Nobody has any idea how history is going to go. But it’s fun to try to predict it. I have a hunch that this AUKUS agreement, deepening military ties between Australia, the UK and the US, is really bad news. But even if it is absolutely the right thing to do, it is a lot more significant than the amount of attention it is getting. It was momentarily a big topic of discussion among geopolitics nerds like myself, but quickly faded. This is weird, because even if everything I said in this video turns out to be wrong, AUKUS is definitely a bigger deal than the withdrawal from Afghanistan we spent weeks agonizing about. An Asian NATO is now a concrete reality, and we know a lot more about what the next few decades will look like in Asia than we did two weeks ago. It’s a big deal. Here’s my very pessimistic take on what it all means.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Well, anybody who thought the US was withdrawing from the world certainly got a kick in the pants last Wednesday evening. In a joint announcement with the United Kingdom and Australia, the Joe Biden took the most concrete and aggressive anti-China move of the New Cold War. Frankly this blows anything Obama or Trump did right out of the water. There’s a lot to discuss here, and it all helps us see the shape of the world to come. I think it may be the worst thing the US government has done this century, and yes that means I think it’s worse than the invasion of Iraq. Let’s dive in.
I spend a lot of time mocking US military equipment, specifically aircraft carriers and manned fighter jets, which are just glorified multi billion dollar targets for cheap Chinese missiles, unlikely to survive the 15th minute of world war III. I do not make fun of nuclear powered submarines. These things are nasty, and quiet and they operate under the sea. Nobody can predict the next war, least of all me, but these vessels are likely to be the deciding factor. These monsters are terror weapons, providing the ability to eradicate the cities of your enemies, even if your own country is in ruins. Nuclear subs only need to refuel every 5 or 6 years, and they can spend months without surfacing. AUKUS is a lot like when Pakistan helped North Korea develop its nuclear bombs, but on a vastly larger scale, with potentially much greater consequences.
These weapons are so nasty that before last week they were limited to six of the world’s open and acknowledged nuclear powers. And generally only the big, rich ones. Australia’s prime minister has promised up and down that his nuclear powered submarines will never carry nuclear weapons. That may be true. But I wouldn’t expect China to believe that.
Quick sidebar… thanks to AUKUS, Australia will no longer have to worry about the On the Beach scenario where the rest of the world dies from World War III and down under mopes about for a few months waiting for the fallout. AUKUS sends Melbourne and Syndey to the top of the kill list. Congrats!
Whether Australia’s nuke subs carry nuclear weapons or not, the broader AUKUS agreement is expected to include Australian bases for US submarines that are both nuclear propelled and nuclear armed.
If Australia did put nuclear weapons on its nuclear powered submarines, that would be an egregious violation of the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, AUKUS violates the spirit, if not the law of non-proliferation. Australia’s nuclear subs will need highly enriched fuel. In case you were wondering, yep, that’s more or less exactly the thing we have been starving the Iranian people to death over for the past three years. Unlike the Iranian issue, there isn’t any plausible civilian use for this nuclear submarine fuel. And the increase in volume we are talking about here is extreme. The Bulletin of Economic Scientists has pointed out that the entire Iran conflict is over something like 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. Australian nuclear subs will involve literally tons of the stuff, in a new country that has next to no experience securely handling military grade nuclear material. Has the Biden administration even bothered to justify this? Not really. They claim it’s an exception and move on.
The way I see it, there two levels of geopolitical discussion. There’s the day to day competition between nation states that is most of what you see on this channel. Whether it’s diplomacy, terrorism, or even a war that kills hundreds of thousands of people,it’s fascinating to talk about, but really it’s all temporary. Iraq, Syria and Yemen, will eventually recover. Nuclear proliferation is on the more serious level. Those eggs do not get unbroken.
Nuclear proliferation is permanent, and any spread of military nuclear technology, no matter who does it,or for what purpose, is a blow against the entire human race. This is why the Iran Nuclear Deal is so important, and why the people who broke it in 2018 over missiles or support for militias are such dangerous idiots. I don’t mention it enough, but the scariest thing about the 2014 crack-up between Russia and the US isn’t Ukraine or Syria, it’s the fact that it makes the spread of nuclear materials much more likely. And that’s exactly what this new AUKUS agreement does, spread nuclear material.
The intentional proliferation that the US announced last week is something that has only happened once before. Back in 1958, at the height of the cold war, after the Soviets launched the first satellite, the US agreed to share it’s Nuclear sub technology with the United Kingdom. This has never happened since, and even during the Cold War, the US government intervened strongly to keep anybody else, even our own allies from spreading this tech.
Is 2021 really as dangerous a year for as 1958 was? Is China really as much of a threat as the Soviet Union was in the era of Sputnik? This move by the US has made it painfully obvious that China is ruled by idiots. Their choice to meet Donald Trump’s bluster with bluster of their own has backfired massively. China thought they could bully little Australia with “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, issuing threats and limits on certain trade goods, but it’s now clear that they were bringing tariffs to a nuke fight. It’s unclear how China could respond to this. By helping Iran develop nuke subs? Seems unlikely.
But the fact that China stands revealed as over-reaching and outmatched makes the US and Australian actions look all the more disproportional. We have now literally turned a trade dispute into a nuclear question. Just because a weak kid at school is a bullying loudmouth, doesn’t mean it’s OK to burn down his neighborhood. And I think that may be exactly what we are doing here.
