recall reading Graham Allison’s book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? The book makes the argument that based on experience over the last 500 years, there is a high likelihood of war breaking out between a rising Power and an established Power. The US is clearly the established Power – dominant almost since the end of the Second World War, and certainly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The war in Ukraine is designed to remind Russia who is boss, though at great cost to Ukraine and at great risk to the world. The rising Power is clearly China, with an economy already slightly larger than that of the US (using a purchasing power parity exchange rate).
The alliances which the US seeks in the Pacific are designed to keep China in a subservient role to the US. There is lots of evidence that China seeks to expand its influence, and that is hardly surprising given the size of its economy and the fact that it is the largest trading partner for over 100 countries. But there is no evidence of which I am aware that China seeks to build an empire, or attack any other country with the single exception of Taiwan, which it has long claimed to be part of China (and which the United States and most other countries, including New Zealand, accept as part of China).
We have no interest in seeing any form of conflict between the US and China, military or otherwise, and no need to fear any form of Chinese encroachment into New Zealand territory. We would be wise to have no part of AUKUS, or of any other form of anti-China alliance.
26 July 2023