The review of Australian foreign policy needs to be freed from the myths of our dependency and take serious account of the current and likely state of US foreign and military policy.
The distinguished historian of Europe in the 20th Century, Timothy Snyder, of Yale, was asked in a recent interview about the role of various versions of history in shaping current political attitudes. (Vox.com , 9th March, 2017) The interview was framed within the widespread and growing concern that the election of Trump reflects a drift towards fascism in America, which, in good measure, Snyder thinks is the case.
“we have to start from history itself and not from the comforting or delusive myths we might have about the past… a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous” and warned against politicians seducing “the population with a vision of the past in which the nation was once great, only to be sullied by some external enemy”.
He had in mind Trump and his xenophobia, and the political uses to which the threat of terrorism is being put.
It will be of crucial importance in the review of Australian foreign policy, now underway, that we address our own history and its enduring and misleading myth: that we cannot survive nationally without the protection of a large power. It was the British, when we were effectively a dependency and able, for example, to be dispatched to Gallipoli and Flanders, and then the Americans, for whom we have now made ourselves a surrogate, beginning, in the modern period, with our request to take part in their war on Vietnam and now extending to Iraq and Syria.
The enquiry into our future foreign policy will be an abject failure if it does not address, in honest terms, the costs and benefits of the US Alliance, freed from its mythological, historicist, clothing.
James O’Neill’s article on Australia’s and the US’ involvement in Iraq and Syria, (“A Tale of Two Cities”, Pearls and Irritations, 27th March, 2017), provides a searing example of where our leaders’ interpretation of the Alliance has led us.
Australian governments have committed Australian military assets and personnel to the various wars in Iraq and Syria for the past 13 years. As O’Neill and others have repeatedly pointed out: they did this on the basis of false and fabricated data, misled the Australian people and Parliament about their decisions, have not reported truthfully, if at all, on our actions in those theatres. Those actions have violated international law and apparently included our participation in war crimes.
How have they escaped serious resistance to and enquiry into their decisions?
The absence of any rigorous interest in these facts on the part of Australian media is a good part of the answer but it does reflect, the lack of interest within the general public in these events and perhaps in foreign policy, generally.
So, we endure the empty circle of feedback between: allegedly no interest on the part of the people, no direct harm being done to them, no drama, so no media interest. The media, completes the circle, excuses itself from any sense of responsibility to report on or discuss these serious matters, by claiming that there’s little public interest in them, an interest they do nothing to encourage.
Mention must also be made of the bias displayed in western media reporting, particularly on the policies and actions of Russia and China. Simply, there is an extravagant double standard applied for the purpose of demonstrating that the permanent condition of the world is that those others are always bad and dangerous, and “our side” is always good and seeks laudable objectives, no matter how imperfectly. This is pathetic, infantile, and not remotely honest.
Australia does exercise freedom of action, in its foreign policy, but far too often the common feature, the bottom line, of such instances is that they are issues in which the US has not identified an important interest. Our main identified purpose, in our current foreign policy, can be encapsulated, as making sure, above all, that we do what suits the US.
A major outcome of this situation, is that we have followed the US in militarizing our foreign policy, in essentially erasing the vital distinction between foreign and defense policy.
Persons seeking elected office, indeed government itself, from both major Australian parties have accepted these circumstances and, indeed, come to prefer them. It’s dumb, easy and a cynical abdication of responsibility.
But, they have also recognized the need to claim to have a foreign policy, at least for platform and electoral purposes, and there are some constituencies they need to satisfy, such as the veterans and defense oriented groups. For this, they need a narrative of both patriotism and purpose in the world, and the requisite glint of steel. Our faithfulness to the Alliance is seen as providing this.
We have intrinsic national interests, beyond Australia, and have often stood for what could be called principles, rules of conduct, in relations amongst nations. But, beginning at the time of our own request to take part in the US’ war on Vietnam, and now to an even heightened degree since John Howard took us into Iraq, our major decisions in foreign policy have been determined by what our politicians believe the Americans want of us. Our leaders seek public support for this by: developing a narrative of us being on the side of the good, just, and right, on the one hand, and our needing the US to ensure our very survival, on the other. The latter deploys, particularly, another myth; that of US’ extended nuclear deterrence.
Both of these propositions are: false, deceptions. As O’Neill and so very many others have pointed out, in Australia, in the US, the UK, indeed in so many other countries and in credible universities and think-tanks, the idea of a simple division between the good and the bad actors in the Middle East, for example, is nonsense. And, it is true that the current state of affairs, there, was caused by the US/Australia/UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.
There is not much ground for optimism that the review of our foreign policy will consider much, if any, change to our interpretation of the Alliance, even though the signs of where the policy and actions of the US, as a militarist/imperial State are headed, are alarming.
The US is now thinking about intervening in the war in Yemen, which is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia; to whom we are now selling weapons, presumably able to be used in that war. That war has killed some 10,000, and major famine now threatens 7 million Yemenis.
Last November, I raised in these pages, the question of what would our government’s position be if the US asked us to join in on the Saudi/US side. That speculative question may now be assuming more reality. Under current Alliance based reasoning we would presumably accede.
The US is expanding it’s nuclear weapons arsenal and has put back onto the table the notion that it can use nuclear weapons on a limited basis, something to which no rational actor gives assent, because there is no such thing as assured limitation.
The US is acquiring 2443 F-35 strike aircraft, 15 times more such aircraft than the Chinese and 20 times more than the Russians. The cost of this programme exceeds the size of Australia’s GDP. The US appears to be developing an ever more aggressive military posture.
Within the US itself, the phenomenon of Americans’ belief in weapons is reflected in the fact that during Obama’s time, individuals spent $17 billion on ammunition, for their privately owned weapons.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has intervened in 72 countries, in an attempt to change the government there. Those actions and their maintenance of 800 military bases/facilities overseas, are the indelible signs of imperialism.
What will be the truth of any matter, under the current US administration, given its now repeatedly displayed preference for, “alternative facts”, its own palpably false, version of reality.
Timothy Snyder has warned that “post-truth is pre-fascism” and that “to abandon facts is to abandon freedom”.
Will our foreign policy review take into account the character of our ally, where it is headed and where that could lead us, if our current surrogacy is confirmed?
We could conduct our relations with the US on a constructive, civilized, and indeed friendly basis, as the overwhelming majority of countries do with the US, without our acting as a client state.
Richard Butler AC, was Ambassador to the United Nations, and subsequently Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, and a Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University.