This is likely to launch an entirely one-sided arms race within Asia. Australia is a very rich country, but it’s also a small one, thousands of miles away from China. If US policy is that Australia deserves a nuclear sub because of trade issues and China talked a little shit, what’s our message to Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines? These countries have populations four to five times Australia’s and they all have active territorial disputes with China. South Korea isn’t much bigger than Australia, but it certainly has to deal with a much more active military threat to the North, doesn’t it deserve nuclear subs too?
None of these countries will be insisting on having these doomsday weapons immediately, of course. For one thing, they are ruinously expensive. But over the course of decades, whether it’s because of a particular incident or just through the workings of nationalism and the US military industrial complex, all of these countries will probably end up with these weapons as well.
Sure it’d be nice to take a principled stand against proliferation, but the time for that was before AUKUS became a reality last week. After staying mostly steady for half a century, the number of powers with nuclear submarines could double in the next decades. Maybe a few of those powers will honor their commitments and not take the easy jump from enriching uranium for fuel to enriching for nuclear weapons. But that’s not really how human nature works is it? The Biden administration is opening Pandora’s box here, and the evil that will stem from it could be immeasurable. The connection to Iraq I made earlier may not be particularly intuitive, but the past week has felt a lot like 2003. AUKUS is a much bigger event in human history, but even fewer people are objecting to it than objected to the US invasion of Iraq.
The Iraq invasion has killed a million people and counting. Turning SouthEast Asian politics nuclear will be impossible to take back, and maybe next year, maybe next century it has a very good chance of eventually killing billions. AUKUS is the start of the next phase of human political history, and people are paying very little attention.
The AUKUS agreement answers a lot of very important questions. Like are we really going to do a new cold war with China? Yes, absolutely. Are we going to do so in the most damaging way possible, by focusing on ridiculously expensive weapons systems instead of worthwhile scientific competition. Yup, that too. And are we going to be dumb enough to create an Asian NATO, a complex of military industrial complexes with thousands of bureaucrats and businessmen who will dedicate their careers to keeping tensions as high as possible? Yup, we are now definitely doing that for sure. And the most insane thing is that we are doing all this to confront a Chinese enemy that is decidedly not ready for prime time. So far their big retaliation to AUKUS is to attempt to join a trade agreement the US wrote, then abandoned. Of course, the fact that the Chinese are vastly weaker than advertised will be taken as a sign that AUKUS is working, and our insane aggression wasn’t just wise, it was successful. The War on Terror fraud has been justified the exact same way. It’s all very depressing.
What we are seeing here is the swinging shut off something that I call the real Thucydides Trap. Not that nonsense that Harvard came up with, but a concept that comes from actual engagement with what Thucydides wrote, as I described last year.
“2500 years ago the Greek world faced an existential threat. The Persians wanted to swallow it whole both with overwhelming force, and with an ideology of submission that the Greeks found repellent. The movie 300 has cemented the idea that beating Persia was all about the Spartans but in truth the Athenians were probably more than equal partners in this. Like the Russians against the Nazis in World War II, or the Chinese against the Soviets if the Cold War had turned hot, the Spartans provided indispensable land armies. But it was Athens that provided the logistics, the Navy, the wealth and the diplomacy that tied all the other Greek city states together. The United States sounds a lot more like Athens than Sparta to me.
Like the Allies in World War II and the US block in the Cold War, the Greeks ended the Persian threat to their lands, with a bunch of battles you may have heard about. What Thucydides documents is what happened after Marathon and Salamis. You see, Athens got to like the league of allied city states it had put together. And Long after the Persian threat had faded, Athens kept getting harsher and harsher to the Greek political units that didn’t want to play along. The Athenian led alliance became the Athenian empire. Does that sound at all familiar?
Like the Athenians, the US got so used to leading a fight that they refused to stop leading after the fight was over.”
Everything from the War on Terror to our big tech dominance is an example of US alliance calcifying into US empire. I expected the rest of the world to push back long ago. But it just continues to not. AUKUS strikes me as an indication it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. It’s proved disturbingly easy for Washington DC to construct a Chinese bogeyman to replace the fading fears of radical Islamic terror.
Over the past week France has been the only country objecting to this striking bit of US UK nuclear proliferation. But it’s not doing so on anything like principled grounds. France’s hissy fit is actually very instructive. A couple days back France actually recalled its ambassadors from the US and Australia. Did they recall ambassadors over the Obama administration’s fostering of an EU breaking refugee crisis? No. Did France recall ambassadors over Trump’s breaking of the Iran deal? No. How about the US’s unfair Covid ban on EU travelers? No. They did it over the cancellation of its own deal to sell submarines to Australia.
It’s easy to mock the French for this, but I think they should be applauded for revealing the true, grubby, pointless stakes of NATO and Indo-Pacific high politics. It’s a lot like the fact that the US only lost patience with Turkey when it tried to buy Russian missiles. Our governments act as if there are no real stakes in geopolitics anymore, other than the greed of defense companies and the politicians that they own. Of course France is more pissed at the US than it has been for half a century. Because nothing matters more to the world’s leaders than defense spending.
Thanks to the collapse of the Evergrande real estate empire, there is a distinct chance that the Chinese Communist Party is about to implode, just as the US sacrifices the very idea of nuclear non-proliferation to confront them. It’s just stunning. AUKUS is a heart breakingly stupid move.
Thanks for watching, and come back for Thursday’s live chat where we will talk about the weird racist aspects of the rebirth of English speaking empire that is AUKUS.