John Bolton on how a new era of American alliances is under way – The Economist

by John Bolton
This By-invitation commentary is part of a series by global thinkers on the future of American power, examining the forces shaping the country’s standing. Read more here.

SINCE WE know the cold war’s outcome, it is tempting to see America’s triumph against Soviet belligerence as almost biblically inevitable. When Truman’s secretary of state, Dean Acheson, chronicled his experience being “present at the creation”, he wasn’t thinking small. However, there was no “creation”. Instead, the country took an inductive, Burkean road to victory—one that resisted abstractions or over-generalising from insufficient information, and instead proceeded prudently to build positions of strength against the Soviets in a complicated world. Despite its notable successes, it proceeded in fits and starts, making mistakes, suffering failures, wasting efforts and bickering with allies along the way.
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And it worked. And it brings us to today—and the recent AUKUS agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States to co-operate on nuclear-powered submarines. The project stunned and enraged China, not to mention France, whose technologically inadequate, diesel-powered submarines were rejected by Australia. In the Indo-Pacific and globally, the deal marks a sit-up-and-take-notice moment, perhaps a genuine pivot.
Yet the accord is generating complications that were either not foreseen or well understood. It sends both encouraging and cautionary signals. But most of all, it is an example of the pragmatic, tailored approach that is required—and why grasping at grand strategies against China right now is premature and perhaps dangerous. A one-size strategy does not fit all circumstances.
Just as China constitutes the kind of existential threat once posed by the Soviet Union, so too the West must rise to the full scope of the challenge, but in ways that are practical and adaptable. We again need conceptual clarity and focus, but realistic and tailored action. Edmund Burke remarked: “Please God, I will walk with caution, whenever I am not able clearly to see the way before me.” AUKUS shows how to advance with both caution and confidence.
Under AUKUS, America and Britain will aid Australia in building at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, transferring nuclear-propulsion technology and increasing co-operation in internet and intelligence matters. The submarines’ entry into service is years in the future. The three countries are already allied in many different ways, such as participating in “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing with Canada and New Zealand. On the record, all three partners avoided any mention of China in presenting the initiative.
Arguments have been raised that AUKUS breaches Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) rules. But the criticisms are unfounded, even frivolous. There is no question that Australia, an NPT member in good standing, is both within its rights and in compliance by seeking nuclear-powered subs. Existing nuclear-propulsion programmes do not contribute to weapons proliferation. And Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-propulsion technology does not excuse Iran’s violations of the NPT—and should not divert attention from the failure of the West to stop real proliferation threats. Regrettably, when Russia and China have enabled proliferation, they did so directly by supplying uranium-enrichment technology, weapons designs and more—none of which is in the AUKUS accord.
Nonetheless, simply creating a new, hard-power alliance is America’s most significant play against China since more than a decade ago, when optimism about the country being a “responsible stakeholder” engaged in a “peaceful rise” rightly began to dim. After Deng Xiaoping trashed much of his country’s Marxist economic policy in the 1970s and 1980s, China enjoyed enormous growth. Westerners predicted it would become more democratic and would behave more responsibly internationally. Both predictions were incorrect.
China’s vitriolic opposition to AUKUS is telling. It wanted Australia as a complaisant supplier of mineral and agricultural products. Instead, Canberra’s leaders have committed the country to the global West not for mere business, but to defend the realm. There was lengthy debate in Australia about choosing between China and America: that choice is now made.
For the administration of President Joe Biden, China’s anger probably ends any possibility of making climate change a stand-alone issue with the country, where America might have achieved progress amid tensions in other domains. This was always a fantasy, and that is now indisputable. President Biden now has to explain to his environmentalist supporters why he chose AUKUS over the fight against global warming, which they will find galling. The White House’s new occupants will now understand just how complicated pursuing a China policy can be.
AUKUS forges an alliance that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and constitutes a real breakthrough. In terms of critical defence capability, it links what have been, for over half a century, two separate networks of American partners and it vastly expands allied interoperability in undersea capabilities. It also establishes a precedent for more effective American alliance-building that could easily extend to other political objectives and many other countries, as well as to other technologies and capabilities. The only real limit is allied creativity in responding to growing Chinese threats across the politico-military and economic spheres. AUKUS looks like a mini-Anglosphere club, but its potential is far broader. It is precisely the kind of “rational, cool endeavour” that Burke favored in policy matters.
