Senator John McCain delivered the Alliance 21 Lecture at the NSW State Library in Sydney, hosted by the United States Studies Centre.
30 May 2017
Delivered at the State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, Tuesday, 30 May 2017
Check against delivery
Thank you, Premier, for that kind introduction.
I am grateful to James Brown, Simon Jackman, and the Board of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney for inviting me to speak with you this evening, and for everything they have done to organise this remarkable event.
I am honoured by the presence of so many old friends, especially Prime Minister Howard and Prime Minister Hawke. Thank you both for joining us.
And let me thank you all for being here this evening. I know there are many better things you could be doing. And you will wish you had after the two hour address I have planned on the latest Republican plan to reform healthcare in America.
I regret to say that this marks the end of my visit to Australia. I have had excellent meetings with Prime Minister Turnbull and his team, as well as opposition leaders.
I have also met with Australian diplomats, parliamentarians, military officers, businesspeople, and private citizens. This is the true strength of our alliance—the millions of our citizens who work together, serve together, sacrifice together and lift each other up every day. The occupants of The Lodge and the White House come and go, but these deeper bonds—they are unbreakable, they are eternal.
This is what brought us together yesterday, at the Australian-American Memorial in Canberra, as we observed Memorial Day, a day when Americans pause to honour all who serve us in battle, and to remember our fallen comrades. Memorial Day may be an American occasion, but it is fitting that I could mark it here in Australia, whose sons and daughters have fought with ours ever since the Battle of Hamel.
This audience needs no reminder of our nations’ shared history of military service. All I would add is that this history has always been deeply personal for me.
My grandfather first sailed here aboard the Great White Fleet. He later commanded US air forces in the South Pacific during the Second World War, fighting in the defence of Australia, and then commanded aircraft carriers under Admiral Halsey.
My father captained a submarine out of Perth for much of the Pacific campaign and then commanded all US forces in this theatre during the Vietnam War.
During my own Navy deployments in Southeast Asia, I spent many evenings on R&R here in Sydney, enjoying the many … cultural amenities of King’s Cross.
More recently, my sons, Jack and Jimmy, have served alongside your sons and daughters in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and here in this region. The McCain family has literally been sailing and flying around Australia and the Pacific for most of the past century — for better or for worse. I grew up on these stories — tales of adventure, and heroism, and sacrifice that “hath no greater love.”
Australia has always had a special place in my heart. And on behalf of my entire nation, I want to say something to my Australian friends that we Americans can never tell you enough: Thank you — from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
I bring up our history not to bask in sentiment, but because it raises an important question — indeed, the most fundamental question of all: Why are we allies? Why have we done all this together? And why should we continue to do so?
The answer transcends narrow materialism. That alone is not why, time and time again, our citizens have left their beloved homelands, and ventured forth into the world, and endured the horrors and deprivations of war, sometimes never to return.
No, the animating purpose of our alliance is that we are free societies, founded by immigrants and pioneers, who put our faith in the rule of law, and who believe that our destinies are inseparable from the character of the broader world order.
We believe that when the strong trample the rights and independence of the weak with impunity, then our liberty and our sovereignty are at risk.
We believe that when all peoples cannot sail the seas, and fly the skies and engage in commerce freely, then our prosperity will suffer.
We believe that when the balance of power in the world favours those bent on injustice, and aggression and conquest, then the peace we cherish will not last.
These are values that time does not diminish. These are ideas that truly are worth the fighting for. This is why we are allies — and why we must remain so.
And yet, I realise that I come to Australia at a time when many are questioning whether America is still committed to these values. And you are not alone. Other American allies have similar doubts these days. And this is understandable.
I realise that some of President Trump’s actions and statements have unsettled America’s friends. They have unsettled many Americans as well. There is a real debate underway now in my country about what kind of role America should play in the world. And frankly, I do not know how this debate will play out.
What I do believe, and I do not think I am exaggerating here, is that the future of the world will turn, to a large extent, on how this debate in America is resolved.
That is why I and others are fighting so hard to ensure that America stands by our allies and remains an active, principled leader in the world. And we cannot do it alone. We need your help, my friends. Now more than ever, we Americans are counting on Australia and our other allies to stick with us ... to encourage us to stay true to who we are at our best ... and to remind us always just how much is at stake.
This is why I have come to Australia, and why I want to speak with you tonight. But I also want you to know this: Just as America is counting on Australia, I believe that Australia, and our other allies and partners, can still count on America.
I know there is a belief that Americans have turned isolationist and protectionist. But recent public opinion polls consistently tell the opposite story. Most Americans say they still see globalisation as good for them. Most Americans say they still want to maintain a strong military. Most Americans say they still favour our existing alliances — 89 percent in one major poll last year. Most Americans even say they want to maintain or increase those alliance commitments.
Put simply, my friends: I believe bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-alliances, pro-trade, pro-investment, pro-military, pro-globalisation, in favour of an internationalist foreign policy, and supportive of our alliance with Australia.
Ultimately, America’s greatest strength comes from the values of our society, values we share with Australia — our commitment to truth over falsehood, fairness over injustice, freedom over oppression and the immortal spirit of humankind.
These values are enshrined in our institutions. Our foreign friends always tend to focus on the person in the White House. But America is far bigger than that.
America is our courts of justice.
America is our state and local governments.
