The Voices of War

90. Dr. David Kilcullen - Decoding Geopolitics And The Emerging Multipolar World

VOW 90 | Geopolitics

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My guest today is Dr David Kilcullen, who is a renowned military strategist, scholar, and former soldier and diplomat who has served both the Australian and United States governments for three decades now. He is an expert in the fields of guerrilla warfare, terrorism, urbanisation, and the future of conflict.

David has authored several influential books, including ‘The Accidental Guerrilla’, ‘Counterinsurgency’, ‘Out of the Mountains’, ‘The Dragons and Snakes: How the Rest Leant to Fight the West’ and ‘The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan’. He has been named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers and has won numerous awards for his writing. His work is widely used by policymakers, the military, intelligence services, and development agencies around the world.

Some of the topics we discussed are:

  • David’s background, military life, and journey into academia
  • Analysis of the fall of Kabul and the current situation in Afghanistan
  • Reflection on the power and influence of elites in the US and how their pursuit of selfish interests affects geopolitics
  • Competing partisan narratives in the US and their impact on global politics
  • Lack of accountability for the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq and its impact
  • Working towards preventing a potential war between the US and China as a national priority for Australia
  • Discussion on the likelihood and impact of a hot war between the US and China
  • Analysis of what the US-China contest is actually about
  • A discussion on the winners and losers in the 20th century
  • Reflection on Iraq as a pivotal moment for US global dominance
  • Loss of Western moral legitimacy and its impact
  • Australia’s position in a potential US-China conflict Reflection on the recently announced Australian Defence Strategic Review
  • How Taiwan perceives China and how this shapes its strategic narrative
  • Reflection on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, its origins, and potential outcomes
  • China’s attempt to mediate between Ukraine and Russia, as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia
  • How social media undermines conflict discourse and stifles dialogue due to parallel realities
  • The importance of national sovereignty, industry, resilience, and sustainability
  • Discussion on the fact that increased sovereignty would impact the current standard of living and national wealth
  • Impact of the collapse of confidence in experts, institutions, and the political elite in the West
  • Reflection on the ongoing domestic tensions in the US and the risks associated with the 2024 presidential election
  • Dave’s two key risks for the immediate future—ongoing erosion of civil liberties in the West and a weaponised pandemic

Listen to the podcast here

Dr. David Kilcullen – Decoding Geopolitics And The Emerging Multipolar World

My guest is Dr. David Kilcullen, who, as most in the audience will know, is a renowned military strategist, scholar, former soldier, and diplomat who has served both the Australian and United States governments for decades. He’s an expert in the fields of guerrilla warfare, terrorism, urbanisation, and the future of conflict.

Among his many achievements, David played an instrumental role in the development of the surge strategy in Iraq in 2007. He served as the senior counterinsurgency advisor to US General David Petraeus and served as a special advisor for counterinsurgency to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

David has authored several influential books, including The Accidental Guerrilla, Counterinsurgency, Out of the Mountains, The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, and The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan. He has been named one of foreign policy’s top 100 global thinkers and has won numerous awards for his writing. His work is widely used by policymakers, military, intelligence services, and development agencies around the world. Dave, thank you very much for joining me on the show.

It’s an honour to be here. I’m glad to join you.

Before we dive into some juicy topics on war, it might be good to get to know a little more about you and your background. What made you join the Army in the first place and how did you end up transitioning to academia?

I joined the Army right out of high school in 1985. I was in the last class at Duntroon before the tri-service, ADFA Australian Defence Force Academy was stood up. In the middle of the 1980s, weirdly enough, Australia had been at peace for quite some time, at least twelve years since the end of the Vietnam War.

A lot of my instructors at Duntroon had served in Vietnam, Malaya and/or Borneo. I had some of the most talented counter-revolutionary warfare jungle fighters that have ever lived as my instructors at Duntroon. That shaped my life path, the inspiration of those guys and the kinds of conflict that, in my youth, the Australian Army was recognised as a global leader in and took for granted.

Interestingly, my first deployment was in 1997. From there onwards, it was just one thing after another, back-to-back. Looking back on that, it turns out that the period between about 1973 and 1986 was the anomaly. My regiment, the Royal Australian Regiment, was continuously at war from when it was founded in 1948 through to 1973. It has been continuously at war since 9/11. In some ways, I was lucky to come into the Army during a period where we still had time to reflect and think about things and not be rolling with the punches in a conflict environment.

