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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7 Responses to RICHARD BUTLER. The Alliance: The Facts and the Furphies

  1. derrida derider says:

    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 our region – simply, the US is still the biggest thug in the neighbourhood, but not so big that in any brawl it won’t take some unacceptable damage itself. In particular, claims the big guy is happy to have an all-in brawl anytime to sort the less thugs out no longer look credible.

    I agree with Paul though that it is incompetent thuggery, rather than thuggery selectively applied in the service of expanding the business, that we have most to fear from. The way China’s clumsy attempts to use NK have backfired is a good example (hint guys: before you hire a weedy little agent provocateur do make sure he will only annoy your enemies enough to put their judgement off, not enough to risk an all-in brawl that wrecks the whole market) .

  2. Paul Frijters says:


    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 remains the camp to be in. The dysfunctionality of Washington is, perhaps surprisingly, unimportant for the economy and military might of the US. Migration rates into the US, often a good indicator of how life actually is in a country, are similarly healthy (around 0.3-0.5% a year).

    Second, rumours of the strategic demise of the US have been exaggerated. India, through Chinese stupidity, has been pushed in the US direction. Ukraine has been pushed, by Russian stupidity, in the US direction. The EU remains firmly NATO-bound and thus in the US camp. And Japan and S-Korea are now more than before in the US camp, due IMO to the North Koreans getting nuclear weapons, something I think they got from the Chinese. No other ally is hence abandoning the US. Australia would look out of place if it openly shunned the Americans now. And you shouldn’t believe that the Trump-opponents in the US would like it either.

    Third, rumours of Trump’s disastrous presidency have been exaggerated, at least in terms of foreign policy. No new wars have been started that I know of and the reactions to N-Korea by any US president would have been similar to Trump’s. No major trade wars have started, only symbolic stuff has so far been implemented when it comes to foreign policy.

    Fourth, rumours of Australian involvement in recent US wars have been exaggerated. One of John Howard’s great achievements was to be seen to join the US without actually doing so. We sent, what, merely 1000 military personel to Iraq in 2003? And similar paltry numbers to Afghanistan and elsewhere. Hence we are ‘doing the US alliance’ on the cheap. Well done John Howard, take a bow. I mean it, in terms of bang-for-buck, the man was a class act. If there is a cost to the US alliance, it would be more in terms of those ridiculous submarines and local bases, not foreign wars.

    Fifth, rumours of Australian antipathy to the enemies of the US are exaggerated. Australia is not in conflict with China, on the contrary. China is our biggest trading partner, Oz is a big tourist destination for the Chinese, Chinese tax-evasion is possibly our biggest growing industry, and ‘we’ now take in some 50,000 Chinese migrants a year (students and others). A very strong relationship. So we already master the art of sucking up to the new superpower whilst still being the allies with the former. Switching in the future can be done easily, at the right price, though I don’t see it happening.

    Hence, whilst I do not like the cow-towing to the US that typifies Australian foreign policy, there is in fact not much new in this space and on any objective reading, things are going quite nicely for Australia. So don’t expect a real re-think.
    I think Australia should have an independent foreign policy because it should think for itself, not because some overseas leader’s psychology. Australia should have been independent 10 years ago too. And 100 years ago. Independent of foreign events and foreign leaders. To link independence to the question of the psychology of this or that foreign leader is basically a mistake, a negative reason, whereas the reason should be positive.

    Oh, and btw, I do not agree that Islamic fundamentalism was caused by US wars. I blame the Saudis and others for that and they started exporting fanaticism a long time ago. I in general find it a bit tacky and fake to blame ourselves for everything bad in the world. It is a form of not taking the rest of the world seriously. They don’t need us to f-up.

  3. John Thompson says:

    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 links, our multicultural society, and the fact that we do not represent a threat to any of the major powers.
    This would imply ending our dependence and subservience to the US so that we are no longer perceived as that country’s lapdog. It would also mean removing or changing the management arrangements of all permanent military bases of the US and other countries from Australia. And it would require us to have an effective and (as much as possible) independent defence (underline defence) capability.
    We would develop language and cultural capabilities that would enable us to provide effective and non-threatening independent brokerage and negotiation capabilities that would see us called upon to assist with addressing international differences. These smarts would, of course, also be of immense local economic and social value. (And which are not being developed at present.)
    For the foreseeable future we will not be a great power. In this world of rapidly changing powers, we should use our modest strengths to our advantage and in a flexible manner so that we are seen as usefully independent to all nations in this region.
    In my view, there is growing widespread skepticism of the US alliance (it’s more than an alliance, it’s a subservience) in Australia; the question, for me, is what is the appropriate forum in which this matter can be best considered?

  4. Julian says:

    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.

  5. 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

  6. Ramesh Thakur says:

    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.

  7. Tony Kevin says:

    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.

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