MICHAEL McKINLEY. Australia and the wars of the alliance: fragments for a coronial inquiry – Part 4: The finding: a disordered national mindset and body politic

Australia’s alliance wars – their respective causes, conduct, and consequences – are overdetermined by the politics and strategies of the United States. In general, though they consist of few battlefield successes, the overall record is one of failed campaigns informed by repeatedly failed – indeed, ‘dead’ – ideas that for various reasons maintain their currency.  The purpose of this post is to conclude a limited coronial inquiry on the basis of the three previous posts – that is, to establish the mind-set existing up to the time the death occurred. 

Historically, Australia has been (and remains) a fretful country; life was existentially compromised and conflicted by the population being separated from imperial Britain, and later Europe, which paradoxically provided all the inducements that made departure necessary. While Advance Australia Fair celebrates the geographic immensity and extraordinary riches of the country, it cannot conceal what insightful observers have always known: under stress, the inhabitants share the Pascalian terror of the “eternal silence of the infinite spaces”.  Bone-deep, therefore, Australians are prone to experience their locale as a predicament and thus to be, in a phrase borrowed from the early 20th century writer, Anna Kavan, “reluctant campers too far from home”.

By extension, Australia developed an habitual need for, and subordination to, a protector.  After the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse in late 1941, and then the Fall of Singapore in 1942, the cue of an immediate threat which generated the response to seek a protector in the United States was natural, even imperative.  But it became a reflexive, habitual mindset which  shielded existing knowledge from reconsideration and, with the onset of the Cold War, all cues of threat, no matter their significance, served as intermittent reinforcements regardless of the high risks and dysfunctional outcomes.

The plea in mitigation was that, once the imperial promises of protection had been rendered empty by the British catastrophes, nothing less than national salvation was at stake, and salvation required a saviour, no matter that, in the longer term, it might lead to a form of reckless endangerment.  An alliance, therefore, went beyond being an instrumental mode of thinking and acting in time of war, went beyond immediate gratitude for the relief of wartime suffering heavily overlaid with a fear of abandonment, and became more akin to the fusing of an addiction which overturned self-control and a fatal idée fixe which controlled thought and behaviour.

The old, failed British Empire – the Jerusalem which the poet, William Blake, honoured as the pure and symbolic residence of humanity – was replaced by an America which expropriated biblical Israel and saw itself as New Zion charged with a Manifest Destiny and, in Johan Galtung’s formulation, Manifest Theology. The core of this is a form of narcissism which reigns as American Exceptionalism – a belief which, over time, grew into a national conceit that the United States was God-chosen to lead the world and was, in every essential respect, indispensable and entitled: without it, the world lacked a lodestone to guide human progress.  It presents in its host as egoism, vanity, selfishness, all of which in combination were understood by the ancient Greeks as hubris – an affliction of overwhelming pride and arrogance.  The narcissist also receives a perverse benefit if the condition is allowed to reign untreated: it serves as an opiate, obviating the need for radical self-criticism.

As a matter of public record this delusionary exceptionalism was reproduced in the host with a reciprocal disorder entailing dependency and a loss of identity. An indication was provided in the 1991 work by Bruce Grant and Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, wherein the US is heralded as “the exemplar of the Western model”.

In a formal, conceptual sense this disorder conforms closely to the underlying demeanour of Australia in international politics that Alan Renouf used as a central theme in his book, The Frightened Country; equally, Alan Gyngell’s recent Fear of Abandonment has a strong resonance here.  Formally, what they speak of is categorised as Dependent Personality Disorder, the symptoms of which include:

  • difficulty making everyday decisions without excessive advice and reassurance from others who are needed to assume responsibility for most major areas of life;
  • avoiding disagreement with these others for fear of losing their approval;
  • a sense of devastation when relationships end, thus leading right into another relationship when one ends;
  • a belief that, ultimately, they are unable to care for themselves, and thus the placing of the needs of their caregivers above their own.

Frequently, the condition is so pronounced that the symptoms are known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, a disorder in which the sufferer experiences “two clear identities or personality states, each of which has a fairly consistent way of viewing the and relating to the world”. Thus “frightened” Australia can find itself unrecognisable in the mirror when it is celebrated as a close and victorious ally of the United States.

To this extent the true power-political position of the country is de-realised by an illusion of sovereignty; worse, the mechanisms by which the country travelled to this imagined state – most often by public deceit and illegality (national and international) – and the crude calculations of imagined advantage and benefits which would flow from the US, become casualties of the necessary lapses in memory and blackouts in time. Prominent examples include the Defence White Paper of 2016 – a document in no way at all discounted by the recent Foreign Policy White Paper.  A focus on the former is sufficient illustration.

Unusually, for a document that should be sober and matter-of-fact, it is littered with unjustified superlatives.  Another infestation throughout the document is the tongue of neoliberalism – “investment” and the appeal to private enterprise as authorities on matters financial as though they had something to contribute on matters strategic.

These pall, however, alongside the clearly expressed intentions to support the US and its allies anywhere in the world – effectively, this entails a decision to out-source Australian strategic analysis to the Pentagon, White House and the Beltway.  The abject failure of US interventions and invasions over the last 70 years is unmentioned.

Then we find that, notwithstanding this loss of both long-term and short-term memory, the ADF is to become “a more capable, agile and potent force”.  Everything, to use the word found throughout the document, will be “enhanced” and lifted beyond the mundane levels of yesteryear and today.  And there it is: Australian Defence Policy in general, and the ADF in particular, are metaphorical athletes, on steroids and Viagra, suffering from Alzheimer’s.

From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught international relations and strategy in the Department of Politics, UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.

 

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