Have you always wanted to be a soldier? Had that been a childhood dream?

I wouldn’t say it was a childhood dream, but for as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with conflict, war, and thinking about serving Australia from a nationalistic standpoint. That all came together as I was ending my time at high school and decided that was my pathway. More vocational than anything else, it’s been my career and my job. It’s been a vocation for me.

Getting into academia, I would even say I’m in academia. I’m a professor at ADFA, but I teach special operations. I teach contemporary strategy. I teach for an American university at Arizona State. I teach future military innovation. I’m still in the game and still working closely with people that you and I know that we are dealing with these challenges on a day-to-day basis.

That strikes me as an anomaly, which is perhaps this soldier philosopher or soldier academic angle is that you are still voluntarily in touch with the everyday. As you mentioned, some of the people we know. They are dealing with problems that are very much real now and how to change tomorrow, which is perhaps different from many other professors, I would say. Certainly, the ones that I have come across in my time tend to focus on the historical concept.

One of the weirdest things that happened during the fall of Kabul in 2021 was that I was working the evacuation hard with a bunch of Afghan colleagues and a network of people on the ground, including some of my Master’s students from the Defence Academy, who are also deployed to deal with that. It was quite an interesting dynamic to be working with your students on an operational task.

What I like to say is as you go through your career, you don’t move up the chain from tactical to strategic because reality is tactical. You have to stay grounded in tactical reality. Otherwise, the advice you are giving and your understanding of the environment are unrealistic. It’s important to stay grounded. I do that by spending as much time as I can with actual combat troops in the field, but also my students, in particular, keep me pretty grounded in what’s going on the ground.

As you go through your military career, you don’t move up the chain from tactical to strategic. You have to stay grounded in tactical reality. Otherwise, your understanding of the environment is unrealistic. Share on X

Interestingly, you mentioned that particular instance about Afghanistan’s withdrawal because that was an interesting part. I was involved on the edges as well of some of those private and informal withdrawals of people or getting people out of the country in whichever way possible. It seemed at times that the informal network was vastly more connected, empowered, and free to go and do things than the formal chains. I wonder if you have seen that and what your thoughts are on that.

We were very fast on the ground with the informal networks of people who had worked a lot in Afghanistan. Those of us who still had networks on the ground were able to mobilise those networks quickly to help each other. It was almost an insurgent-style structure where people came in to do a job, partnered up with each other and stayed partnered based on capability.

I would caveat that by saying none of that would have worked if we didn’t have capable government people inside the wire at Kabul Airport. I was in direct touch with the Australian force through a couple of different channels. The Australians are very active and very adaptive in Kabul, and I would contrast them favourably and frankly with the Americans and others.

Our guys were very proactive in getting the job done. I found that quite reassuring because even though it was a horrific set of circumstances, I wasn’t embarrassed for our guys. I thought that ADF did particularly well in an extremely difficult set of circumstances. That was a great example of how you need to be able to adapt at the speed of the war. If you have a loose fabric network of cells and nodes that work together, you are likely to be much more adaptive than if you are the chunky, big, and border-battle-type structures. That’s true of combat as well as things like the evacuation.

Speaking about Afghanistan and I didn’t want to get to it right away, but we may as well since we are here. It’s been a good few years since the fall of Kabul, the incredibly rapid fall of the government and the takeover by the Taliban. How do you assess the situation in Afghanistan and how much should we worry about Afghanistan?

The most important thing to understand about the situation in Afghanistan is that the Taliban are a lot weaker than they appear. There are a lot of factions and regional groupings within the Taliban. Many of them are very unhappy at the way that our particular clique sponsored by the Pakistanis around the so-called Haqqani Network have taken control of a lot of the administrative elements of running the Emirate now in Afghanistan.

VOW 90 | Geopolitics
Geopolitics: The Taliban are a lot weaker than they appear. There are a lot of factions and regional groups that make many people within it unhappy.

