In his recent searching commentary on Australia’s foreign policy Hugh White left us with many challenging observations. Two of them lodged in my mind. In his Quarterly Essay: Without America he argued that Australia is going to have a more independent foreign policy in the new Asia—more independent of Washington that is ‘whether it likes it or not.’ While commenting on the recently released Foreign Policy White Paper he observed that the document failed ‘ the essential ingredient for effective diplomacy when weight of power is not on your side: new ideas.’ It was, he remarked, ’a telling omission.’
This second observation was pertinent not just to the paper itself but to the discussion which followed as well. There was no debate in parliament and little serious analysis in the main stream media. Government and Opposition were in lock step as we have come to expect in matters relating to defence and security. The conformity reaches deep into the political system. Party discipline is so tight that if there is internal disputation we rarely hear about it. The local media compounds the problem by endlessly looking for division then parroting the mantra that division is death. What this does is to strip Australian public life of serious intellectual exegesis. There is similar conformity among those people chosen by the media as the go- to experts usually working in the defence and foreign policy think tanks in Canberra. They are largely staffed by men and women who have had careers in the armed forces, the security networks or the department of defence. They comment on policies and practices that they helped shape while inside the system.
Hugh White’s analysis of the need for radical realignment is therefore a particularly challenging and invigorating thesis. But its very distinctiveness points to an implicit unasked question. Is Australia capable of radical change? Intellectual habits re-enforce institutional inertia. The American alliance has been endlessly promoted for almost seventy years. There has been little encouragement to discuss the very real limitations of the ANZUS Treaty. The Australian public have been fed on rhetoric which grossly exaggerates Australian influence in Washington and insists that we have a special relationship as so many other countries imagine they do. The language of personal relations is carried over into diplomacy, Julia Gillard declaring that Americans and Australians were mates. Malcolm Turnbull went further alluding to Siamese twins when telling us we were joined to our great and powerful friend at the hip.
The two country’s defence and intelligence services are intricately inter-related. As the recent White Paper announced:’ A strong and deep alliance is at the core of Australia’s security and defence planning.’ The favoured word of the defence establishment is’ interoperability.’ The argument and the rhetoric point in only one direction. There is no space for a u-turn. There is no plan B.
So where are the iconoclastic political leaders who can prepare us for a very different future? The present state of our politics provides little encouragement on that score. When foreign and defence policies are debated they are used as weapons in parliamentary point scoring. The sudden destruction of Sam Dastyari’s political career is a compelling example. The inflation of indiscretion into disloyalty and even espionage would have been remarkable even in the height of the Cold War. More astonishing was the ease with which the red peril was disinterred. The threat, as portrayed, came not from’ China’ or the’ Chinese Government’ but from the ’Communist Party.’
The young senator has gone but important reflections remain. The flurry of concern about foreign influence is so sharply selective. And there is so much attendant hypocrisy. American influence is pervasive and so familiar we scarcely notice it. So Rupert Murdoch’s papers can lead the crusade against foreign influence without embarrassment and certainly without self-reflection. The capacity of Israel to intrude into local politics has recently been abundantly documented in Pearls and Irritations. And this makes the reaction to China’s attempt to exert influence all the more problematic. It was all done with loud rhetoric and screaming headlines. A visitor to Australia would never guess that the object of the crusade was our greatest and irreplaceable trading partner and source of a large share of our overseas students and tourists.
The momentum which was created to destroy Dastyari is a mere foretaste of what could happen to any government that tried to develop a more independent foreign policy as Hugh White persuasively advocates. Bi-partisanship would be unlikely if politics continues to be played as it is today. The Murdoch press would, it is fair to assume, crusade with intense fervour against any change of direction. Many members of the defence and intelligence communities would resist the reforming government using an array of devices. The United States would scarcely look on with benign detachment and respect Australia’s sovereignty.
But if change is too difficult to bring about where does that leave us? Will it be business as usual? Will we continue to follow the United States into further unnecessary wars? And looming over everything is the possibility of a Sino-American War which at its worst would be as disastrous for this century as the Great War was for the previous one. Would we have freedom of choice or would our involvement be pre-determined? The Americans clearly assume we will be there and presumably plan accordingly. The defence establishment’s admiration for interoperability makes entanglement in America’s wars so much easier.
Much of the cogency of Hugh White’s Without America essay comes from his concern arising from these portentous circumstances. He offers the nation their plan B, a future without America, but he is not certain it will be implemented. He may not want to play the role of Cassandra but events may force it on him.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who has focused on frontier conflict between indigenous people and European settlers, and has written many books on that subject. His latest book is Unnecessary Wars.