In January 1941, 10 months before Pearl Harbour, British and Canadian defence staff officers attended a top-secret "no commitments" conference in Washington with top-level staff officers of the United States, still strictly a neutral in the war against Germany, if mightily sick of the carnage caused by U-boats in the Atlantic Ocean and already giving Britain some open and some clandestine assistance.
The discussions did not commit America to war. But it discussed how Britain and Canada - indeed Britain and the British Empire - might co-operate with American defence forces if America was forced into war, which most present agreed might happen if Japan declared war on the US and the Empire.
If Japan attacked, the grandees agreed, the best policy would involve an initial primary focus on the defeat of Germany. It would be better if only holding actions were launched against Japan until Germany was comprehensively defeated, by when all of the allies could move in concert to win the Pacific war.
Australia, which at that stage had many more of its troops actually engaged in fighting Germans than either Canada or Britain, was not invited, did not know that the conference was going on and was not told about the decision made by Britain and Canada on behalf of the Empire, including Australia. At that stage, the US more or less assumed that Britain spoke for Australia, as well as the British colonies, anyway.
The US initially regarded the meeting of minds at the so-called ABC-1 conference as not strictly binding. But after Pearl Harbour, the American military and political establishment revisited the Europe-first understanding, and recommitted themselves to it. In doing so they rejected advice from General Douglas MacArthur, soon to be the commander of allied forces including Australians, organising to resist Japanese aggression.
MacArthur did not strictly tell the Australians that his superiors in Washington had resolved on a Germany-first policy, though anyone might well have deduced it from the way that he railed non-stop during the war about getting his fair share of men, transports, aircraft, resources and attention from Washington, while many times the men and resources were going to Africa and then to Europe. Though some, of course, might have regarded his non-stop complaining as being a function of his ego.
As the war progressed, the formal policy did not change, though the Pacific war received a higher level of resources and went beyond the mere containment of the enemy. But it was always second in line until Germany was defeated, as it happens, mostly by the Soviet Union.
These moments, 81 years ago, are worth remembering now as America and its allies contemplate Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the threat to the peace of Europe, and the best means by which the western alliance can settle the neighbours, all of whom (except Belarus, Russia's ally and vassal) belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. NATO's constitution says a military attack on one member is an attack on all, to be met with combined force. In form, the treaty is far more definite and binding than the ANZUS Treaty, by which America, Australia and perhaps New Zealand, agree to "consult" each other if an enemy attacks their Pacific shores.
Early in the Ukraine conflict, while Vladimir Putin was massing troops in Belarus, the Crimea and Russia for what were described as "planned large-scale military exercises", sharp minds in the Western alliance wondered whether China might take advantage of the world's distraction to launch an attack on Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait.
If Ukraine falls, a distracted America might stop its pivot to Asia.
Although Taiwan's legal status compared with China differs from that of Russia and Ukraine, the two potential victims of an attack from their immediate neighbours have much in common. While Ukraine and Taiwan are both, in ordinary terms, well-armed, with a population and armed forces apparently very ready to fight for their independence, the potential aggressors are far more powerful, ruthless, righteous in their own point of view, and have nuclear weapons.
Just as importantly, the victim countries are right in the bosom of the potential aggressors, to the extent that anyone joining with them to resist aggression would face extended lines of communication, difficulties of military manpower, supply and logistics. Indeed, all of the disadvantages facing potential allies have increased over recent years, as the bigger bullies increased their power and capacity to project it.
The big problem that Australians might have to contemplate is that the crisis in eastern Europe may be such that the US effectively abandons its "pivot to Asia" and begins concentrating its efforts, its diplomacy and its military power in western Europe again. If it did, the biggest loser might well be Australia.
This does not necessarily mean that the US will cease resisting China's attempts to extend its power and influence over Asia, the Pacific and the South China Sea, because America, even in a somewhat weakened state, can fight two enemies at once. But it may mean that it gives this effort less resources and less attention - indeed that it might, as a practical matter, let some things slide that once would have caused serious collision.
An upsurge, for example, in Chinese pushing its claims over disputed islands off its coast. Further crackdowns on dissent in Hong Kong, which the West seems to have been unable to resist. A more aggressive tone from its president, or its wolf warriors, at criticism of its repression of ethnic minorities.
Or some more spite directed at Australia as the nation which has stood out voluntarily as the chief Western alliance critic of China's undemocratic ways, repression and unfair trade tactics. As it sees things, this running dog of US imperialism has been yapping at China for ages, causing it little damage but not a little annoyance. Doing it with great confidence and apparent belligerence, but safe and secure in the knowledge that it can run behind American skirts at the slightest sign of trouble. Again, as the Chinese might see it, running arguments in Australian domestic politics about which party and which leader is the more hairy-chested on China, and about who can be trusted to take the most negative and critical approach.
The equation about the value, to Australia, of deliberately antagonising China might change abruptly if the Ukraine crisis distracts America from its own separate issues with the Asian super-power. On a number of occasions, for example about filling the vacuum caused by China's boycott of our produce, the US has not scrupled to put its own interests ahead of Australia's. It has done so without anything much in the way of consultation, or the slightest concern for our feelings.