There have already been a number of pretty major uprisings and rebellions within the Taliban against the group that’s controlling Kabul. On the one hand, they are quite weak in terms of their unity and their ability to govern. The second weakness is they don’t have a lot of people, frankly. They only have maybe 110,000 to 150,000 troops that can do everything from policing to securing 34 major cities and the countryside. Protecting the borders. They don’t have resources.

That’s less than we had at some point.

At the peak, for sure. Significantly less than the Afghans had. Their control is pretty brutal and what we are going to see is that as people start pushing back against them, which is already happening, they are going to be increasingly brutal as a way of shutting people down. The notion that the Taliban are moderate and are going to moderate further is a bit of a fantasy.

We already know they are working pretty closely with Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden’s successor as head of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was killed last 2022 in Kabul while sunning himself on the rooftop deck of the chief of staff to the Taliban foreign minister who’s living in a Taliban government house in Downtown Kabul. The notion that they are somehow going to turn against Al-Qaeda is also weak.

The final point I’d make is the Afghan people now are not the Afghan people of 2001. An illustrative example of that is when the Taliban finally said, “We told you when we first took over Kabul that women would be able to go back to school. We were waiting for the situation to stabilise, but now we are saying there’s no women’s education. Women are not going back to school. They need to stay at home and be behind the veil.”

When that happened, hundreds of thousands of male students and professors went on strike in the major educational institutions in Afghanistan. The men of Afghanistan are standing up for the women and the whole new generation of people who came up under democracy. It was a flawed democracy, but it was a genuine democracy.

Those people aren’t willingly going to go back to the seventh century. The story is not over yet. The risk of terrorism should worry us a bit. The risk of an attack outside of Afghanistan is real. It’s not at the top of my list. The top of my list is that there could be another massive civil war inside Afghanistan. That could lead to mass population movement and humanitarian disaster on a scale that we haven’t seen.

It worries me that the US government, in particular, seems to have checked out and be essentially uninterested in what’s going on in Afghanistan. It reminds me of how they were with Iraq after they withdrew in 2010 and until 2014, when ISIS came roaring out of the desert and turned the country upside down. The Iraqis couldn’t get them on the phone to ask for assistance. They pretended that Iraq didn’t exist anymore once they withdrew. I worry that they are going through the same dynamic now.

Why does the US do that? Given the investment in blood, treasure, and supposedly strategic interest, which is what we are led to believe, or at least that’s the narrative, how is it in the US interest to turn away from this?

It’s not, but a lot of the US strategic decisions are made not in the interest of the United States but in the interest of elites that control political decision-making in the United States. The reason that there’s been no accountability, that there’s no engagement with the reality of the situation in Afghanistan, for example, is that would be embarrassing for the Biden administration.

Everything now is about domestic US politics winning the news cycle and partisan rivalry between Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately, that’s thoroughly replaced the old bipartisan consensus around the idea that politics stops at the water’s edge and you then have to support national interest. That’s not a thing anymore in the States, even to the point where people are in differing reality.

From a Republican standpoint, China is a major threat, and Russia and Ukraine are a distraction from the democratic standpoint. There are Russians under every bid. The Russians have been interfering with our democracy. Russia is the threat. China, as President Biden said, they are not bad folks. It was his way of putting it.

Everything is now seen through a partisan lens. The degree of corruption and the degree of self-serving behaviour by American elites of all kinds, the media politicians, people in business, and so on are, for an Australian audience, hard to believe. We often get negative about our politicians, but there are streets ahead of where a lot of other places are.

The other point that I will make is that not a single person has been held accountable for the defeat in Afghanistan. There was a lot of laughter in the US in March 2022 when the Russians fired 150 senior officials for the failure of their initial invasion of Ukraine. I was like, “That’s 150 more people than we fired for losing a twenty-year war in Afghanistan, which is a major military defeat.” Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Not one person. Not Secretary Austin, Chief of Staff Milley, or General McKenzie, the commander of CENTCOM, Secretary Blinken, or Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor. None of those people offered to resign. None of them was asked to resign. Nobody was fired. One guy was fired. There was a Marine lieutenant colonel who complained that nobody was being held accountable. He was thrown in jail. Nobody else was held accountable at all. You can only do that so many times before people start to stop taking you seriously.

Is that what you think is happening in the US?

