The USA is a complex place with its vices, virtues and differences. Despite its noble ideals and democratic institutions, it has a long history of aggression and of overthrowing democracies in the pursuit of American commercial or strategic interests. It does not have the moral high ground and its lectures to other countries can be counter-productive. It does not observe the rules it demands from others.. This does not make it any worse than other countries but no better either. Australia should judge it by the same standards that we apply to other counties. We cannot trust Chinese and Russian propaganda and intelligence but nor can we trust the Americans. It is very dangerous to put all our strategic eggs in the one basket especially when we don’t know what the threat will be and when the US has a president as unpredictable as Donald Trump. Let us be friends but not a client state.
The United States is a complex and varied country which contains many different points of view. It combines noble ideals with the ruthless pursuit of American interests. Many Americans believe in these ideals and put them into practice but far too often US governments betray them. Many of the best criticisms of US failings come from Americans. There have been some serious critiques of current US policy from American scholars and journalists but, however cogent, these criticisms don’t seem to have a lot of influence on the Administration and conservatives in the Congress. The US does not have a government in the sense that we do; it has a process which was designed for a very different country and not for a world power.
Congress and the courts limit what presidents can do in many ways but as commander in chief the president has a lot of power especially in the short term. Nd, of course, the Congress can be very warlike too.
Americans are patriotic and religious which leads them to see the world in terms of good and evil with the US on the side of God and their enemies led by Satan. Like other empires, they think they are exceptional and that perhaps underlies some of the things they do. They do have an ability to identify their own errors and to correct them but not always and not always in time. Vietnam is a classic example of a mistake that was supported but then aborted by public opinion.
None of the following is meant to suggest that the US really is the Great Satan and that it is somehow more evil than everyone else but rather that it should be judged by the same standards that we apply to other countries. It is no better or worse than anyone else but it is more powerful and important and therefore matters more. With that caveat clearly in mind, we must accept that the USA has a long history of aggression against its neighbours and others as well as a series of intelligence failures and poor political judgements. President Trump’s claim to make America great and put America first is nothing new. Think back to the era of the Hearst newspapers and Teddy Roosevelt for a time when Manifest Destiny led to foreign adventures as just one example.
In1950 the US Administration, media and Congress believed that China was a Soviet satellite and that it would not be allowed to intervene in the Korean War. This attitude led to President Truman approving General MacArthur’s recommendation, endorsed by the Joint Chiefs, that UN forces should head for the Yalu. A number of warnings by China were ignored and UN troops suffered the consequences. This failure was caused to some extent by poor intelligence but more by political blinkers. The US crusade against international communism also led them to first support the French in Vietnam and then to fight for the losing side in a civil war. In the process, they ignored an agreement that Vietnam wide elections should be held because the US believed, probably correctly, that their rooster would lose. There is no need to repeat here what happened after that.
The US has supported or indeed created a number of very nasty Latin American dictators and overthrown democratic governments that did not suit American commercial or strategic interests. While demanding that other countries not interfere in the affairs of their neighbours, the US has a long history of doing what the Russians are doing in Ukraine. For the most part, American Administrations probably do understand what they are doing but choose to ignore the fact that they are creating and/or propping up brutal dictators with no interest in democracy. The overthrow of the Arbenz Government in Guatemala and Salvador Allende in Chile were classic examples of this. The attempt to use Contras to get rid of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua is one that failed. It is ironic that Americans are having hysterics over Russian interference in their elections as if they hadn’t been doing it to others for years, recently in Ukraine.
In the Middle East, support for the Shah in Iran ignored the fact that he was a dictator who showed little understanding of the growing opposition to his rule which led to his overthrow and replacement by a strongly anti-American regime. The US supported the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan simply because they opposed the Soviet Union. Neither the Russians nor the Americans really understood what was going on and probably still don’t. The illegal invasion of Iraq was a not only a failure but also opened Pandora’s Box which led to the present mess in Iraq and Syria. The claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction may have been an intelligence failure or just political unwillingness to accept that he might not. In any case, the belief that they would be welcomed and that Iraq would become a peaceful and democratic friend was a monumental failure of political intelligence and foresight. (The US has still not officially withdrawn its criticism of the UN now that the UN has been shown to have been right and the US wrong although Trump has said they were wrong to go in.} US actions in Syria show a traditional lack of understanding of the local situation. They have tolerated and indeed created many dictators just as bad as Assad so we must assume that the real US concern is that Assad is Russia’s son of a bitch and not America’s. Attempts to identify clear goodies and baddies in Syria just don’t work. In the light of history, can we be confident that the US is not leading us into another fine mess?