America is our Congress, which currently has within it as many internationalists, both Republicans and Democrats, as any Congress in which I have served.
America is our free press. I hate it, but it is true, and it is essential.
America is our men and women in uniform — who remain, despite recent budget pressures, the most committed, combat-hardened, formidable force on the planet.
America is the dynamism of our workers and entrepreneurs, our investors and innovators, who continue to hurtle forward, to our alliance’s mutual benefit. Trade flows rise and fall, but America remains Australia’s largest foreign investor. This is money that comes here, and stays here, and is a great force for good here.
I know that the pushing, and shoving, and checking and balancing of my country’s institutions may not be pretty. But this vast, intricate, rambunctious and beautiful system called American democracy is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.
Yes, America has its problems. But even on our worst day, far more people and far more money are trying to get into America than out of it. No one has ever gotten rich betting against America, my friends, and now is not a good time to start.
So what is really in question, then, is America’s judgement, our decisions. And I realise there is much to criticise. But America can always make better decisions and I am counting on all of you to help us do so.
I recognise, for example, how damaging America’s withdrawal from TPP was. To be sure, America’s economic engagement in this region was always bigger than TPP, and that remains true today. But we must always talk straight with each other, my friends: The fact that both American presidential candidates last year opposed TPP, and America’s subsequent withdrawal from it, was a major strategic mistake.
I know Australia is now talking with Japan and others about moving forward with TPP despite America’s withdrawal. I would strongly encourage that. The case for an open, rules-based, regional economic architecture is just as compelling today as it ever was. So I would urge you to keep at it. And hopefully, someday in the future, under different circumstances, America will decide to join you.
America can also make better decisions on security issues. The President and I may differ at times, but not when it comes to rebuilding America’s military.
The defence legislation that I, as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, will soon introduce will significantly increase funding for America’s military. After years of debilitating cuts to our armed forces, we will begin restoring their readiness, growing their size and modernising their capabilities.
As part of this effort, I have called for an Asia-Pacific Stability Initiative. The goal would be, working in concert with our allies and partners, to deter aggression and maintain a balance of power in this region that safeguards our common interests. We would do this by enhancing the presence, resilience and credibility of US forces in the Pacific. This is especially necessary now, as North Korea gets closer and closer to developing a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile.
Talk of regional security inevitably raises the question of China, and I know this question is hotly debated here in Australia. I know there is a real concern about Australia becoming entangled in a strategic competition between America and China. And I know that contributes to a belief among some in this country that your economic relationship with China and your security relationship with America may be irreconcilable, and that you must choose one over the other.
My friends: I would humbly suggest that this is the wrong way to think about it.
To be sure, China has performed an economic miracle — one that not only benefits millions of its own people, but also many Australians and Americans as well. This is why we have promoted China’s integration into the global economy. And this work is far from over. Australia and America need to support China’s reformers and ensure that all of our peoples can compete on a level economic playing field.
The challenge is that as China has grown wealthier and stronger, it seems to be acting more and more like a bully. It is refusing to open more of its economy so that foreign businesses can compete fairly. It is stealing other peoples’ intellectual property. It is asserting vast territorial claims that have no basis in international law. And it is using its trade and investment as tools to coerce its neighbours.
The idea that China is now the steward of our open, rules-based global economic order may sell at Davos. But people in this country and this region know better.
This poses an important question, but it is not whether Australia or America must choose China at the expense of one another. For either of us to demand that of the other would be deeply unfair and misguided. That is a false choice.
The real choice, the real question, is whether Australia and America are better off dealing with China’s strategic and economic challenges together, or by ourselves.
I believe the answer is clear. And so do growing numbers of nations across the Pacific. In places like Japan and India, Korea and Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia, peoples are saying they want to live in a region, and in a world, that has rules — rules that afford all nations the opportunity to grow strong and prosperous. More and more nations in this region want to get closer to Australia and America because we treat them as equals—not as subjects or tributaries, but as friends.
It is certainly true that the return of China will shape the future of Asia, hopefully for the best. But I would submit to you that the rise of Asia — a community of peaceful, prosperous, law-abiding, rights-respecting and increasingly democratic nations — this Asia can and should do just as much, or more, to shape the future of China. We need to stick together, as allies, and seize this tremendous opportunity.
My friends: I know that many of you have a lot of questions about where America is headed under President Trump. Frankly, so do many Americans. What I would say is that the new administration is just that — new. It is still finding its feet. But it has many decent, capable people — Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, Mike Pompeo, Dan Coats, Rex Tillerson — people who deserve your support, and need it.
You will not agree with all of President Trump’s decisions. Neither will I. But I am fully committed to doing whatever I can to help my country and my president succeed in the world. And I would beseech all of you to join me and help me. The arc of history does not bend inevitably toward justice. As always, that is up to us.
America needs Australia and our other allies now more than ever.
We need your strength.
We need your steady leadership.
We need your wise counsel.
We need your patience and your understanding.
We need your commitment to our common interests and ideals.
We need you to have faith in America and in the enduring value of our alliance.
We need you to be confident that when we have differences, we will resolve them fairly and respectfully, as we always have … and that when we face tough choices, we can lean on and depend on each other, as we always have … and that when all is said and done, we are in it together, for the long haul, as we always have been.