It is easy to imagine that a reconsideration of policy priorities, with the effect of shifting the emphasis back to the tensions in eastern Europe could occur without much in the way of notice to Australia, or with anything more than lip-service to the actual Australian interests to which we have paid too little attention. No doubt, if we reproached the US, President Biden would remind that nice little fellow - "What's his name now?" down in Australia - that we had them down on the list for a few nuclear subs 20 years from now. How, in such a circumstance, could we complain of being abandoned?
Australia has real grounds to fear being left like a shag on a rock by a change in American strategy. Perhaps even the risk of that might prompt some of the Australian diplomatic, defence and intelligence establishment to contemplate a role for Australia that was somewhat more independent, and somewhat less inclined to submerge our own interests into the different interests of our great and powerful friend.
Some observers have expressed fears that China might attack Taiwan while the world is distracted by the war in Ukraine. But a China with a long view might well reason it would be better to lie low. Taking advantage of American distraction might further underline the increasing military impotence and declining influence of the US, in much the same way that failure over Ukraine, like earlier failure over Georgia, showed its tendency for overreach.
But China might figure that the demonstration of the limits of American power given by Russia - assuming that occurs - might be enough by itself to make Taiwan more amenable to recognising China's ultimate sovereignty. That might be regardless of the American position, for Taiwan is, above all, pragmatic.
None of Ukraine's Western neighbours - and not the US itself - is willing to put a single non-Ukrainian life on the line in support of a genuine wish that the country remain independent. The West may be cheering on the plucky Ukrainians. It may sincerely hope that that they do some significant damage to the Russian juggernaut.
But the odds are on a fairly quick victory to the Russians, particularly if it involves tanks and set-piece battles. America, and the West, can hope that this does not conquer the Ukrainian spirit, or passive resistance to Putin's imperialism. Indeed, Americans would hope that Russia gets badly bogged down in its occupation of a conquered land, virtually unable to claim it has merged back into Mother Russia.
No one knows better than America how easy it is for an obviously weaker country - Vietnam, for example, or Afghanistan or Iraq - to wipe the floor with a nuclear superpower if they have the will, the morale, the patience and the capacity to adapt tactics to nullify physical disadvantage. As it happens, partisan soldiers fighting in Ukraine made a significant difference in the defeat of Germany in WWII.
America learnt from the Soviet Union the art of losing a war in Afghanistan, despite overwhelming resources. It was in Afghanistan that a mujahideen is said to have remarked to one of the invaders: "you have watches, we have time". Putin will be under pressure to get his soldiers home. The pressure will be the greater if the Russian "victory" breaks down into a military occupation of enormous tracts of land, with a surly and angry population given to sabotage, ambush and acts of resistance, with active constituencies, and sources of supply abroad. The nearby Baltic republics might serve as a reminder of how long a population can hold a grudge or sustain a legend of itself.
The invasion of Ukraine has met with heavy criticism from the first and second worlds. That will not disappear, even if Russia finds ways of evading the sanctions. Two major nuclear nations, China and India have failed to condemn Russia, and even if India can be cajoled to join - perhaps on the basis of its being a "Quad" country in a pseudo-alliance against China - its practical support for boycotts of Russia is guaranteed to be half-hearted.
North American, European, Australian and international institutions have launched sanctions, significantly strengthened this week, against Russia. The effect should make it harder for Russians to move about, and more difficult for its leaders to pay the nation's bills.
Western countries have pledged aid to Ukraine and to the million or more refugees fleeing across its borders, and many countries, including Australia, have promised generous military assistance, if falling short of the commitment of soldiers. Australia will not be shipping our own guns or butter to Ukraine, but our agents will be moving around European NATO countries with a chequebook in hand seeking to contribute to the buying of arms for Ukraine that can be delivered quickly.
There's already a fierce propaganda war running alongside air-strikes, engagements and manoeuvres. It is not only a war being fought on TV, but also on Twitter, on Facebook and on other forms of social media. Russia has long been a specialist in propaganda and disinformation, and was involved in deception operations and cyber warfare against the Ukrainian government and institutions long before any of its troops crossed the border. Its techniques may work on some intended audiences (including sections of the American Republican Party), but do not seem to have cut much ice in Europe or in Ukraine itself.
Ukraine has shown itself to be quite a dab hand at use of social media and information wars and seems to have succeeded in portraying itself as a plucky little nation with a likeable president and population (down to the last tractor-driving grandmother) resisting a terrible bully. Its efforts - worth a few battalions - are the better for not yet suggesting that Russia, or Putin, eats babies, has a people-shredding machine, or, now that we have heard of them from the Australian cookers, parabolic sound-ray machines spreading skin cancer, diarrhoea and mind-control.
The Ukrainians have also exclaimed with suitable indignation about Russia's alleged use of vacuum bombs and cluster bombs, both hideous, and hideously lethal new weapons of war which are certainly not suitable for civilian populations, if anyone at all. The US, in transmitting if not adopting this umbrage is not exactly volunteering that it pioneered the use of such weapons, and not only in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that, of course, was in other countries, with horses of a different colour.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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