China and Russia do not take the US seriously anymore as a deterrent threat. The collapse in Afghanistan and the fact that it was pretty quickly swept under the rug was one of the key factors that the Russians took into account when they decided that they would probably get away with the invasion of Ukraine six months after the fall of Kabul. The very same things that the US government was saying about undying permanent support for the Ukrainians were the same stuff we were saying about the Afghans until about a week before the collapse of Kabul. It was like we cried wolf and no one believed us.

VOW 90 | Geopolitics
Geopolitics: China and Russia do not take the United States seriously as a deterrent threat anymore. One of the key factors to it is the collapse in Afghanistan and how it was quickly swept under the rug.

It’s what we are saying to Taiwan as well.

Yes, and what the Americans are saying to Australia.

You are speaking some hard truths here and I’m pleased to hear it because it’s not often that people in public speak. It’s certainly not in your profile to speak in this tone. How did the US get to this point? What does this say about the wars that we have fought? If we are willing to shift focus, shift priorities, and change the narratives from an elite perspective, I understand what you mean by the elites.

Whether it’s the media, politics, military-industrial complex, or call it whatever you want, special interest groups, if they are capable of shifting policy of the most powerful nation of the world, as some call an informal empire that it still is, if they are able to shift to go wars, whether it be Iraq, and I want to talk to about Iraq 2003 in particular, Iraq and Afghanistan or any of the wars that we have been to, what does that say about those wars? What does this say about us about future wars? Are we able to go into wars because of the interests of the elites as opposed to the actual interests of the nation?

Some would argue that that’s always been the case. A guy called Smedley Butler, who was a very highly decorated general, wrote a book in the 1930s called War is a Racket, reflecting on his experience in small wars in Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s.

VOW 90 | Geopolitics
War is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America’s Most Decorated Soldier

As a Bosnian, I chuckle at that. I see a lot of truth in it.

You can argue. There’s a whole notion of conflict entrepreneurs, which we are very familiar with in a developing world context. There are also conflict entrepreneurs in developed countries. As a professional soldier, the thing that bothers me is not so much what is an enduring feature of war that it’s elites that bring us to war, and it’s the ordinary people that fight them.

What bothers me is we haven’t won a war since World War II. The last war that the US military convincingly won was in 1945. Korea was in a stalemate. Vietnam was a defeat. There were a number of minor victories in different places during the ’60s and ’70s, Grenada and Panama in the ’80s, and a lot of other defeats.

The Gulf War was transformative in its use of technology, but it didn’t result in a resolution of the political issues over which the war was fought. It doesn’t meet the definition of strategic victory. It was a battlefield success. Iraq was a defeat. Afghanistan was a defeat. Syria is ongoing but likely to be a defeat. All the war games we do, looking at the possibility of a future conflict over Taiwan, the US tends to lose. We need to ask ourselves whether this highly wanted military that we keep getting told is the best in the history of the world. If it can’t win wars, what is it for?

For Australians, that’s an important point because it’s a bipartisan article of faith across both major parties that the fundamental basis for our security is the US alliance. I’m in no way opposed to the US Alliance. It’s super important, but we need to be clear-eyed about what the alliance can do and what it can’t do and it can’t save us. It can’t protect us if we can’t protect ourselves.

The notion that the Americans will somehow come and rescue us or somehow deter a major conflict is not an accurate way to think about the situation. We need to be much more self-reliant and much more focused on our national interests. If we do that, that will make us a better ally. That’s not an anti-alliance statement. It’s a statement that we need to be capable, self-reliant, and focused on our national interest, and when that aligns with our allies, we will be a strong partner.

That’s a hugely interesting point for Australia. Many are even arguing whether Australia made its bid too soon, perhaps with the US, given our strategic reliance importance and connection to China as our number one trading partner. We have already paid some price, maybe not necessarily for alliance but for the outspoken nature of Australian politicians certainly during COVID. That price tends to be much higher as we move forward.

What do you think? Is it inevitable for Australia to side 100% with the US? Is there scope and opportunity for Australia to play some mediating role to play a balanced role, a regional role, and a regional leader? Is this merely as many are saying that if the US says we go, we go, which we have so far?

This is a very big macro point, but I think that the single organising principle of all Australian statecraft, diplomacy, economic, informational, and military for the next generation should prevent a war between the United States and China. That has to be our top goal. The military component of that is going to be around deterrence, self-reliance, coalition capability and all that.