And so long as people of courage and goodwill in both of our countries refuse to give up on each other or count each other out … so long as we continue to believe in ourselves and believe in each other … so long as we remain ever mindful that we are always, always better off united, as friends, as brothers and sisters, as allies, then I believe there is hope, and with hope, we can do anything together.
James Brown: Senator, thank you for articulating the Australian-American relationship in a very special way. I’m confident of two things: firstly I’m confident that that’s the first time King’s Cross has been mentioned in a landmark speech about the Australian-American alliance, but I’m also confident that that will prove to be an enduring speech. I want to start…
John McCain: Could I just mention, I can’t tell you the number of Vietnam veterans who have the fondest memories of their times here and the hospitality that was extended to them when they left for a short period of time from the combat in the jungles of Vietnam to here in Sydney and other places in this country. Most of them have never ever forgotten it. So I thank you for that.
James Brown: Well Senator, it’s an honour to sit down with you for a brief conversation before we take questions from the audience. Brief because I think that your flight’s check-in has already opened and will soon close. Let me start by asking you about the world post TPP in Asia and the regional economic picture. Tonight you fly on to Vietnam. In the next 48 hours the prime minister of that country will visit Washington. How do you bring a country like Vietnam, who put so much on the line for TPP, back into a conversation with the US about trade? What needs to be on the agenda for that meeting between Vietnam and the United States?
John McCain: First of all, I am very proud that we have restored and normalised our relations with the country of Vietnam. I think that many here know that there was similar influences and currents of public opinion that went from totally supportive of our involvement in Vietnam, to majority opposed – and that’s democracy, and I respect that – but what I regret is that sometimes our veterans themselves are not welcomed home, and it took us many years to welcome them home, and it did have an effect on some of them. So we honour our veterans today, you honour your veterans who are fighting side by side by our people, and I hope that we will never forget the lesson that the mistakes of the government should not be blamed on the brave young Australians and Americans who fought.
I think our relationship with Vietnam is important. I think they have a long way to go in a lot of areas, especially human rights, especially treatment of the hill people and some of the minorities. And I think that they have made significant progress but they have a very long way to go. As you know they’re very entrepreneurial, they’re very capitalistic, they’ve built a very strong economy. Fifteen years ago there was not a coffee bean grown in Vietnam; today they’re the world’s second largest exporter of coffee. And they’re still ruled by a government that is, to say the least, in some ways old-line communist. But there’s also a generation of young Vietnamese that are not going to sit still forever. So I view them as an important ally, but we also have to continue our advocacy for progress on human rights. I think that we all know that they have a history with China, and there’s a lot of cooperation that we can join in with the Vietnamese as we see events transpire, particularly in the South China Sea.
By the way, there’s a statue by a lake that I parachuted into, I’m one of those pilots whose landings don’t match the number of takeoffs, so I always go there to see this, it’s the only statue I have anywhere, so I always go back and look at it. So if you visit Hanoi it’s called the Western Lake, it’s a great statue. It mentions in Vietnamese that the famous air pirate, Major John McCain, was shot down there. I was pleased
James Brown: Can I draw you out on the Asia-Pacific stability initiative that you’ve proposed, which will hopefully be legislated in the near term. What does that look like, and will that have an impact for countries like Australia?
John McCain: I think it has significant impact. I’d like to mention what you all know and that is that a couple of years ago we instituted a thing called the European Reassurance Initiative, and that has entailed deploying a number of our troops into countries like the Baltics, Poland, and other countries in Eastern Europe where we have exercised and trained on a rotating basis with our allies and countries there. It has had a significant effect, and it’s a very positive one. Now they want the Americans to stay – “please don’t leave” – but it’s not the old style where we built a school and a hospital, where we built a base. It’s very much like the relationship in what’s going on in Darwin today, and I would like to see that throughout the region. There are a multitude of benefits associated with it, and I think that it’s important that we send a signal that our alliance is strong, and that we know how to cooperate with one another, and that in case of difficulties we are well trained and well equipped in order to meet any crisis or problems that may arise. And I think that it would be helpful to the morale and spirit of the countries in the region that are, frankly, very concerned about what kind of commitment they have from us.
James Brown: There’s a proposal on the table at the moment to substantially reduce the budget of the US State Department. We’re in a situation where six months into the new administration there are only a few ambassadors that have been named for Asia and one confirmed for China. Is there a danger here that the US strategy in Asia starts to look too much balanced towards military activity in the absence of a diplomatic presence and a trade deal?
John McCain: I think that you have our Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, who’s one of our great warriors, those who served under him literally idolise him. It was some months ago it was mentioned to him about cutting aid and other State Department programs, he said, “if you cut the State Department you’ll have to buy me more bullets”. And I think he was absolutely right. My friends, I don’t want to revisit all of the challenges and military involvement that we’ve had, but a classic example of failure is Libya. We got rid of Gaddafi, who deserved to be gotten rid of, I have no doubt about it, but then we walked away from Libya. Look at Libya today. It’s in chaos, total chaos. You can’t tell the players without a program, and of course that is always fertile ground for radical Islam, and you'll see ISIS infiltrating there more and more.
So the moral of the story is – and by the way I can tell you many occasions, including our withdrawal from Iraq, where we didn’t follow up on a military victory – my friends the surge succeeded, the surge succeeded at great cost of American and Australian blood, but it succeeded. So rather than going through a post period of stabilisation, of assistance, of all the things that are necessary, we walked away; we pulled everybody out. And then the rest, as they say, is history.