Over a decade ago Spain’s then-leader, José-María Aznar, suggested making NATO global by adding nations like Japan, Australia and Israel. Given France’s current dyspepsia with NATO’s two most important members, Mr Aznar’s aspiration falls even further from realisation, though his basic insight remains valid. Many in Washington have longed for Asian collective-defence structures that mirror NATO, but have never come close. Neither cold-war efforts, CENTO and SEATO, achieved anything close to their original intent. Even The Economist has in recent days been a forum for the idea of expanding NATO.
Instead, America has had to make do with a series of “hub-and-spoke” alliances in the Pacific region, which has not proved as useful or self-sustaining as NATO. Though AUKUS is hardly an Indo-Pacific NATO, and certainly not a global NATO, it is nonetheless an example from which other structured alliance activities can be formulated. The most obvious ally to incorporate is Japan, which must now be thinking intensely about how to join the deal. Is there any reason not to welcome it?
Then there is the European Union. Its officials once bandied phrases like “variable geometry” and “multispeed Europe” to describe how EU integration might proceed at different paces and different directions for different members. However we need not worry about the EU’s current travails (such as losing its second-largest economy, Britain) to recognise that different countries still assess the Chinese threat at different levels of severity in different areas.
Some may wish for more emphasis on military co-operation. Others prefer tougher action against China’s intellectual-property piracy, or its weaponising of telecommunications and the internet through companies that have long been accused of being arms of the military or intelligence community, though the firms deny such links.
Though it is tempting to believe that the overall response to China should be managed through a single defence organisation or economic organisation, this is neither necessary nor advisable. Such an effort would not only probably be unworkable, but needless debates over a grand design would distract from more urgent concerns about Chinese conduct that need prompt counter thrusts. Rather, examples of a variegated response already exist. As AUKUS gets underway, leaders of the Quad (India, Japan, Australia and America) will convene their first in-person meeting in Washington. Though the Quad was begun three presidents ago, Mr Biden has done more with this grouping than his predecessors—and whether he has a concrete objective for its future remains to be seen.
The Quad has enormous potential to increase its roles and responsibilities, and there are any number of potential new members: Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea to name a few. Or, there could be coalitions that include one or more Quad members, but not all of them.
For example, Taiwan, whose bona fides as a vibrant democracy in a hostile neighborhood are beyond reproach, fully merits inclusion in an Indo-Pacific “variable geometry” (that is, allowing multiple overlapping efforts to take place at different speeds). There is no plausible rationale to give China in effect a veto over an expanded role for the manifestly independent island that Douglas MacArthur called an “unsinkable aircraft-carrier”. Today, Chinese intimidation excludes Taiwan from significant co-operation with willing partners. Failing to include Taiwan hands China a continual major victory at no cost whatsoever.
These are just a few of the possibilities that are opened up by the AUKUS accord. It represents a new phase in intergovernmental arrangements to defend against the threat of China, and the need to adapt as the threat evolves. Given the magnitude of the challenge, such creativity and open-mindedness will be essential. There is no immediate need to develop a general theory or grand strategy: such abstractions usually fail to capture reality, work in practice or change to meet new circumstances—as Burke cautioned. Instead, it is imperative to think swiftly and respond practically to meet the full spectrum of China’s actual and potential threats.
Thus AUKUS may foreshadow a series of separate but interrelated collective-defence entities. These operational partnerships need not be limited to conventional military activities but treat the full range of Chinese threats in the political, economic and social spheres. The close economic ties between China and the rest of the world inevitably make this process more complicated than the way the West responded during the cold war, when the two blocs had fairly limited economic contacts. But it is precisely the scope of the Chinese threat, and the added complexities thereby posed, that should warn us away from abstract theorising, which can paralyse our response as China grows stronger.
China may be better at century-long planning than America. But its plans are not inherently more survivable when confronted with pointed, determined and sustained countermeasures. AUKUS is a major, positive step in constraining China. Now, at least, we can sense that Washington is in the game.
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John Bolton was America’s national security adviser in 2018-19 for President Donald Trump. He was ambassador to the United Nations in 2005-06 and served in the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.
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