The threat of nuclear annihilation is closer than at any time since the end of the Cold War as two heads of state use nuclear weapons as props in what looks like a fight between two adolescent boys.
On one side is a narcissistic bully, born to inherit great power and with credible reports that his personal life includes indulging in acts of sadism, whose policies in government are driven by a combination of xenophobia, ego and whim and who is threatening nuclear Armageddon if he doesn't get his way.
On the other side is North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
In a situation where Russia's belligerent President Vladimir Putin is able to play the role of a level-headed voice of sanity, some Western countries are distancing themselves from US President Donald Trump, or at least urging caution. But not Australia.
“America stands by its allies, including Australia of course, and we stand by the United States. So be very, very clear on that. If there’s an attack on the US, the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked and Australia would come to the aid of the United States, as America would come to our aid if we were attacked,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told radio station 3AW on August 11.
On September 7 he told Channel 9's Today he was confident Trump was on the right path. But when Karl Stefanovic asked “Will we go to war?” he replied “The risk of war is greater than it’s been since the end of the Korean War”.
Since the 1940s, Australian governments of both parties have been keen to promote Australia as Washington's most loyal ally, regardless of the sanity of the incumbent US president. The policy is based on the premise that if Australia unquestioningly follows the US into any war, the US, the world's most powerful imperialist state, will look after Australian capitalists’ global interests.
This policy has led to Australian involvement in numerous wars, from Korea in the 1950s, and Vietnam in the ’60s and ’70s, to more recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. This policy has also allowed Australian mining companies to operate across the globe, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Romania and Chile, making huge profits at a horrific cost to the environment, workers and local communities.
The devastation wrought by the Korean War is the reason for the North Korean regime's xenophobic paranoia. While the media generally portrays Kim Jong-un as mad, and provides no further explanation for North Korea's nuclear program, the fact that Iran continues to suffer sanctions despite abandoning its nuclear weapons program and Iraq was invaded after getting rid of its weapons of mass destruction, points to some rationality in North Korea's approach.
It also points to grotesque hypocrisy on the part of the West: the largest nuclear powers declaring that it is unacceptable for other countries to have nuclear weapons. North Korea was not responsible for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it has not used the populations of any Pacific Island nations as guinea pigs in nuclear tests.
On July 8, when the UN General Assembly supported a resolution to ban nuclear weapons, Australia joined the nuclear powers in boycotting the session.
On July 21, Trump announced an escalation of the US presence in Afghanistan. Attempting to portray his policy as distinct from his predecessors', he said the US role in Afghanistan would now be “killing terrorists” not nation building. This does not, however, signify a change in US policy in Afghanistan that since 2001 has meant the destruction of the country and fuelled terrorism.
Following Trump's announcement, Australian ministers suggested they would respond favourably to any US call for more Australian troops in Afghanistan. In May, Australia raised its troop numbers in Afghanistan to 300. Meanwhile, leaks by whistleblowers to the ABC in July and an ongoing judicial inquiry have revealed that Australian special forces in Afghanistan have been responsible for human rights abuses, including murders of civilians, including children, torture and extrajudicial execution of prisoners, and mutilation of corpses. The inquiry has found a “culture of abuse and cover-ups”.
The Philippines is the latest destination for Australia to follow the US into war. On August 22, Nick Warner, director-general of Australia's international spy agency ASIS, caused some controversy with a photo-op with Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte where he made a hand gesture that is Duterte's trademark.
Duterte has a somewhat unsavoury reputation, not just for his obscenity-laden speech and rape jokes, but for a “war on drugs” in which he has unleashed police-linked death squads against poor communities. While some of the estimated 13,000 victims may have been drug users or sellers, most have just been random individuals, the common factor between them being poverty.
Victims have been shot or stabbed, typically having their faces wrapped in masking tape, many showing signs of torture. One recent victim, 14-year-old Reynaldo de Guzman, was found on September 5 with 30 stab wounds.
While these killings have caused some hand-wringing from Australian politicians, Duterte simply needed to invoke the spectre of ISIS to get military support from the US and Australia.
The narrative of the Duterte regime, echoed by US and Australian politicians and media, is that the Filipino armed forces are fighting ISIS-linked terrorists in the city of Marawi in Mindanao. In June, the US sent special forces and Australia dispatched two AP-3C Orion spy planes. Australian defence minister Marise Payne is currently visiting the Philippines to discuss broadening Australia's role.
The reality is that the conflict in Marawi was manufactured by Duterte. In May, after a failed attempt to arrest a kidnap gang leader ended in a shoot-out, Duterte declared martial law and began air strikes on the city. Since then, almost 1000 people have been killed and a quarter of a million displaced.
One aspect of this is an escalation of the 118-year-old attempts by the US colonial state in the Philippines and its neo-colonial successor to crush the national aspirations of the Bangsamoro peoples of Mindanao. But Filipino activists also see it, in the context of the extrajudicial killings and Duterte's rehabilitation of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, as a move towards an authoritarian martial law regime throughout the Philippines.
A September 4 statement by the Partido Lakas ng Masa opposed Australia's military aggression in Mindanao. The statement noted that “the destruction of nature and communities by Australian mining companies has been a contributor to conflict in Mindanao”.
The people of the Philippines need our solidarity. Ending Australian military support for Duterte is the first step. Likewise, Australian troops should be immediately withdrawn from Afghanistan and the Middle East.