So we’re going to take Mosul, my friends, and I think it’s going to be in a few weeks. We’re going to take Raqqa. But the question I keep asking is what’s going to happen after that? How are we going to prevent another descent into chaos? And so far I’ve heard some platitudes, good phrases, and pleasantries, but I don’t think that we have that strategy to the degree to move right in and start rebuilding, both physically and institutionally, in those two cities. If we don’t, then we’re going to fight it all over again sooner or later.
James Brown: Are you seeing Australia and the US coming together on the Syrian conflict?
John McCain: I don’t like to make decisions for, or even advocate, when it comes to a military engagement, but I do think the Syrian situation is… you can’t isolate Syria from the rest of the region. And I worry a lot about the Russian involvement. My friends, the Russians are now major players in the Middle East, they haven't been since Anwar Sadat threw them out of Egypt in 1973. Their buildup of military bases, their uses of precision-guided weapons to strike hospitals in Aleppo; that’s a war crime, my friends, that’s a war crime. And they are acting in the most aggressive fashion. Vladimir Putin is playing a weak hand with consummate skill. By the way, I was sanctioned by Vladimir Putin; I am unable to visit Siberia again this summer. I think the point is that this can also be a great power game, and what I worry about more than anything is the Iranian ambition to establish a crescent that goes from Tehran all the way to Beirut, and that’s the Iranian ambition today.
So I worry a lot about Syria, and I worry about what happens, as I mentioned to you, especially post-Raqqa, and whether we can establish some kind of functioning society there. It’s going to be extremely difficult, and again, Russian behavior – well the proof of it is Palmyra fell to ISIS, the Russians did nothing. Meanwhile, while Palmyra fell, the Russians were bombing hospitals in Aleppo and killing innocent men, women, and children. So have no doubt about what Vladimir Putin’s priorities are: the defeat of ISIS is not number one on his priority list.
James Brown: Looking out from Washington there are a range of issues: Russia you’ve talked about, the Middle East, you’ve mentioned North Korea, the list goes on. How do you keep a focus in this region? How can the US keep its gaze fixed on Asia with so many flash points bubbling?
John McCain: I think we have to educate our constituents and our citizenry. Sixty per cent of the world’s economy rests in the Asia-Pacific region, and it’s the area of growth. America’s vital national security interests are in the Asia-Pacific region, and we have to address the Asia-Pacific region both short term and long term.
Long term, my friends, I kind of envision an alliance between the United States, India, Australia, other countries in the region. I think India, now that they have extremely strong and viable leadership, Japan, Korea. And by the way, and it just breaks my heart that they can't get over this comfort women issue because it’s of vital importance particularly with North Korean behaviour that China and the Republic of Korea act together. So I can see a kind of alliance in the region both economically, politically, and to some degree, militarily, although not overwhelmingly but certainly some alliances there, who have mutual interests. There are commonalities there. We have democracies. We have free economies. We have rule of law. We have freedom of the press. There’s commonality here, and I think it would serve as a counterweight to Chinese behaviour.
I’m not against the Chinese expanding their economic influence, and I know that Australia has a very significant debate going on as to exactly how that relationship proceeds in the future. But I also think that there are other countries in the region, the Asia-Pacific region, who stand for the things that we believe in that I tried to articulate in my remarks. And so I don’t envision a confrontation with China, but I do envision an alliance with those who share the same basic principles that would act as a counterweight to China’s misbehavior.
My friends, they are in violation of international law when they militarise these islands. It’s that simple. And so we have to try and discourage some of that behaviour. As I want to repeat: I do not envision a military confrontation with China, but I do envision intense competition, particularly on the playing field of ideas. There’s an educated group of tens of millions of young Chinese who sometime will not be satisfied to be governed by a group of old men who meet once every five years or so. And so, I think in the long run we will see a China and its younger generation interested in the principles and freedoms that we enjoy and sometimes take for granted.
James Brown: I think in Australia years ago there was a debate about that quadrilateral grouping. I think you would find support here for the view that that’s an idea whose time might have come again. But it seems like this is not an easy time to be making the case for alliances. How do you make the case for that alliance in America to people who are a little weary? You mentioned that there are still internationalists, still globalists, but they are a little weary of policing the world.
John McCain: I think that you can make the case, including in the Asian Pacific region, that there’s a new set of challenges in the form of radical Islamic terrorism that is very dangerous. We have the world’s largest Muslim population, or third largest, whichever Indonesia is, I think it’s 270 million, and there has already been evidence of some of their young people going to the Middle East and fighting and coming home. There’s no doubt that this influence of a perversion of an honourable religion is taking place in the Asia-Pacific region: Indochina, Malaysia, and other countries. And that’s a challenge. That’s a challenge to them, that’s a challenge to us.
What happened in Manchester could happen in most any place in the world. And so I think that it is going to have, as terrible as it is and as tragic as it is, I think that it is going to have a unifying effect on all of us to try to combat these acts of terrorism which, you know, is the lowest price acts you can imagine. One or two or five or 10 people get together and they can orchestrate an act of terror that kills 10, 15, 20, 50, or whatever it is. Not to mention the impact that it has on the people of the country that these attacks take place in. We still haven’t gotten over 9/11 my friends, we still haven’t, and maybe we never will. Maybe we shouldn’t.