There can be no doubt that North Korea is a dangerous place which may well pose a serious threat to its neighbours. It may be just mad enough to carry out its threats although we should not take this for granted. China is probably the only country that can do anything to control Kim but foreigners tend to exaggerate the influence China has. In any case, as the Korean War showed, it is in their interests to have a buffer state between their border and potentially hostile countries. President Trump’s statement that China was helping the US on Korea was the height of arrogance. Surely it should be the other way round? Similarly, threats to go it alone don’t really help either. An attack on North Korea could have dangerous consequences although the odds favour more talk than walk on both sides. Trump does occasionally show encouraging signs of cooperating with China as a partner but we don’t know from one day to the next what Trump will say or do. Public reports that he is putting pressure on China are not likely to be well received by the Chinese who had to put up with over a century of foreign lectures.
So this is the country which is lecturing China and Russia on how they should behave. If the Americans think that they have the moral high ground and that these countries will listen to them for that reason they are kidding themselves.. American moral exceptionalism leads to US criticism of other countries for doing what it does. Democracies do not necessarily behave any better internationally than dictatorships however superior their domestic arrangements may be. Far too often the aim is to win and bend others to US views rather than seeking negotiated arrangements on the basis of equality. Does Trump still want to do deals?
Australia seems to share the rose coloured glasses view of American virtues while ignoring its vices. Our government publicly endorses everything the US does presumably on the grounds that the US will save us from an unspecified enemy at an unspecified time. We do not ask whether we are more likely to be dragged into a war by the US than to have the US defend us if we are attacked when the US is not attacked at the same time. We have taken sides in a way that can drag us into a war or make us a target. Any threat assessment asks who has the capability and the motive to threaten our interests. We don’t seem to be clear on either. We may get some benefit from American technical intelligence but we cannot trust American intelligence assessments or propaganda any more than we can trust Russian or Chinese, let alone North Korean! Even less can we trust Trump who seems to have in spades the view that the US is not bound by the rules that apply to others. Combine this arrogance with ignorance and lack of a policy machine in his Administration and it is time to build a bomb shelter.
We should judge the US as we judge others without accepting that anyone has the moral high ground . History suggests that the US, China and Russia will equally want a security zone on their borders and will seek to pursue their interests by force or diplomacy as it suits them. The Australian Foreign Minister stated that Australia supports the right of our allies to protect their interests which leaves some important questions unanswered. Do we support them under all circumstances? Do we support the right of countries which are not our allies to protect their interests? Our Prime Minister makes rather pathetic efforts to tell China and others what to do but nobody is listening to him except Vice President Pence who tickled his tummy for it.. Australia has put all its strategic eggs in one basket which is always dangerous. At the moment there is no serious external threat to Australia but that will not stop our politicians from jingoistic outbursts and military fearmongering. However, we are so tightly locked into an alliance publicly and ideologically that there is little likelihood of a change unless Trump does something really crazy and even then our record shows we will be the last to desert the USA. So far we have got away with it but as America’s relative power declines how long can we keep it up?
By all means let us acknowledge America’s undoubted virtues but don’t turn a blind eye to their vices. Do not confuse domestic arrangements and beliefs with international actions. We should take notice of the excellent American critics of their own country ‘s policy and history instead of the blinkered elements that too often rule the US.. Like Australians, Americans do practice Oscar Wilde’s dictum that we owe it to history to reinvent it.
Cavan Hogue was formerly Australian Ambassador to USSR and Russia, and Ambassador to Thailand and Mexico, and High Commissioner to Malaysia.