Australia at the crossroads of time and imagination
Can Australia rise to the challenge of a rapidly transforming world or is it bound to the myths of a bygone age?
Australia’s sense of place from the earliest days of European settlement can be crudely but not inaccurately said to have rested on five myths:
- that Australia’s ‘whiteness’ was crucial to its identity and attachment to Western (i.e. British) traditions and values;
- that with a small population and a vast territory to defend, our security ultimately depended on protection by the imperial power;
- that such protection required Australia to demonstrate loyalty to the protector;
- that the main threats to our security originated in Asia, where unfamiliar civilisations and huge populations could not but look with envy upon our economic prosperity; and
- that loyalty to the imperial protector and an effective response to external threats required a policy of forward defence, that is, a willingness to fight ‘sooner rather than later’ and ‘there rather than here’.
Though the decline of the British Empire was widely viewed at the time with dismay and alarm, the rise of the United States as the preeminent world power afforded much needed reassurance. The transition to dependence on US military protection was consummated with the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951. Though not entirely painless, the alliance would over time help to entrench all five myths with only minor adjustments along the way, of which the only significant one was the abandonment of ‘white Australia’ as the basis of our immigration policy.
Sixty-five years later, the balance sheet of the alliance is most striking for the negligible benefits it has brought Australia and the heavy costs it has imposed on our diplomacy, security, budgets, and importantly on the values we supposedly cherish, not least our commitment to civil liberties at home and human rights abroad. Perhaps the most damaging effect has been to strengthen the addiction to empire and the consequent failure to reconcile our history and geography.
These cumulative costs are now compounded by a profoundly altered international landscape. For some time now, the economic, diplomatic and organisational dominance of the United States has been in steady decline. So has its moral stature and the utility of military power, the one asset where it still enjoys outright superiority. From Vietnam to Syria, the record is clear: great power military intervention has achieved few, if any, of its objectives, while the costs have been severe and enduring. Support for US doctrines, strategies and expeditions has distracted Australian governments from the important and demanding task of cementing relations with Asia, especially with China, and served to stunt our political discourse, diplomatic capital and bureaucratic skill and competence.
All of this at a time when we need to join like-minded countries to address a series of regional and global challenges of unprecedented magnitude. The long list includes climate change, the re-emerging threat posed by nuclear weapons, continuing fragility of the international financial system, highly destabilising inequalities of wealth and income within and between countries, the devastating impact of foreign military interventions in the Middle East, Africa and West Asia, the poisonous relationship between Islam and the West, the souring of great power relations and the massive displacement of peoples fleeing war and persecution. In the search for viable solutions military alliances have proved more of a hindrance than a help.
So, what might be a more promising direction for Australia? Formal abrogation of ANZUS is neither a priority nor politically feasible. A more constructive two-pronged approach suggests itself. The first prong involves cutting current military and intelligence links which inhibit peaceful settlement of disputes, not least in relation to the South China Sea, removing the US military presence from Australian soil, ending all overseas military deployments which are not explicitly authorised by the UN Security Council, and shifting the authority to commit Australian military forces overseas from the executive to the Australian parliament.
The second prong requires Australia to determine the policy positions it needs to adopt on the most pressing transnational challenges to security as well as the most useful relationships and forums through which these positions can be collectively advanced, regionally and globally. A high priority in this context is the comprehensive renewal of multilateral institutions, notably the UN Security Council, the G20, and the Asia-Pacific security architecture. All of this needs a culturally sensitive and consultative approach aimed at developing effective diplomatic coalitions of the willing, in which national governments closely coordinate their efforts with those of civil society and international institutions.
Australia will no doubt wish to consult with the United States on a range of issues, but consultation does not mean approval. Australia’s policies must ultimately reflect its own perspectives and priorities. Where the positions of the two countries differ, as friends they have to agree to disagree. The relationship with the United States will remain an important one for Australia, but its form and content should be set not so much by the interests of their respective political and security establishments as by the needs and aspirations of the two societies and the international community as a whole.
Joseph Camilleri is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University.