After Kabul – a great opportunity for Australia

Aug 20, 2021

Our “great and powerful friend’, the United States of America, has suffered another humiliating defeat, this time in Afghanistan. In fact, the USA hasn’t won a single war in which it has participated for more than 75 years – since the WW2 conflict with Japan, concluded in 1945.

In one contest after another ever since the 1940s, the US has had to withdraw bruised and bleeding, embarrassed and, despite its apparently overwhelmingly superior force, unable to squash what appeared to minnows by comparison to its wedged tail eagle size and fire power.

Again, we are reminded of the wisdom of our deceased PM Malcolm Fraser’s observation: “Our great and powerful friend can be a dangerous ally”

Why? Because we can lock step with the USA even without considering the chances of success let alone the virtuousness of the ends we are seeking with them. Then, as has happened on too many occasions, we are burdened with consequences and outcomes that we had never really considered let alone prepared for.

Afghanistan is just the latest instance of that sad picture of desperate people scrambling into planes where they don’t fit just to escape the consequences they will have to endure for taking our side in the fight.

There is so much work to be done cleaning up the resultant mess. That Australia would even for a moment entertain the thought that we would leave those who supported us in the ill-fated fight with the Taliban says it all for how a-moral we and the Americans can be in escaping our responsibility for our part in this mess.

But the biggest challenge we face as Australians is not the one we face with everyone else who has been party to this mess. That we will face in the fullness of time with everyone else involved. We will have to make our contribution to rescuing the people of Afghanistan and their vulnerable economy

But as well, the issue we need to face – and this is the one where only we can supply the answer – is where do we go in the world and what is to become of our alliances?

We can’t sit still and hope it will disappear. It won’t.

We can’t do what we’ve been doing for much of the time since WW2. That was “locked in” as the game show hosts would say from the time Wartime PM John Curtin announced his now exhausted decision to “look to America” for our main alliance and not to Britain and the Empire.

“Without any inhibitions of any kind,” Curtin declared, “I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”

That historic shift meant we changed. But we did it theoretically. We still had a long way to go culturally to make the move to independence. And we had really just substituted one form of imperial dependence for another.

The question we have needed to ask over many years, if not for decades, is why have we not made the change that stares us in the face? Why can’t we stand on our own and be more self-directing?

We should have. One reason we should have is that that America is in decline, its economy is relatively much weaker than it was when Curtin made his declaration and it simply flies in the face of what is in Australia’s best interests.

Another reason is that we are not geographically anywhere else but near Asia – not Europe or the USA. Obvious as that may be, it hasn’t been a perception shared by many!

Lots of people have been saying these things for a long time. Malcolm Fraser said it at length in his 2014 book, Dangerous Allies. Gough Whitlam said it and acted on it in the generation before Fraser.

But now we have a golden and glorious opportunity to discover how to stand on our own feet, forge alliances that take us forward and start to shape the way we relate to our geographical neighborhood and the wider world beyond our region.

What would that look like? There are plenty of indicators for us now to take further and forge a new identity as an Asia Pacific nation unencumbered by our European and US allegiances. But let’s not get misty eyed.

Waiting to leap into the gap created by US mismanagement and braindead Australian compliance are the forces of darkness who have been there for some time – the Peoples Republic of China and the post-imperial Imperialist power, Russia.

Before it got rid of its own sclerotic Communist government, Russia attempted to thwart Iran by helping to boot out the Shah and then gaining control of Afghanistan. That effort ended in tears too shortly before the US turned up in Afghanistan.

Now the Chinese will be salivating at the prospect of advancing their Belt and Road project at an unusually rapid pace because they can try to trump their major power rivals with a project, with a strategy and resources already in hand.

What should Australia do?The easiest and most predictable thing is for Australia to once again do nothing and fall in line with the US strategy which will aim to thwart its major power rivals in China and Russia.

But we don’t need to. Other US allies probably won’t. It’s difficult to see South Korea or Japan doing that openly. The Europeans – Germany, France and the UK – most likely won’t either. India and other Asian countries with substantial military won’t either.

It is a wonderful opportunity for Australia to claw its way out of the rabbit hole we have dug for ourselves and begin to become a mature and self-possessed member of the community of nations.

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