Speech: The US-Australia Alliance On The Anniversary Of AUKUS





15 September 2022

Darkness closes in

Let us speak plainly. The Second Elizabethan Age is closing in darkness. Gone are the hard-won, rock-sure handholds of the last seventy years. The unipolar world we knew briefly has descended into struggling kingdoms. Russia has drawn the sword against the Ukrainian people. China brandishes a spear against Taiwan and those who dare to stand with her. And the Anglosphere remains divided against itself. 

History has swung back hard. And more data is not going to help us here. We are awash with it, drowning even. What we need is clarity. We need to go deep and lodge our anchor on the sea-floor of historical reality and timeless truth. Past experience tells us that geography, the character of nations, leadership, courage, and our relationships matter—the truth is they have always mattered. 


But, first, I’d like to thank the Hudson Institute for the honour of speaking here today. Thank you for your hospitality—especially to Peter Rough for bringing this event together. 

And to Congressman Mike Gallagher for that energetic, warm welcome. This is the first live event—in the flesh—that we’ve done together in about 3 or so years. In public life, true friends can be hard to find. Mike is one those people I count as a true friend. 

We first connected here in D.C., back in 2018. He’s come all the way to my hometown of Perth—which is no small feat for a US Congressman—and I’m always greatly impressed by his vitality, his intellect and his keenness to engage with the Indo-Pacific region and America’s place in it. No matter the challenges ahead, I do feel stronger knowing we have people like Mike standing in our corner. 

Why I can stand before you

Now in a world that is cynical towards people and their motives in public life, let me declare my family’s admiration for America and her people. Here are three reasons why. 

The first reason is that I would not be alive today if it weren’t for a United States Army medic from Virginia by the name of Sergeant O. Mayberry, who saved the life of my grandfather on March 31st, 1945. 

They were both aboard a Royal Australian Air Force Catalina conducting an air-sea rescue of two downed Australian aircrew in the Indonesian archipelago.

They landed, plucked the survivors from their raft, as three Japanese heavy machine guns opened up on them. My grandfather was on the 50-calibre machine gun returning fire, when he was hit in the abdomen. The medic—Mayberry—kept him alive for three hours on the flight back to Morotai Island, where another American, a field surgeon, operated and saved his life. 

The second reason is that I met my wife, Ruth, here in D.C. back in 2007 and we were married at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in 2008. We now have three kids, so dual US-Australian citizens outnumber me 4 to 1. Their future is also tied to America through the bonds of family.

The third reason that I admire America and her people is that every single combat mission that I commanded in Afghanistan in 2013 was supported by brave American pilots and crew flying Blackhawks and Apaches. Your aircrews gave us a ride in and out, and covered us with close air support. And they were always standing ready with a medevac bird, in case it all went bad 

I’m thankful for those three reasons, and I stand before you today because of them.

Now some might say that makes me one-eyed about our relationship. 


I’d prefer to say that I’m one-hearted. I understand how special the relationship is to both our countries. But I hasten to add that it’s not without faults. 

The old Hebrew proverb says the wounds of a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. I come as a friend, so I will speak of the wounds. My family knows these personally. 

On July 1st, 1942, my great Uncle along with 1,053 Australian prisoners of war were drowned when the submarine USS Sturgeon—with its final torpedo—sank the SS Montevideo Maru in the South China Sea.

The Montevideo was a Japanese auxiliary ship that was transporting Australian prisoners of war from Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, to the Chinese island of Hainan. A big loss of life, in the fog of war.   

And since then, we’ve shared together in mistakes made in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. I know. A heavy thing for me to say. And heavier to hear. These aren’t abstract geopolitical thoughts, these are national burdens—personal burdens. 

I gather that’s true of us all in some way. All of us have our own stories and how they interact with big historical events. They shape our approaches with the present reality—a reality that is growing more uncertain, fraught with danger.