So I think there is a compelling reason for closer alliances and closer relationships because the one thing about this disease that takes young people and makes them become willing to take their own lives in order to take the lives of others is a curse and a disease that all of us are going to be fighting for a long time.
James Brown: Senator you’ve got midterms coming up frighteningly fast. As Armed Services Committee Chair what are your priorities leading into the election?
John McCain: Several. One is for us to develop a strategy, which we do not have, to combat cyber. Cyber is a new field of warfare, and I don’t need to tell anybody here, look how it’s dominating the news, and frankly, the attempt that was made to influence the outcome of our presidential election, should be enough to concern all of us. If the Russians were able to change the outcome of our elections then they could destroy democracy. A free and fair election is the basic fundamental of democracy.
So I think cyber is a very, very prominent problem, and one that probably confronts us to a degree that we are not very prepared for. We don’t have a policy and we don’t have a strategy as to how to combat these attacks, and it’s a lot better in cyber, and easier, to be on offense rather than defence. And the other is not so sexy but it’s really important in that we just have huge problems with acquisition. We have cost overruns that are unacceptable to the American people. We built an aircraft carrier, the Gerald R. Ford – that was supposed to cost 10 billion dollars; it ended up costing 12 billion dollars. You can’t have that kind of cost overrun and convince your citizens to support that kind of waste and expenditure. So we have an acquisition system that is so convoluted, and so wasteful, that we have made stabs at it and we have made some progress, but we still have a long, long way to go. The airplane that I flew in, that I ejected from took four weeks from the time they decided that they wanted it to the time it started in production. The F-35 took 12 years from the time it was decided that we would build it to the time we actually started building it. That’s just not acceptable to the taxpayers of America.
And then, I guess, for the other, the last eight years the readiness of our military has declined. Right now today, 60 per cent of our F-18 are not flying for lack of parts. We have two nuclear powered submarines that have been at the pier for over a year because they are lacking in parts. Our Air Force pilots are flying less per month than their Chinese and Russian counterparts are. So we’ve got to restore the readiness. Whenever you make cuts in defence, as I know my friends know, the first to go is the training and readiness because I know that’s the easy part; cancelling major defence programs is the hard part. So our readiness has really suffered a great deal and we need to rebuild that And finally, our other issue which we are involved in, of course which I know is a major issue here in your country, is the welfare of our veterans. We’re not taking as good of care of our veterans as we should. Today in the United States there are 22 veterans who commit suicide. That is not acceptable.
James Brown: Senator, I want to ask one more question before we open it to the floor for questions from the audience. You’ve been coming here for a while, it’s been a while since your last visit, we’re honored to have you back. You’ve been working with Australians throughout your career. What’s changed that you’ve seen in your relationship during the time that you’ve been working with Australia?
John McCain: Frankly, basically, I don’t think that it’s really changed that much. One hundred years of sacrifice together creates bonds that as long as a father can tell a son or a daughter or a grandchild what it was like in World War Two or in Korea or in Vietnam or in Iraq or Afghanistan. These bonds that exist between our men and women in the military are unbreakable, and there’s something a lot more important than that, and that it that we’re both democracies. You know the old Churchill line about how democracy is the worst form of government but a better one hasn’t been invented, is certainly true.
By the way, the approval rating of Congress is 14 per cent. We’re down to paid staff and blood relatives. I have to mention that when I landed at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix the other day and a guy ran up to me and said, “hey, did anybody ever tell you that you look a lot like Senator John McCain?” And I said, “yes”. and he said, “doesn’t it sometimes make you mad as heck?”
So I just think that two democracies, two functioning democracies, there are ties and bonds in commonality. The assertion that all of us created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, that creates kind of an unbreakable and unshakable relationship. And yes there are doubts, as I mentioned in my remarks, and yes I have my doubts as well, but there are major challenges that we face and I think that we can always rely on one another. In fact, if there’s one thing I’m convinced of, that is indeed the case.
James Brown: Senator I want to thank you. We’ve got about 25 minutes now for questions from the audience. I’ll ask you to look for our people with microphones, get their attention, give your name, keep your questions short so we can move through as many as possible, and I’ll take the first question just from you down here in the front.
Bob O’Neil: Bob O’Neil, James, thank you very much. Senator the warmest of welcomes, you do a great job in strengthening the Australian, US, and New Zealand alliance. We know from the way alliances with the US work unless you’ve got very strong active connections in the right places in Washington they kind of get pushed to one side. You give us a strong cutting edge, and we’re very grateful for that. As an Australian Vietnam War veteran, the infantry on the ground, may I say also how much I admire you for the service you gave, and for withstanding the terrible process that the north Vietnamese gave you for five-and-a-half years. Thank you for the copy of Faith of my Fathers that you gave me the last time we met in Washington, it’s been a very helpful book for me to read.
Let me move on to substance. We’ve talked a good deal about the Pacific and East Asia, I’d like to move on to Europe. I was expecting some fairly choppy passages during the NATO meeting, but when I read my emails this morning, particularly from friends in Germany, it’s been even worse than I thought it would be. Now you played an important role in bringing in the Eastern European states and they are doing a good job. They are strengthening themselves and so on, but they still need the support of the states of Western Europe and it doesn't look like they are going to be in great shape to deliver it. I’m wondering whether NATO is going to be part of your thinking the action in the next few years.
