Daily Archives: 11 September 2022

Hugh White’s Sleepwalk to War

Hugh White, Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s unthinking alliance with America (Quarterly Essay 86, 2022)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 87

The title of this Quarterly Essay says it all: Australia’s foreign policy has had us in lockstep with the USA, and we’re heading for an inevitable war with China if the USA continues on its current trajectory and we stay blindly following. The people making key policy decisions, the title implies and indeed the essay states explicitly, are not living in the real world.

Specifically, our governments talk and act as if the USA is an unchallengeable world power both generally and in our region. In reality, China’s GDP is now greater than that of the USA (one of many assertions challenged by correspondents in Nº 87); it is a nuclear power intent on establishing a sphere of influence in the India Pacific; the USA has no compelling reason to challenge that intention, and there’s no way it will go to war, let alone risk a nuclear war, to do so. Australia and the USA should stop pretending they will defend Taiwan should China decide to retake it – which it inevitably will do. We should be working out how reconcile ourselves to living within a Chinese sphere of influence in a multipolar world where the USA and China are only two of several great powers.

Hugh White presents his argument cogently, and when he is dealing with the absurd sabre-rattling of Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison, his thesis looks like sweet reason. Nancy Pelosi’s weirdly provocative visit to Taiwan happened after the essay and its follow-up correspondence were published, making it very timely indeed in retrospect.

As usual, I delayed reading this Quarterly Essay until the next one came out so that I could read it along with whatever responses the series editor (still Chris Feik) chooses to publish. Unusually this time, politicians criticised in the essay have a say. Not Scott Morrison or Peter Dutton – it’s hard to image either of them meeting argument with argument rather than bluster. But Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd turn up to defend their records. They and other correspondents take issue with White’s thesis just about as vigorously as possible within the bounds of civil discourse.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull:

White has strayed into sweeping generalisations and, frankly, ‘alternative facts’ to embellish his argument. I was disappointed that a scholar of his standing would do so.
White’s description of Australian foreign policy is simply wrong

Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

A skilled political operator, White adduces selective facts and little reason in reaching [his] conclusion, but happily smears as ‘unthinking’ anyone who challenges his word as self-appointed prophet of both the anti-American far left and the ‘never upset Beijing’ Rio Tinto far right.

Michael J. Green, formerly the senior Asia policy official on the National Security Council in the White House:

Kudos to Hugh for shaking things up as always. There is urgency, as he notes. There are also many big and hard decisions ahead. But the basic consensus behind current Australian and American grand strategy is founded on a more nuanced and realistic assessment of the international system and the relative balance of power than offered in the polemical pages of Sleepwalk to War.

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University:

I’ve admired my ANU colleague Professor Hugh White for decades: his singular intellectual style, public profile (such that many mistakenly assume he speaks for Australia), unorthodox career, generous mentorship of next-generation thinkers, sharp good humour, even his zeal. He is a past master of the strategic analysis game. But he insists on playing it just one narrow way – his own, derived from his training in philosophy and winner-takes-all Oxford debating. And, sadly, his new Quarterly Essay maintains the cage.

Not all the correspondents take issue with the essay as sharply as those, but Rory Medcalf’s gibe about Oxford debating rings true when Hugh White emerges bloody but unbowed to reply to correspondents, barely acknowledging the many instances where he allegedly got the facts wrong.

In the end, the discussion hasn’t left me any wiser about Australia’s relationships with the USA and China. My evaluation of Dutton and Morrison’s provocations has been endorsed. My sense that things are complicated has been strengthened. My anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war in my lifetime remains on a low simmer. I’m glad there are people who can think about these issues and are taking about them. I hope cool and wise heads prevail on all sides.