A reality darkened by the strategic ambitions of China and Russia, and the fear of what these ambitions mean not just for our people, and our families, but for all people around the world.

The challenge we face

Admiral Phil Davidson sounded the ship’s klaxon last year when he warned that the Peoples’ Republic of China may seize Taiwan by force within the next 5 years. And worse, that the PRC aims to usurp US leadership of the rules-based international order—within the next three decades. 

They want to move from unipolarity, to multipolarity, and onward to a new unipolarity.

If that sounds alarmist, the volley of Chinese missiles fired over Taiwan last month should focus our minds.  

Authoritarian powers are on the move, energised by revisionist and expansionist ambitions. As they struck their ‘no-limits’ strategic partnership in February this year, Xi and Putin created a strange new monster. We see its carnage in the atrocities of Bucha, and its menacing missiles streaking across the Taiwan Strait. This monster nurses a hard grievance against America and the global order she protects. And our response to it is conflicted because of our economic dependence and our internal disunity.  

So, if we can speak of external threats plainly, let us admit the internal threats may be even more dangerous. Economic disorder fuelled by inflation, supply chain fragility and energy shortages. These tensions are tearing at the fabric of our democracies. Many among us are no longer confident of truth, tradition and our democratic values.

It was predicted in 1994, by Swarthmore College Professor James Kurth. He took issue with Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis by arguing that the real clash would happen within the West itself—that as the enlightenment project of modernity buckled under postmodernism, the West would break down into two tribes: the premodern and the postmodern. 

Neither tribe is overly enthusiastic about classical liberalism.

Consensus on fundamental questions of humanity, justice and politics began to fade fade. Back then, this was happening in our universities, but was more of an elite preoccupation. The toxins are in the mainstream now—seeping through the media, in entertainment, in our schools, and in our families. It has brought disruption. This has political consequences for the Western body politic. It makes it harder for our leaders and policymakers to deal with the strategic challenges before us. Put starkly: if we can’t agree on basic definitions of gender, how can we possibly agree on national strategy? If we can’t agree on Western values, how can we defend the West?

If we look up from the cultural chaos at home, we see China encroach on Taiwan and Russia on Eastern Europe. In this moment, we are looking to the US for leadership for the next move. I accept historian Williamson Murray’s view that only great powers can do grand strategy, the rest of us—middle or smaller powers—respond to those strategies. As a Singaporean official once said to me, in the market for influence and might, we are price-takers. 

And the question for the decade ahead is this: whose grand strategy will prevail? The United States or the People’s Republic of China? Who will shape the global order?

Will it be a global order shaped by a US-led network of democratic states—albeit imperfect—or a global order imposed by and tethered to a one-party authoritarian surveillance state? 

This outcome will affect millions around the world. It is existential for the Taiwanese people. But it’s not just our friends in Taiwan that are under the gun. As Congressman Gallagher has said, what happens there will not stay there.

The demise of US leadership?

So, for America: your friends are waiting for you to lead. And soon. Some voices even herald the death of US strategic primacy and global leadership.

You don’t have to search far for an obituary on the US-led global order. We hear this kind of strategic pessimism, not from China, but in Australia. 

Last month, Professor Hugh White published an essay titled—‘Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America.’ He argues China’s rise is inevitable and will soon eclipse the United States in economic and military power. 

According to White, it’s therefore time to compromise and share power. Australia, as a trusted friend, should counsel the United States to cede the sphere of East Asia to China—and with it our Taiwanese friends. He asks us to walk away from an island democracy like our own, and to push away its protector. 

He speaks of the ‘appalling choice’ between abandoning Taiwan, or waging a conventional war. A war he does not think America has the resolve to win. In his words, to be ‘brutally realistic’, we need to abandon Taiwan to Beijing; and with it any strategic ambiguity that remains. This is a chilling conclusion. And a provocative one.