John McCain: Well thank you. My friends I think we have to recognise reality. That is, 70 years ago at the end of two horrific world wars, we established a new world order, and that new world order led to the longest period of peace and prosperity that we have seen. And now, that new world order is under intense pressures. Whether it be the refugees, the six million that have poured into Europe. Whether it be this rising nationalism which is epitomised by Marine Le Pen in the latest French election. Brexit on the part of the British. And the rise of this ultra-nationalism and its subsequent reduction in democratic rights and privileges which has characterised some of the countries in Eastern Europe, that we are under this enormous strain right now and it worries me. And I worry about Vladimir Putin continuing to test. I would not be surprised, in fact there are indications that he may step up his activities in Eastern Ukraine. There are indications that the Russian disinformation continues even at a higher level than it has been. Not to mention the cyber-attacks.
So I’m very concerned when we see certain countries. I’ll name one, In Hungary there is a greater and greater reduction in the fundamentals of a free press, the basics of democratic institutions are being eroded. Poland is under some strain. So it’s going to be a very difficult and challenging time and it’s going to require American leadership, and I’m all for insisting that our European friends contribute two per cent to NATO, but you also have to keep in mind and emphasise, in my view, the fact that it wasn’t any of these European countries that were attacked on 9/11. It was the United States of America. Article 5 was invoked. They sent their young people to fight in Afghanistan, and they’re still there and they have sacrificed something more precious than money.
So I think we’re in a time of testing, I think we’re in a time of significant strains on the new world order, and American leadership, and western leadership is probably needed now more than at any time.
I hope that responds. But I’m also, by the way, confident that together we can preserve this new world order because the prospect of a breakdown of it is really disturbing.
James Brown: Professor O’Neil was the founding CEO of our Centre, a giant in Australian scholarship, so he gets to ask long questions, but I don’t want you to think that that sets the standard. We might take a question or two from the media, I can’t see if there’s any, but I’ll give you the opportunity to do that
Jeremy Fernandez: Senator McCain, Jeremy Fernandez of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Welcome back to Sydney. The British Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn has in the last few days drawn a link and raised a question about the relationship between foreign policy, British foreign policy, and domestic terrorism. Those comments have not been well received by defence veterans in the UK. It’s interesting to note that similar comments have been made, previously articulated by Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary in the UK. I wonder if you think there is any validity, or any trace of usefulness in drawing that link between foreign policy and domestic terrorism. Particularly in the context of Australia now answering the call from the US and NATO to send more troops into Afghanistan.
John McCain: My friends the reality in Afghanistan is we’re not winning. For the past eight years our strategy was been don’t lose, and now we are seeing an Afghan national army, known as the ANA, is taking unsustainable loses. The level of loses they’re taking and the Taliban and Al Qaeda is playing and the Russians are now sending arms to the Taliban and the Iranians are playing; it’s turning into a cockpit. We’re going to have to have a strategy not just to not lose, but to win, and it’s going to require a surge of some kind, and it will probably be announced very soon, and it will probably entail a few thousand additional troops, and we will be asking our friends and allies to supply additional troops as well.
But there’s something more important, or as important as that. That is that we have to have a strategy to win. I’ll tell you a story you’re not going to believe. They had a hard cap for Obama on the number of American troops that could be there. They decided to send some helicopters; they sent the helicopters and the pilots but not the maintainers because they didn’t want to exceed the number that they had artificially improved. That’s crazy, that’s crazy. So they spent millions of dollars hiring contractors, by the way. So we are now, General Mattis and General McMaster, are giving leaders, these military commanders in the field, the latitude to do whatever they think like is necessary. Not when they like are being attacked to call back to the National Security Council and if they can respond and if so, how.
So I think you’re going to see use change not just in the requirements of troop strength and fresh infusion, but you’re going to see a strategy where we let these people win. My friends, I was in the war that – I think it was Mark Twain that said, “history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”. It’s rhyming with the Vietnam conflict, and so now we have with Mattis and McMaster and Dan Coats, as our director of national intelligence, I think you're going to see a much more successful strategy. And finally I don’t want to drag it out, there’s still this enduring problem of the Haqqani network based in Pakistan. Pakistan, as you know, has a problem with stability, they have a problem with the role of the military in what is supposed to be a civilian government, and history shows, and anyone with military experience can tell you, when the enemy has sanctuary, as the Haqqani does in Pakistan, it makes the task extremely more difficult, and we’re going to have to address that aspect of this challenge as well. I think Ghani is a good man. He’s far better than Karzai was, and I think they’re making some progress in that direction, but a lot of this stuff is going to be settled by blood and iron.
James Brown: Question down the front from Kieran Gilbert.
Kieran Gilbert: Senator, Kieran Gilbert from Sky News. Recently there has been a freedom of navigation exercise through the South China Sea. Within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef conducted by the US Navy. Do you think Australia should participate in a freedom of navigation operation similar to that in support of the United States? If you do agree with that notion do you worry that it might exacerbate Chinese relations in the region?
