RICHARD BUTLER. The Alliance: The Facts and the Furphies

A review of how we conduct our alliance relationship with the US is urgently required, not simply because it has elected a President who is unfit for his job, but because of the US’ attachment to war.

Nothing motivates political leaders more deeply than the objective of obtaining and keeping power. The leaders of both of Australia’s main political parties are no exception.

When they address the issue of Australia’s national security, they assert that it relies upon our alliance with the US; indeed, they say, our ultimate national survival depends upon it. They adopt this position because they believe it is popular, and will ensure their election. At the least, they believe that to question the alliance would lose them an election.

Conservatives, within both main parties, believe that outcomes in international relations are ultimately determined by power, not principles or rules, and therefore, its best for Australia to be on the side of the most powerful state.

Our politicians have a serious problem today; the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. This has caused alarm, for reasons that are glaringly obvious, deeply disturbing around the world, and too numerous, to list here.

Trump’s election has raised, anew, the question of whether Australia should think again about the alliance. The response of our political leaders, and of their apologists, has been to say that it would be wrong and short-sighted, to reduce our attitude towards the alliance to the matter of the nature and character of the US president. Really !

This is a transparent diversion, a giant furphy.

It’s interesting that the concept of a furphy was invented by Australian troops serving in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War, to describe the latest rumour of what was going on. It’s a great Australian word, worth looking up. Most furphies turned out to be wrong, if imaginative, and thus the term has come to mean, in its common usage; misleading, false, information.

Let’s look at the current misrepresentations of the alliance.

First, that the US and all it stands for is solid and clearly resilient to the disaster that is the Trump presidency. It is not. The US polity, in all of its branches; executive, legislative, judicial and public service and civil society, is in disarray. In key areas it is barely functioning. There seems little reason to think it will recover any time soon, and every reason to think the dysfunction will deepen, as policy by tweets continues.

Secondly, US society is seriously divided, not just between: super rich and super poor, urban/rural, its very disparate regions, ethnic, immigrant and racial groups, abundant religious persuasions and factions. This is more than what has been called diversity or the US “melting pot”. These divisions have been manipulated politically by Trump and the right-wing racist and nativist organisations that have supported him. The pot is on the boil, stirred by Trump’s continual lying about important matters of fact.

The stability of US society is at issue, especially as Trump’s political longevity is increasingly questioned. What will happen if moves to impeach or remove him are mounted?

Thirdly, such a political crisis, it could be argued, would relieve us all, of the misbegotten Trump presidency. Problem solved?

Not necessarily, because his departure would not, as such, terminate the seriously dysfunctional situation within the political parties, particularly the Republicans, who opposed everything Obama attempted to do from day one and, have continued to pursue his political ghost. The Democrats continue to try to re-locate their soul.

There are so many stark examples of this mess, in areas of substance: health care, immigration, the environment, urban decay, taxation, to mention only some. The US needs much repairing and there seems to be continuing conflict over how to do it, or perhaps most importantly, who will benefit from it.

Fourthly, what does any of this internal US data have to do with the alliance relationship?

Actually, everything.

In addition to the elemental desirability of the alliance relationship being with a partner that enjoys stability and control over its own affairs, there is the abiding phenomenon of America seeking foreign adventures, conquest, war, as a solution to a lack of domestic political cohesion and the needs of its massive arms industries.

The US is an imperialist power in its international relations and has never been out of war, in multiple locations, since it became the predominant military power, following the Second World War.

Whatever the US says to the contrary, and notwithstanding the high-minded reasons it gives for its wars, the evidence demonstrates that it has become attached to war. Professor Andrew Bacevich’s superb books have documented this fact. President Dwight Eisenhower was the last US leader to warn against war, as such. That was 55 years ago.

Waging war, without basis in either of the two exceptional reasons expressed in the Charter of the UN, is illegal. The reasons the US has given for its modern wars have never been legal ones. Its actions in Vietnam and Iraq are outstanding examples and, in both cases, Australia accompanied the US militarily.

In this context, the most flagrant furphy of all of them is that we have joined the US in its wars in order to ensure its protection of us: Vietnam, Iraq in 2003. So, we joined in to defend ourselves from situations, which our side, that is, the Americans had, in fact, initiated. Some logic.

Contrary to Trump’s absurd assertions that the US has won all of these wars, in fact, it won none of them, not that to have won them, would have made them just or legal. And, the consequence of US interventions in the Middle East, has been the spread of terrorism, well beyond the region and chaos within it.

