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Former defence force chief Chris Barrie says the world is on a countdown to war and a “complacent” Australia will not be ready when it comes.
Admiral Barrie warned that Australia had been involved in “proxy wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East in the past two decades, but the potential flashpoints for international-scale conflict reminded him of the build-up to World War I.
Speaking at the Australian Leadership Retreat on the Gold Coast, the man who headed the nation’s 59,000-strong defence force from 1998-2002 said most people had no idea what a major war would be like.
As was the case in 1914, he was concerned that political leaders were “sleepwalking” towards war. “That scares me, because I think all the signs are looking bad,” Admiral Barrie told The Australian.
He pointed to a number of destabilising factors, including tensions between China and nation states in the South China Sea, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, US isolationism under President Donald Trump, the volatility of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the risk that Turkey would fracture and become “another Syria”.
Overlaying these tensions was the impact of climate change, increasing competition among nations for water and food resources.
Referencing the influential 2013 book by Australian-born historian Christopher Clark, Admiral Barrie said: “What I see are a lot of larger-scale movements that remind me a lot of the leadup to war in 1914, and I agree with Professor Clark from Cambridge when he writes in The Sleepwalkers about the leaders just falling into the Great War scenario.
“I do look back to 1914 and say: ‘Who would have thought it?’
“Who would have thought that the archduke (Franz Ferdinand of Austria) being shot in Sarajevo would have led to the outbreak of war? Emperors, prime ministers and presidents of the United States had been shot by assassins, but suddenly it was this one small event that made the big difference.
“Why? Because the world was antsy, arms races were on, people were highly nationalistic.
“All of those conditions exist now. But we … have forgotten what happens when nations go to war and lots of people lose their lives. We have lost a lot of that memory since 1945.”
Admiral Barrie said the complacency of Australians “beggars belief”, when war could be “reasonably close”. “I think we live in the luxury of a country that has been very good to us. And I don’t think we take seriously enough the challenges that we are now confronting,” he said. “It’s very easy to just motor along thinking, ‘not much has changed’.
But I think there is a group of people who do get it in this country. Our young people are starting to get that their life is going to be very different from mine; their life is not going to be as rich with good things as my life was, because the challenges are really confronting.”
Admiral Barrie’s concerns were echoed by strategic analyst Greg Copley, the president of the Washington-based International Strategic Studies Association and a keynote speaker at the weekend conference that was supported by The Australian.
Mr Copley said not enough attention had been paid to developing a strategic industrial base in this country and Australians should feel “outraged to the point of revolution” that it cost three times more to build a submarine in Adelaide than in Japan or Europe.
Admiral Barrie said he was alarmed by the deterioration of security in Turkey, a NATO member allied to Europe and the US.
The founder of the modern secular state and hero of the Turks at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, would be “rolling in his grave” over the crackdowns on political opponents and commentators by Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The risk was growing that Turkey would follow neighbouring Syria into civil war, Admiral Barrie said. “It’s terrible the number of people who have been locked up because they may or may not agree with the current President.”