It needs to be under the umbrella of recognising that our national goal needs to be preventing what would be a catastrophic war. It may very well go nuclear, but even if it doesn’t, it would utterly destroy the planet as we know it, and it would completely tank Australia from a national interest standpoint. China is our biggest trading partner. China is also the US’ biggest trading partner. It would destroy the economic fabric of the Asia Pacific. More importantly, a war between China and the United States wouldn’t be contained to the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea.

Also, to just those two nations.

It would rapidly spread. I don’t want to freak people out, but we are so reliant on the import of things like petrol from overseas. If the Straits of Hormuz were to be cut off by a naval blockade as part of that conflict, the country would run out of oil in about three weeks. We don’t have the national resilience, the national stockpiles, or the redundant systems that we would need to survive that conflict.

The first minute of a war between China and the United States, most of the satellite systems that we are so reliant on go out. A lot of the offshore fiber optic cables that run our economy go and our ability to import or export would go away. Australia has a different circumstance than the US does. The US runs a major trade deficit with China. Australia runs an extremely major trade surplus with China. We export about $170 billion worth of goods to China every year. Fully $100 billion of that is iron ore coming out of Western Australia. During that period of economic bullying by China against Australia, that was the one thing they never touched. That and metallurgical coal.

VOW 90 | Geopolitics
Geopolitics: The United States runs a major trade deficit with China, while Australia runs an extremely major trade surplus with China.

It was a display. It was posturing more than having an impact.

Backing up your point, I do not think that we should be kowtowing to China. I don’t think we should be compromising on our values. I want to draw a distinction between China, the great global civilisation of which a lot of Australians draw their heritage. There’s been a vibrant Chinese community in Australia for 150 years between that and the Chinese Communist Party.

The Chinese Communist Party here is the problem. They don’t share our values. They lie. They unleashed the pandemic on the world and they pretended that nothing had happened. I fully supported the way that our politicians stood up and showed some backbone during that and the way that we stood up under the bullying that we got as a result of China.

One of the things I found interesting and quite gratifying during the early stage of the pandemic is that Australia didn’t sit back and wait for the US to take the lead. Australia stepped up and took the lead, and a lot of other middle powers in the Asia Pacific came to us and worked with us. It was almost like leadership from the middle.

Rather than lying back and waiting for the British Empire, American Empire, or whatever it is to save us, it’s important that we act in a dynamic and take a leadership role within the region without PLA nations of like-minded countries. There’s a military element to that, but I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to go to war with China. That doesn’t mean we won’t. We may very well end up doing that. We need to be ready for that.

That’s an important point. It’s in someone’s interest. We are talking about the elites again. In whose interest could it be to have such a war that would devastate the planet? I often fear that many political leaders have never been on the receiving end of any type of munitions to have a true understanding of the absence of time that occurs or thought or the fear that one might experience under those circumstances, or if someone’s loved one has been killed. I wonder if that’s part of the reason. We are pursuing some interest for lack of an understanding of what we are choosing.

I do think we have a political class in most Western countries. That’s disconnected from military service. It doesn’t understand what’s entailed, but it’s a bit different. What’s going on here is that neither we nor the Chinese want to fight each other, but they would rather fight them back down over critical issues. Taking the Chinese standpoint, Xi Jinping, it’s his life’s legacy to recover Taiwan. He’s now fully in control of the factional system within the Chinese Communist Party after the last party Congress.

Neither the United States nor China want to fight each other, but they would rather fight than back down over critical issues. Share on X

He made that very obvious publicly by leading out the competitor.

He’s made it clear to the PLA that they need to be ready to move against Taiwan by 2027. Why is that? It’s because China is going to be as strong as it’s ever going to be relative to the United States. After that, for reasons of demography, aging population, and economic structural issues, China is going to start to decline relative to the US. They are going to be as close as they are ever going to be to be able to close that gap and recover Taiwan. It’s also the personal legacy of a guy who’s about to become in his 70s and wants to get it done.

There’s an urgency to the Chinese that they would rather not fight for Taiwan. They don’t want to inherit a smoking hulk, which they then need to spend a generation rebuilding. If it’s a choice to fight for it now or lose it forever, they may choose to fight. Likewise, the US knows that it’s a declining power, knows that Russia and China are now very much aligned with each other and also with Iran.

