Tag Archives: Hugh White

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.

Quarterly Essay 39: China powers on

Hugh White, Quarterly Essay 39: Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing (Black Inc Sept 2010)

As with every Quarterly Essay, I turned first to the back of this issue for correspondence on the previous one. Timing was unusually poignant in this case: QE38, David Marr’s Power Trip, came out just days before its subject Kevin Rudd was ousted from power; the responses to it here were mostly written when the election campaign of Julia (‘the ouster’) Gillard was foundering, and I read them just after hearing that she will be leading a minority government. There are no fireworks in the correspondence: a couple of journalists add corroborating anecdotes about Rudd’s leadership style (David Marr describes these as symptomatic of ‘a new, and welcome, spirit of indiscretion’; I read them as a bit of a pile-on). Kerryn Goldsworthy deftly despatches whole swathes of attack on the essay and dispenses a little relevant information about literary forms while she’s at it. James Boyce corrects and enriches David Marr’s understanding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his probable significance for Rudd. In responding, David Marr replies almost entirely to criticisms that were made elsewhere: perhaps it would have been polite to give those critics the right of pre-reply here (he quotes Sylvia Lawson and Allison Broinowski and gives them a one-word reply: rubbish).

From David Marr’s Power Trip to Hugh White’s Power Shift. Appropriate as the title would have been for an essay on the recent election, we have to wait for QE40 for George Megalogenis to give us that (Power Brakes?). This one is about something other than personalities and politics as horse race:

Our leaders, and by extension the rest of us, are assuming that Asia will be transformed economically over the next few decades, but remain unchanged strategically and politically. It is an appealing assumption because the past forty years have been among the best times in Australia’s history, and it has been easy to believe that American power would continue indefinitely to keep Asia peaceful and Australia safe. That has been a cardinal mistake.

Perhaps the assumption is also appealing because its obvious knee-jerk alternative is a revival of Yellow Peril rhetoric. Tomorrow When the War Began (John Marsden’s series of YA novels and now a film based on the first book) demonstrates, incidentally, that the complacency Hugh White sets out to prick hasn’t been absolute, but it does give strength to his arm in seeking to get people to think about Australia’s relationship to China rather than explore violent fantasies, however earnestly packaged.

While Kerryn Goldsworthy says, quite correctly, on page 85 that an essay can be ‘an expedition into the unverifiable: memories; theories; hitherto unexplored veins of subject matter or uninhabited point of view’, this one proceeds with the logical clarity (though not the  soul-destroying aridity) of a PowerPoint demonstration. ‘Since 1788,’ he says, stating the obvious but unsettling truth, ‘Australia has always enjoyed a very close and trusting relationship with the world’s strongest power, and we just take that for granted.’ Well, not for much longer – and we need to think about this. The main history of our times, he proposes, may not be in the place that’s getting the most attention:

The day-to-day management of the [US–China] relationship gets a lot of detailed attention, but presidents and other senior figures avoid substantial analysis of America’s long-term intentions towards China. One reason is 9/11. For almost a decade, America’s political leaders have convinced themselves that a small group of fugitives on the run in Pakistan poses a bigger challenge to America’s place in the world than the transformation of the world’s most populous country. Future historians will find that hard to explain.

To be fair to White’s argument, he goes on immediately after this to acknowledge that Barack Obama signalled that the blinkers were coming off after his visit to China in November last year. All the same, Muriel Rukeyser take a bow.

It’s a very interesting essay, which I recommend as an antidote for the personality-preoccupied, narrative-driven writing that accounts for most political commentary in our newspapers these days.