As you can imagine, he’s drawn heavy fire for this view, from both sides of the political spectrum. Two of Australia’s former prime ministers have responded vigorously.

One of them, Dr Kevin Rudd, from the centre left of Australian politics, has taken a sledgehammer to White’s assumptions and presumptions—about China, America and Australia, about the measures of their economies, their strategies and their strength of resolve, calling White’s thesis ‘intellectually arrogant futurology’ from the ‘Lord Halifax Appeasement Faction of the Green Left’. 

To be clear: they are his words, not mine. And having received a tongue-lashing from Dr Rudd in the past, I allowed myself a smile at his latest broadside. These are big questions that merit our full engagement. 

Dr Rudd is right: we shouldn’t overestimate China’s capabilities. Nor should we underestimate the unified power of America and her friends.

Instead Rudd offers an alternative to White’s strategic capitulation—what he calls ‘managed strategic competition’ or MSC.  

To deal with the reality of China’s growth and assertiveness, Rudd proposes ‘vibrant strategic competition within a set of minimum guardrails to reduce the risk of escalation, crisis, conflict and war’. He claims that managed appropriately, we can accept the reality of competition with China, as we limit the risks of escalating to war.

Closing but not closed out

I must say that managed strategic competition is a far more compelling view than White’s anaemic realism. Rudd calls it capitulationism. There’s a new word. 

But for MSC to work, in closing, there are a number of things that need to happen:

First, the United States must develop a grand strategy that outlasts Congressional and Presidential electoral cycles, and that can weather the worst of any domestic political disagreements. This asks a lot, I know, but it is vital. The eyes of the world are upon the United States—watching for hesitancy, lack of resolve and weakness. Signals of American decline, disinterest and demise. 

People are asking: are our long-term interests better served by closer cooperation with the People’s Republic of China, or do we stick with the United States? We know the answer. But only a strong and engaged United States leading the way can make it a reality for those who are wavering on the fence.

Second, America’s allies must take responsibility for safeguarding their own sovereignty and prosperity. Sovereignty cannot be outsourced—this an obvious lesson from Ukraine—nations must look to their own defence. We must build up our hard power, because—as President Reagan said—military strength is a prerequisite to peace and we must maintain this strength in the hope that it will never be used. 

But we will need America’s strength and partnership. AUKUS is a great start. 

Our decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines was both bold and historic. It is a powerful signal that we are going to take responsibility for ourselves and the security of our neighbours. We need to move, though, at warp speed. Time is not on our side.

America’s industrial might and dynamism is critical to delivering those submarines. Not in twenty years but within the next decade—ideally sooner! Many more nations are pondering similar decisions about defence and America has a role to play in guiding and building this uplift in sovereign capability.

Many hands are needed for this heavy work. But America has a distinct leadership role in this task. 

Finally, our relationships really do matter. They are a unique advantage in geopolitics. I first met Mike Gallagher back in early 2018, where we did an event together at the Library of Congress. Our friendship has grown over four years and yielded other important partnerships—across the world. 

We need thousands more friendships like ours, across government and across other countries. We need greater investment from the United States in the Pacific Islands, in places like Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

Your State Department has been renewing these key relationships. And we can help with that. But America has to invest, and commit, or the relationships—as we have seen—will be vulnerable to less benign partners. 

America has a natural advantage here: you don’t default to strategic coercion in your diplomacy. People migrate towards democracy, not away from it. 

I was reminded of this on Monday night, as I enjoyed dinner with Thae Yong-Ho—North Korea’s former deputy Ambassador to the UK who, with his family, defected to South Korea in 2016. An incredible story of courage. He now serves as a member of the National Assembly of South Korea.

It’s a reminder that people run towards democracy, and away from autocracy. They’ll even risk their lives for it. We need this kind of bravery. Now more than ever, we need the US to exercise strong, democratic leadership at home and abroad. Much depends upon it. 

Thank you again for having me today. I look forward to the panel discussion.