This reality is that the US is an imperial power; is recognized globally; its possible extension under Trump is a source of anxiety; and by our own doing, our identification with every US enterprise and policy is seen to be virtually complete. This all raises basic questions about our status as an independent nation, with its own values.

A critical question, which is almost certain to be faced, is when and on what issue; the DPRK for example, will Trump initiate a major foreign action as a means to divert attention from his growing political impotency and the derision he faces at home, and, of course, for the reason of his personal attachment to bullying.

Under present Australian policy, we would presumably accompany the US, as PM Turnbull has promised, in whatever adventure Trump chooses, because our solidarity with the US is fundamental, all that counts.

The core assertion made to justify such unwavering commitment to US actions is that it will ensure US protection of Australia, through the alliance. Specifically, this means extended nuclear deterrence by the US of any attack upon Australia.

This is a fantasy. No nuclear weapon state will engage in conflict, which could become nuclear, on behalf of an ally. But, in our case, we will attract an attack upon our territory, if the US becomes involved in a nuclear exchange or threatens one, as it is currently doing towards DPRK, because the US bases on our soil are integrated into US nuclear war fighting command and control system.

When justifying our participation in the US led, illegal invasion of Iraq, in 2003, John Howard and Tony Blair posited the existence of an “Anglosphere” of which we were members. It’s impossible to overstate how deeply objectionable such an exceptionalist notion is to so many others, although it would have stirred the spirit of the late Rudyard Kipling.

Our role in international relations is harmed by an ethnocentric and missionary definition of ourselves. It is racist and encourages the racist and religious ideology of extremist and terrorist groups who indeed prefer the world to be divided in precisely the way our version of American exceptionalism achieves.

Three facts should now motivate a policy review by us:

First, we must manage our role in the alliance very differently, because as the late Malcolm Fraser pointed out, it has become a “dangerous alliance”; dangerous to us. We have made it so, by our actions.

Secondly, it is not beyond our wit to conduct our relations with the US on the basis of mutual respect and shared interests, perhaps especially economic interests, without becoming enmeshed in their warlike policies. Who knows, they might even care to take our counsel from time to time.

Thirdly, the central value at issue here is our own integrity. This is intrinsically valuable and in fact, is the key to our future security.


Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations; Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York.


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derrida derider

I agree with Paul that Trump changes very little from our PV. In fact, as Paul notes, if you look at what he does, as distinct from what he says then in the foreign affairs space he is a pretty orthodox US prez. Which is not surprising as the man has no interest in foreign affairs and leaves it, as most US presidents have and as Hillary certainly would have, to his generals and their lobbyists to manage. But I disagree with Paul on the underlying power realities. The rise of China and India has utterly transformed those realities in… Read more »

Paul Frijters

Richard, whilst I agree with the basic idea that Australia should have an independent foreign policy and that little would be lost by detachment from the US, I do need to quibble about important aspects of your reasoning that go the question of the current alliance. At heart, your piece confuses bluster for reality. First, rumours of the demise of the US are exaggerated. Its GDP growth is an estimated 3% this year, higher than the EU and higher than Australia. Its growing economy supports the worlds most powerful and modern army. Hence in terms of sheer power-politics, the US… Read more »

John Thompson

A very good post. It is absolutely imperative that we review and change our unquestioning subservience to the US. I would like to see the development and adoption of a foreign policy that sees Australia develop into a highly respected and independent middle power capitalising on our geographic position and multicultural society to provide a useful and valued ‘middle man’ function in the Indo Pacific region especially between Asia and the Americas, or between Asia and the presumptuously named Anglosphere. We have particular advantages or resources that makes such a position or role possible: our geographic position, our current trading… Read more »


Many thanks Richard for your splendid analysis; indeed one can only agree with previous posters.
I think that your last two paragraphs are particularly telling and provide an excellent foundation to proceed.

Richard Butler has laid the Alliance with the US bare. Much of this was discussed at the IPAN conference held over the weekend of 8-10 September. Audio files of speakers including US Prof David Vine, Korean activist Sung Hee Choi, Olivier Bancoult, indigenous leader from Diego Garcia
available at

Ramesh Thakur

Agree with Tony. This is Richard at his very best: well informed, devastatingly forensic, and all the more hard hitting for the elegance of his writing.

Tony Kevin

Superb hardhitting analysis. Perhaps the most important essay Richard Butler has yet had published on John Menadue’s Blog. Every student of Australian foreign policy who is serious about the subject needs to think about Richard’s propositions here.