The US knows that its credibility is declining partly through its actions of the last several years and is desperate to reassert dominance. We will not tolerate China reaching the peer status that the Chinese believe is their right. I don’t think the Americans want to fight over Taiwan, but would they fight over Taiwan rather than permanently lose their primacy in the global system? They probably would.

I worry that we are sleepwalking into a conflict that people don’t realise quite how high the stakes are and how it won’t necessarily be rational when we get into it. I also think these things take on a life of their own. I don’t want to give you a PTSD flashback. Think about Milošević coming out in Kosovo Polje at the end of the ’80s and starting up this Serbian nationalist movement within Yugoslavia largely for his interests inside the elite of Yugoslavia, as it was then constituted.

I don’t think he had a particular desire to break up the country. He didn’t want to see a long civil war. It was no one’s intention for that. When Slovenia pushed back and managed to successfully separate, it started this cascade. Once enough people get killed, it takes a lot on a life of its own. It’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle.

That’s an interesting and only important point once enough people are killed. I don’t think that’s something people talk about because then it becomes a much bigger piece. The more people have suffered, the more anger builds, resentment builds, and it finds a life on its own. I did find it interesting that it’s about the primacy. Maybe I will ask you this as a question. What are the US and China competing over? Let’s double-click on that and I want to build on that a little bit.

Let’s go grand strategy of the 21st century. The US is looking to preserve its primacy over the global system, sometimes described as the rules-based international order. Sometimes described as a 1945 consensus or the Washington consensus. The set of institutions that were put in place after the last war that we won. IMF, World Bank, Bretton Woods institutions, and all that stuff.

Informal things like the petrodollar. The fact that international transactions are conducted in the US dollar as the reserve currency and all that. The US wants to preserve that primacy. To argue the American point of view for a second, and there’s a lot of truth in this, that American dominance of the global system has coincided with one of the greatest outpourings of human freedom, prosperity, globalisation, and global growth in recorded history. It’s been good for not only America but also America’s allies, but even people who are opposed to America have benefited from the peace and stability of American primacy.

That sometimes shades over into an argument that is harder to sustain, which is the argument that US dominance is good for everybody. Therefore, everybody has an interest in the US being the dominant player. If anybody goes against the US, they are not just going against the US. They are going against everybody, which makes them a so-called rogue nation.

Therefore, the US is justified in doing whatever it needs to do, whether that fits normal global rules or not, in order to preserve the order from which everybody benefits. The American exceptionalism and unilateralism and things that have often given America a bad name since the beginning of the century. In many cases, come out of this belief that American dominance is good for everybody and, therefore, America should be free to do what it needs to do in order to preserve that primacy.

The Americans see that primacy being challenged. They see it being challenged internally, but also with the rise of a populist style of politics in the US and the disenchantment of the US people with years of inconclusive war, financial crises, inflation and all that. They see it being challenged, and there’s an external adversary that has come to embody that challenge.

Americans see promise in being challenged internally, which is evident in the rise of the populist style of politics in the United States. Share on X

It’s China and Russia, depending on which side of American politics you are on. That’s the drive there. On the Chinese side, it’s a drive to national greatness. 1949, ending the period as the Chinese see it of the century of humiliation, which in the ground sweep of history of several thousand years. Let’s say the opium wars in the middle of the 18th and 19th centuries through to 1949 of a weak China was a bit of an anomaly,

In most of Asian history, there’s been a strong central nation in the form of the Middle Kingdom. That wasn’t the case for hundreds of years or so. China wants to regain what it regards with some justification as its natural position as one of the leading global powers. I don’t think it necessarily wants to replace the US as the dominant superpower across the whole globe. I don’t think it would say no, but it’s not a, it’s not a primary objective. The primary objective is to recover all the lost territory.

Taiwan in itself isn’t so important. The reunification of Taiwan with the mainland would mean an end to the Chinese Civil War, which started in the 1920s. It would finally reconcile all Chinese under a hand, ethnic, communist, or overlordship. That’s the ultimate goal. The Chinese have gone from having a very long-term patient strategic approach to being much more aggressive and assertive now and much more short-term in their thinking. That has to do with Xi Jinping being a much more autocratic leader, who’s much more of a single man ruling the country than any of his predecessors since Mao. The other issue is that he’s a guy who’s about to be 70, and he doesn’t have a lot of time. We are starting to get this rush to war on both sides.

