“Another Saturday Night”

Sydney Morning Herald (iPad edition), 19th October 2012

Before he died, Robert McNamara reflected on the Cuban Missile Crisis and urged modern political leaders to understand just how close the human race came to self-destruction.

He recounted his anxiety after another long day with JFK and the national security team on Saturday October 20 1962:

“It was a perfectly beautiful night, as fall nights are in Washington. I walked out of the President’s Oval Office, and as I walked out, I thought I might never live to see another Saturday night.”

That was 50 years ago this week.

McNamara, Kennedy’s Defense Secretary, had long feared that the world’s war making capability had grown faster than its ability to peacefully resolve conflict, and in this environment if two super powers collided then humanity faced danger on a scale never before witnessed.

In October 1962 he awoke mid nightmare to discover his fears had become reality. On 14 October a US Air Force U-2 plane discovered Soviet missile bases under construction in San Christobal in western Cuba. McNamara was briefed that night. Kennedy saw the photographic proof the next morning. For the next thirteen days the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.

What saved the human race then from Armageddon? According to McNamara two things: 1. Kennedy – he understood the situation and adopted a posture to maximize the possibility of peace; and 2. Luck.

50 years on and the world now awakes to the dawn of an Asian century and the emergence of new super powers. Geopolitical gravity is shifting to our part of the world. In Australia this has spawned a spirited debate about what this means for our relationship with the United States and our relationship with China.

More important than either of these though, is the relationship China and the United States have with each other. This is the great geopolitical challenge of our time.

There is a very important difference between the United States relationship with China and the relationship they had with the former Soviet Union – and that’s economics. China is the biggest purchaser of US debt. The US is the biggest purchaser of Chinese exports.

It is a symbiotic relationship – they need each other to grow and survive. Nothing like this ever existed between the United States and the former Soviet Union. The importance of this should not be understated.

Australia’s destiny is inexorably linked to the rise of Asia. We sit on the edge of what will be the biggest middle class the world has ever seen. By the end of this decade, Asia will have a bigger middle class than the rest of the world combined. Ten years after that, two thirds of the world’s middle class will live on our doorstep. Just imagine what this will mean for Australia. Higher incomes mean higher levels of spending on things like education, tourism, consumer goods and services.

Our challenge is to make the most of this – to convert a mining boom into a services boom. How well we do this will determine the standard of living of all Australians for the rest of the century.

We get this. So does the United States. We are competing in the same market for the same contracts and the same consumers.

America’s “pivot” to the Asia Pacific is not just a military strategy. It is much more than that. It’s much more than just an extra carrier battle group in the Pacific or a Marine Air Ground Taskforce in Darwin. The United States is expanding its diplomacy, its trade negotiations and its investment right across the region. America is “doubling down” on Asia. It’s future is as tied to this region as ours is.

If there were a clash between two giants in the Asian Century it would result in Mutually Assured Economic Destruction. This should make the geopolitical challenges of this century easier than the last. We all have a financial stake in its success. But it will still require wise leadership.

In May this year America’s most senior military leader, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke at a US think tank about the Thucydides Trap.

Thucydides chronicled the Peloponnesian War more than two thousand years ago between Athens and Sparta. He concluded that it was Sparta’s fear of a rising Athens that made war inevitable. That is the Thucydides Trap.

Talking about the rise of China, General Dempsey said that one of his jobs was to help avoid a Thucydides Trap. He is absolutely right. But it is also the responsibility of political leaders.

50 years after the world almost came to end it is important to stop and reflect, but it is even more important to harvest the lessons of those thirteen days in October and apply them to the challenges that lie ahead.

JFK was a great fan of Robert Frost, the four time Pulitzer Prize winning poet. One of his most famous poems is “The Road Not Taken”. It is a life lesson about the consequences of the choices we make. It is also an argument for taking the road less travelled.

We are all the beneficiaries of the choices JFK made and the path he took 50 years ago, not just a Defense Secretary who lived to see another Saturday night.

May the choices future leaders make be just as wise.