John McCain: I think it is very clear that the Chinese, by filling in these islands, militarising them, and we are watching more militarisation, is in violation of international law. And one of the principles of those nations like yours and mine, that are dependent of the ocean, if you restrict freedom of navigation you are striking at a lot the economy and the ability of nations to conduct freedom of the oceans and freedom of the seas, and so I would not try and tell the Australians what they need to do, but there are exercises where a number of nations join together, we call it RIMPAC is one of them, as you know the Australians participate in broad naval exercises. I would say that that would be an opportunity for us to exercise this freedom of navigation, but I also want to emphasise I understand the importance of trade between Australia and China. I understand the importance of the relationship, and I believe that the government and the elected officials would have to make that decision.
I will say this: if the Chinese are able to prevent us from exercising freedom of navigation then I think that has profound consequences for the entire region. And what I think is going to be very interesting is when the party congress is over, that’s coming up in China, where Xi is going to basically consolidate his power, and he’s going to be as powerful as anyone has been since Deng Xiaoping that’s led China. And then I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what Chinese behaviour is going to be. The nine dash line that we know is fiction, it’s pure fiction.
I also understand that the Chinese believe that the last 200 years were aberrations of history as far as the role of China in the Asia Pacific region is concerned. I guess in summary I would like to see use collectively act together in response to Chinese behaviour rather than advocate just American and/or Australia. I think that way we could collectively address, and perhaps modify, Chinese behaviour.
James Brown: There’s a very vigorous hand I can see over the glass of the special collection that is part of the library.
Susan Pond: Susan Pond, University of Sydney. You’ve talked about military security, private security, security against terrorism. From where you sit, what is your approach to climate security, which does have military connotations, particularly in light of the skepticism that appears to be emerging from the White House in terms of global warming and perhaps adherence to the Paris agreement?
John McCain: As you know the president announced that he would make a decision of this agreement, multi-state agreement, sometime in the near future, and did not address the issue on his European trip. I believe that climate change is real, I think that one of the great tragedies of our lives is the Great Barrier Reef dying, and I don’t know what the environmental consequences of that will be from things like fisheries – you are far more familiar with the consequences than I am. But I also find that in some cases my environmental friends aren’t aware or don’t take into account one of the things that I think is important. I believe in nuclear power. I believe that nuclear power is the safest and the cleanest, and in some ways the least expensive way of generating power. I also believe in solar, wind and all of those things.
But when my environmental friends reject out of hand nuclear power I say wait a minute, then you’re not addressing the entire spectrum of actions that we can take. I’ve been to a place called Svalbard, and I’ve been to McMurdo Sound, and I've seen over the years the melting. I don't think there’s any doubt about it. And then I would like to see us probably either accept the agreements as were made by the Obama administration, or suggest modifications that would then make it palatable for us, or at least acceptable for us to join them. If we don’t address this issue then I am very much afraid about what the world is going to look like for our children and our grandchildren.
James Brown: The hands are coming thick and fast. As you can tell the acoustics of the room and the direction the speakers are pointing make it hard for both of us to hear the questions. So if you could ask clearly and slowly. I’ll take a question from this side of the room.
Audience member: Good evening Senator. I just wanted to say first thank you so much for your service in military and government, particularly as today is Memorial Day, and it is very deeply appreciated. I wanted to ask you, given we are on the heels of Trump’s first foreign tour as well as the G7 summit, it’s clear that global perceptions of the US as a world leader are changing. I wanted to ask you if you believe our role as a global leader is in jeopardy and if so how can we reassure our allies that we are as dependable as ever.
John McCain: As I said, I wouldn’t count the US out. I think that we are still, in many respects, certainly the most important country on earth for a whole lot of reasons. For example, the Chinese have got a very big problem on their hands, and that’s the aging population. For too long they had this one child policy. Some of us here have been to Beijing on a day where you couldn’t see two blocks because of the pollution. And I don't think, as I said before, that those hundreds of millions of young Chinese who are now going to move into positions of authority are going to be satisfied with the kind of government that they have today.
As far as Russia is concerned, my friends, the Russians are playing – Vladimir Putin is running a gas station that is masquerading as a country, and he’s playing it very cleverly, but I don’t know of any Ukrainian or anyone in Eastern Europe of any significance that wants to be part of the Russian empire. They’re European, they want to be part of Europe. They want to be part of the EU, and they don't want to be part of a reconstituted Russian empire.
I know that in the United States one of our biggest issues is the skyrocketing cost of our entitlement programs, I know that that’s an issue here in Australia, but we’re still the most innovative nation on Earth. You know this device that all of us carry around with us? That wasn’t invented in China or anywhere else. It was the United States of America. It’s the greatest change, probably, since the invention of the printing press in the spread of knowledge and innovation, which also has a downside as well, as any new innovation does. All of that comes from bright and intelligent people, many of them, by the way, who came from foreign countries to the United States of America, and who are now the leaders of Silicon Valley and new information technology.
So I wouldn’t bet against the United States of America, and I believe that we still are the most innovative and the most democratic. But we are going through a rough period, we are, and for me to tell you we aren’t, politically, is not fair. But we went through other troubled times. I can remember the Watergate scandal, and how it brought down a president, and I’m not suggesting that that is going to happen to this president, but we are in a scandal and every few days another shoe drops from this centipede and we’ve got to get through that, but I have no doubt about the future of the United States of America. Just as I have no doubt about the future of our alliance based on common principles, common goals, and the same fundamentals.
