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A Global Period of Transition

06 May 2022
By Colin Chapman FAIIA
Vladimir Putin is visiting the tank hall. Source: Russian Presidential Executive Office

International relations are in transition, and Australia will not be immune to the fall out. Elections in Australia and the US, as well as happenings in Europe, should not be viewed in isolation.

We don’t yet know who will win the Australian election, but we do know that Donald Trump plans to stand as the Republican candidate in a bid to return to the White House in 2024.  This is thanks to the impeached former president Trump providing a fascinating and, at times, hilarious interview to Rupert Murdoch’s new television channel, TalkTV, launched at Easter from London but broadcast worldwide. That Murdoch, now aged 92, should still be launching new ventures almost six decades after he founded The Australian, is a remarkable story in itself. But there was Trump, fronting up to his nemesis Piers Morgan, who had been brought back to the silver screen after being sacked by Britain’s ITV, answering the question: “Do you intend to run for president again?”

Trump did not have to think for his answer, saying regulations about campaign funding meant that he could not provide an answer, but that he loved America and that a lot of Americans were going to be very happy. “That means yes,” said Morgan, as Trump re-asserted, “people will be very happy. You might even be happy.”

Australian election campaigning has attracted very little interest outside Canberra, although the Financial Times in London seemed to think, without much evidence, that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had fallen out with senior members of his own party. Likewise, Australian foreign policy has attracted very little comment. The East Asia Forum observed little difference between the two major parties and attacked Morrison for his lack of interest in ASEAN, noting that more direct investment goes to New Zealand than to the top ten countries in the bloc and that only a couple ASEAN members make Australia’s top ten trading partners. In New Zealand, interest seems to be limited to complaints about Coalition minister Peter Dutton exporting criminals, a reference to the harsh practice of deporting New Zealand citizens who commit crimes even if they had lived in Australia since childhood. In Beijing, the Communist party’s China Daily devoted an editorial to Morrison adding ten thousand soldiers to the Australian defence force, a bizarre claim given president Xi Jinping’s military expansion in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, those campaigning around Australia and the media have been paying very little attention to the onset of World War III. In the last ten days, there has been a sharp change of mood over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both in Moscow and in the West, culminating in United States President Joe Biden stating publicly that it is now essential that Russia be “weakened.” UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told a black-tie dinner at London’s Mansion House that the UK and its Western allies now needed to show “courage, not caution” and to start actively to help the Ukrainian government to push the Russians out of “the whole of Ukraine.” Her remarks were immediately reported on Russian news channels as evidence that the war is one “between the West and Russia” and that “it has been decided in London that it will not be concluded until a full and conclusive victory has been achieved over Moscow.”

Russians are now being told repeatedly by the media that they are engaged in an existential global conflict. President Vladimir Putin is widely and increasingly quoted as saying that he may have to use nuclear weapons. The West has yet to make a counter threat, but it is no secret Biden has been rehearsing with his top military advisers the options should Putin’s threat move closer to reality. Trump claimed in his interview with TalkTV that, had he still been president, Putin would not have invaded Ukraine. He claimed that before the February invasion, he had discussed the possibility with the Russian president and made it very clear what his response would be, while refusing to say what that was.

NATO’s new plan, which has been outlined to Australian defence chiefs but not made public, is to enter the Ukrainian war theatre when it is deemed necessary to save Ukrainian lives, but not to enter Russian territory. One model discussed has been Operation Desert Storm, the 1990 US-led military operation ordered by President George HW Bush to evict Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Bush ended the operation when Saddam Hussein’s forces retreated, stopping short of invading Iraq.

A heightened NATO operation in Ukraine is unlikely to replicate Desert Storm but may include a no-fly zone, which largely contributed to its success. Also under discussion is a pushback against Russia’s navy action in the Black Sea, where the iconic city of Odessa is under bombardment, and where crucial Ukrainian exports of grain and other foodstuffs to starvation-threatened regions of Africa are being blocked.

Interestingly, the need for further NATO action is strongly supported by The Observer, Europe’s leading English-language Sunday newspaper, which often takes an anti-war stance. The paper supports Western sanctuaries for displaced Ukrainians, defended by NATO air power, as well as counterattacks at Russian vessels threatening Odessa and food exports.

Fiona Hill, former Russia specialist at the National Security Council and adviser on Russia to presidents George W Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, has no doubt that Putin is prepared to use nuclear weapons if his latest foray into Ukraine does not work. She believes the West should act immediately, telling Andrew Neil, another former Murdoch editor,

The United Nations … is not the instrument that we thought it would be; but we have to start that international diplomacy now, ahead of the non-proliferation review session at the UN, scheduled for August.

We cannot wait until August. We need to go and talk to all the other nuclear powers and say, ‘Look what Putin’s doing here.’ We need to move quickly on getting the agreement with Iran, for example, to show that we can actually do something on the nuclear front. You know, basically Putin is doing exactly the same thing as Kim Jong Un; he is behaving like a nuclear bully.

The other big change of recent weeks that has a direct impact on Australian foreign policy is the strengthening of the alliance between the US and the European Union, culminating in a series of meetings in Europe this week between high-ranking officials, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and EU President Ursula von der Leyen, to hammer out more cohesion between the EU 27 and America. There have been several important speeches, including Italy’s prime minister and former European Central Bank governor Mario Draghi calling for more streamlined decision making and integration embracing what he termed “pragmatic federalism” in multiple policy areas, including defence, security, and economic burden-sharing.  EU leaders are also voting on a total embargo on Russian oil, with many wanting to extend this to gas, despite German opposition.

The issues at stake are too complex, too far-reaching, to be wound up this week, but there is no doubt that international relations are in transition and Australia will not be immune to the fall out. Perhaps the ABC should stage a long overdue Q&A with foreign ministers to ask them how they will steer us through difficult days ahead.

Colin Chapman is editor-at-large of Australian Outlook and a fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Colin is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He was president of AIIA New South Wales.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.