Those dynamics are scary. Firstly, on the US side, beautifully summarised. That tells a story. The one thing I want to pick up on is this idea or at least the narrative that US hegemony, US supremacy, was good for everybody. At least that’s what’s, in many ways, believed on the Western side, and the West, us included, have benefited. We have enjoyed economic prosperity like the world hasn’t seen before. Life expectancy is shot through a roof.

There will be many nations around the world who would argue that they did not benefit. They were exploited for the benefit of the, let’s so call it the West, or the US-led global world order. They are now seeing this as their opportunity either for payback or to regain their status, their loss. Here I’m talking about India, China, and Russia. The bricks brought more broadly. There are many grievances towards the US that have accumulated over the last century, and they are perhaps now coming home to roost. What do you make of that view and us as the West understanding perhaps that view and empathising with that view sufficiently?

This may come off as politically incorrect, but I think that we need to get out of our historical crouch about colonialism which is not to defend colonialism. It was bad for lots of people, including the colonisers. It’s like kryptonite to Western self-confidence and self-belief now. It gets weaponised by adversaries to try to minimise and distract from some of the things that they are doing.

An American nationalist would say that the rise of America to the position of global dominance coincided with the end of colonialism. It was the period of decolonisation. You might criticise the US for having an informal empire, but after the Second World War, all the European empires went away within about 30 years.

Probably the last to survive was the Portuguese until the middle of the 1970s. All of that exploitative colonialism went away and part of the reason for that was the US being in that dominant position. I have a lot of sympathy for Indian or some African leaders saying, “We want our fair share. We want to have our place in the sun. We want to be treated as equals and not treated as second-class citizens,” particularly in the case of India, which is undeniably a global power and needs to be given respect and credibility.

For example, lack in the form of a seat on the UN Security Council to recognise that. When it shades over into a revenge narrative of we need to now punish all the people that share a skin colour with those that colonised our countries, it becomes very destructive. It becomes something that we shouldn’t be willing to tolerate.

When people generally accept the idea of punishing those who share a skin color as their colonizers, it becomes extremely destructive and must never be tolerated. Share on X

You have got people who were never colonial subjects attacking people who never were colonisers over something that happened over 100 years ago. I’m not denying people’s right to be upset about that, but I don’t think it’s a recipe for stability and prosperity going forward. It’s a recipe for pretty serious internal and international conflict.

What we are seeing is a move from a unipolar system of US dominance after the end of the Cold War to more of a multipolar system. If you listen to what the Chinese, Russians, and others say, they are not seeking to replace the US as the unipolar dominant power. They are seeking to carve out spheres of influence that are outside of the Western cultural and economic hegemony, which they find offensive.

I have got no beef with that. That’s quite a legitimate national goal to pursue. In my book, The Dragons and the Snakes, I say, “Russia has a legitimate right, for example, to pursue what it regards as its security interests in its near abroad.” We have rights, too. When Russian objectives clash with ours, there will be conflict, and sometimes that conflict will rise to the level of war or proxy war as we find now In Ukraine.

That doesn’t mean that it’s illegitimate for the Russians to want to have a secure border. Everyone has their own legitimate security goals. It’s how you pursue those and whether you seek to enforce your point of view on others without due consideration. I’m very conscious in saying that the US and Western countries that fought in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t have much credibility now to be saying, “You shouldn’t be invading other people’s countries and overthrowing regimes.” Noted, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

That also is part of the issue in the way the world views the West. I certainly didn’t mean to go down colonialism per se or the guilt of the White men or anything like that, or culture wars as we are now experiencing in the US, but even more broadly, that divide domestic cohesion in the US. If we are incapable of seeing the other perspective or the other view, and we are strengthening our own and galvanising around what we might call Western values, which, as you pointed out. We have trampled on those values. The values that we so hold dear, the elites that have led us to certain wars and conflicts have trampled on those values.