James Brown: Senator I’m going to abuse chair’s privilege and ask you one final question. In the audience tonight we’ve got 50 high school students from schools across Sydney. They are all historical students who I think will be chuffed to have been here for a historical speech. They live in a world that probably feels to them a little bit darker than it has in recent times, a little bit more uncertain. Looking at a public debate that has a level of vitriol and velocity that they probably haven’t seen for some time. I want to ask what advice you would give to any of them considering a life in public service.
John McCain: I believe that there is nothing more rewarding that serving a cause greater than your own self-interest. I know that we have, the United States and Australia have, a number of programs where we can help others. We call it the Peace Corps, we call it AmeriCorps, we call it so many other programs that people, young people, take some time out of their lives to go around the world or to the inner cities of America and they spend their time helping others. I have never met a single Peace Corps volunteer or AmeriCorps volunteer that didn't say it was the greatest experience of their lives. In other words I would get involved, and it doesn't necessarily mean in politics, but we do need people to seek public office.
It’s not a lot of fun. It’s not a lot of fun for me to see the latest tweet that has a very inventive way for me to die. Questions about how I was conceived and under what circumstances.
We’re in a very interesting period, that it, you've got to be a little tougher. But again I have never met anyone in my life who’s said I took a year out, I took two years out, I joined the military. My son came home one day after he turned 18 and said, “I’ve joined the military”. My wife and I were shocked. My son is so better off for having spent a year in Iraq, and then a year in Afghanistan.
And so I would say get involved. The first thing I would do if I was your age, when one of the next elections comes up attach yourself to one of the campaigns. You learn a lot, you meet a lot of people, you get a lot of experience, and it can help you decide yourself whether you want to seek public office.
And then I guess the only other thing I would advise is to appreciate what we have. Sometimes we get cynical. Sometimes all the news is bad news. But we really are the greatest experiments in history. Countries rise and fall, dynasties rise and fall, but what they did, the people who came before us, and what we need to keep alive is this incredible experiment called democracy. And it’s vulnerable. And it’s difficult to maintain. And sometimes is very frustrating. But think of the lives that we have enriched by giving them opportunities that they otherwise never would have. I am always, always, grateful to have the opportunity to live in a country where people can go just as far as their talent and ambitions can take them, and that’s only true in democracy.
Maybe I could end up telling you a very brief story. A long time ago when I was in prison one of the people who was in prison with me was a young man whose name was Mike Christian. Mike Christian was born in a small town in Alabama. He came from a dirt poor family. He didn’t have a pair of shoes until he was 11 I think it was, and he joined the Navy as an enlisted man. He later became an officer through a program and was an A-6 crew member, and his A-6 cruiser was shot down around the same time as I was. The Vietnamese kept us in conditions of solitary confinement or two or three to a cell for a long time. Finally after a few years they moved us into large cells with 25 or 30 prisoners in each cell. One of them that moved in with me was Mike Christian. He had a keen appreciation for the opportunities that being in the United States Navy provides.
As part of the change in treatment the Vietnamese started, for the first time, allowing us to have small packages from the United States with small items in it like medicine and small articles of clothing. The uniform we wore in prison was a blue shirt, blue trousers like pajama trousers, sandals that were carved out of automobile tires. I recommend them highly; one pair lasted me five-and-a-half-years. Anyway, Mike Christian had a great appreciation, so Mike Christian took his blue shirt and got a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and fashioned himself a bamboo needle and sewed on the inside of his shirt the American flag. Every evening when we would finish our bowl of soup we would stand and pledge allegiance to the flag, putting Mike’s shirt on wall of the cell.
One day the Vietnamese came in, searched the cell, found his shirt and removed it. Later that evening they came back and opened the door of the cell and called for him out. He came out and right outside the door of the cell for the benefit of us, for about half an hour, they beat him very badly and then threw him back inside of the cell. The cell in which we lived had a concrete slab in the center of it where we slept, and a light bulb that shone dimly in each corner of the room. So we cleaned him up as well as we could, and I went to go lie down to go to sleep and look over and sitting there in the corner of the cell with a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and his shirt with his bamboo needle is Mike Christian sewing another American flag, his eyes almost shut from the beating he had received.
He wasn’t making that flag because it made him feel better. He was making that flag because he knew how important it was for us to pledge our allegiance to our flag and our country. And really that’s what America, and Australia, is all about. Thank you
James Brown: Senator, thank you very much. We’re just going to ask Caitlin Gauci, one of our students, to give quick word of thanks.
Caitlin Gauci: Good evening, my name is Caitlin Gauci. I’m a fourth-year student at the University of Sydney currently completing honours, and a research interim with James’ team at the Alliance 21 program.
Senator, Washington to Hanoi via Sydney is not a conventional itinerary, so we really appreciate your special effort to be here to deliver this address today. We are honoured by your presence, but we are also honoured by your lifetime of public service and your decades of friendship with Australia and Australians.
It was refreshing to hear your considered remarks on our alliance. You provide a timely reminder of the shared values and interests that connect our two countries and have underpinned the US, Australia alliance throughout your life. I am particularly grateful for your offering of revision for the alliance relevant to my generation and decades ahead. Senator, on behalf of the University and the US Studies Centre, we would like to offer you perhaps one of the most Australian gifts we could find.
As a senator from Arizona we figured the best gift would be a big hat, an Akubra nonetheless. No pressure to wear it. Thank you so much for your time. Good luck.