This is maybe a good time to talk about Iraq 2003. It’s come up so often in the show as the pivotal moment for where the demise of the West might have started or the true demise of the US has started because it had gone into a war that has since been described as an illegal war. Even in the US, the discussion is public. It’s been an illegal war fought on false premises on dubious intelligence at best. Even our intelligence agencies in Australia were casting shadows of doubts on that intelligence. We, as Australia, went to that war even though it didn’t meet the conditions of our much-loved adjustable tradition.

Some of those things would be a last resort and certainly weren’t. Right intention but questionable. The likelihood of success is a difficult one because everybody thinks they are going to win, but the most important one, is perhaps a just cause to go to war. What do you think of that? How does that land with you about Iraq being that pivotal moment of the West’s demise, but also how much it’s contributed to the loss of Western status, respect, credibility, and influence in the world?

I’m not a just war theory expert, but I would say if we break it into jus ad bellum and jus in bello, the justice of going to war in the first place versus the justice with which the war was conducted. There are issues on both accounts with Iraq. Afghanistan was much more justifiable as a just cause. There were some problems with the execution of the war, to say the least, but going to war in the first place was legitimate. It was a just cause. It was internationally approved and so on.

As a technical matter, you could probably make a case that the war in Iraq was not illegal. It was legal under US law. It followed the UN Security Council resolution. There were a bunch of other formalistic things that went through, but I do think it’s true as a practical matter that the high watermark of our credibility, both politically and militarily, was, let’s say, the one minute before that war began.

I wrote about this in my book, The Dragons and the Snakes. The very first move of the war was an attempt to assassinate Saddam and his sons at a place called Dora Farms outside of Baghdad at 5:00 AM on the first morning of the war, 19th of March, 2003. It was a classic example of what’s wrong with how we do precision combat. The strike was a technical masterpiece. It was carried out on only eight hours’ notice.

It coordinated assets across multiple services across a very wide area. Precision strike. It hit exactly the house that it was aimed to hit. A few bombs went over the walls and killed about twenty civilians. Arguably, the location where Saddam and his sons were believed to be was precisely targeted with a relatively minimal amount of collateral damage, but the intelligence turned out to be completely wrong.

Saddam wasn’t anywhere near there. He hadn’t been there since the 1990s. His sons were in a completely different place and it wasn’t until weeks later, when US troops finally got to that location, that they realised that about twenty civilians were killed in that strike. It’s been downhill from there. Downhill in a military sense in that, if the 1991 Gulf War showed everybody how not to fight us, we will kick your ass if you tried to fight us as Saddam did.

2003 showed how to fight us. Blend in with the population, adopt a guerilla strategy, low profile, hide in the cities, and all those sorts of things that now have become pretty standard in modern warfare are all adaptive responses to the way the US does high-tech precision engagement. The fact that we struggled so badly in Iraq showed everybody that we are not invincible.

There are many ways to fight the US and win if you can hang on. The other critical thing was the loss of moral legitimacy. When the Russians first moved into Crimea in 2014, John Kerry, who was the Secretary of State, gave a speech where he said, “It’s completely unacceptable in the modern world for one country to invade another country and try to overthrow its government and take chunks of territory.”

VOW 90 | Geopolitics
Geopolitics: The United States was laughed at for not paying attention to how they were doing the same invasion of other countries in Syria. They don’t have any credibility on moral grounds anymore.

People openly laughed at him for saying that. Have you not been paying attention to what your own country’s done in like Libya or Syria? We don’t have any credibility on moral grounds anymore, and for Australia, the situation was a little bit different. I was peripherally involved in the planning for Iraq. I was in Army headquarters. I wasn’t on the planning group, but I was involved in some of the irregular warfare pieces that we thought were going to happen.

At the end of the planning process, a very senior elected official came down to meet with the planners. One of the questions that came up was, “Why are we doing this?” This elected leader said, “You are asking the wrong question. The question is not, ‘Should Australia invade Iraq?’ The question is, ‘The Americans are invading Iraq. Should we support them or not?’”

That was very much the Australian framing. It was framed as an alliance support effort, much as Afghanistan had been, and a desire to be alongside our ally and to demonstrate that we were credible and reliable. In Australia’s interest, the idea of demonstrating a tight relationship with a global superpower is a way of achieving extended deterrence so that no one is going to mess with Australia. There’s nothing wrong with that as a grand strategic framing. The problem with it is the operational, so campaign level.

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