ALISON BROINOWSKI. The Merkel moment: wherever that works.

May 30, 2017

If NATO cannot rely on a Trump administration, should Australian leaders not see this as an opportunity to face the facts?  

Angela Merkel’s clarion call on 28 May reverberated, much like the megaphone diplomacy that Australian leaders are often cautioned against using in our region. She sounded it in Europe, in NATO. Having had her phone hacked under one US president, and her views on refugees and climate change derided by another, she said what was previously unsayable: Europe can no longer rely on the US alliance, and ‘really must take our fate into our own hands.’ Diplomatically, the German Chancellor added that Europe’s need to go it alone should be ‘of course in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbours wherever that works.’ But Stephan Bierling, at Germany’s University of Regensburg, declared ‘the belief in shared values has been shattered by the Trump administration’ (

Without implying anything about our part of the world, Merkel laid bare the decision with which Australia, Japan, South Korea and others in our region have been confronted by the Trump administration. Gratitude to the US for World War II and friendship with Americans are important to many of us, but the value of the alliance in her words, ‘wherever that works’ now supersedes the past. Many of our American friends are as appalled as we are about the disastrous tracks down which our alliance is leading us. ‘Shared values’ have ever since the Cold War been cited as if they constitute a safe, underground carpark, even when there’s a flaming inferno above us. But when Americans in the tower above, up to the level of president tell us, cowering below, that we should spend more on defence, and still offer us no unconditional guarantee of security, the unsayable but obvious has to be said. The US won’t defend us, whatever the terms of our alliance, unless it is in their interests. Merkel and Trump have provided us with a moment of truth, a new world order. Even if it is only the latest of many, it is now more urgent.

At such a moment, it would be like getting out of the basement and free of smoke inhalation to hear our leaders announce that we will no longer accept having our enemies identified for us by Washington. A new world order could arrive for Australia if they would take a deep breath and say why we must contribute to a world-wide war on terror, with no end in sight, even if perpetuating it means wreaking havoc on places and people with whom we have no quarrel and inviting their hatred and vengeance against us. If only they would say which of a melee of Islamic radical groups threatens Australia, and how we might deter them. If only they would come clean on who proposed, or offered, Australia’s participation in this war, why, and with what legality. The Merkel moment offers such an opportunity for Australia’s leaders, of both major parties. If they rose democratically to the occasion, we could possibly understand the limitless sums they want to spend on fighting terror, and the danger to which they expose ADF personnel.

Whenever ‘shared values,’ mateship, tradition, freedom and ‘indispensability’ (Julie Bishop, ABC 7.30 29 May 2017) are cited, you can be sure how dubious the other frequently cited benefits of the US alliance have become: intelligence, military equipment, access in Washington. It’s hard to detect what ‘shared values’ count for when Japan and South Korea have refrained from committing troops to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, or Syria. Unlike them, Australia pressed to be invited to go to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. We offered President Obama bases in Darwin and the ‘pivot to Asia’ in the hope that if the US would defend nothing else, it would defend a base. The Darwin and Pine Gap bases we gave them make Australia a nuclear target and prove how fearful and how lacking in independence Australian foreign and defence policy have become. The title of Allan Gyngell’s 2017 book Fear of Abandonment prompts Australians to reconsider our national myth of wartime heroism and ask if we are not in fact a timorous lot, who should take our destiny into our own hands. The Prime Minister’s recent slavering exchange with President Trump revived the myth when (as Blair did with Bush in July 2002) he offered to join the US in ‘whatever war it chose to pursue.’(Richard Butler, ‘Turnbull and Trump: everything is illuminated’/John Menadue – Pearls and Irritations, 19 May 2017). The Foreign Minister, calling the US alliance ‘indispensable’ endorsed the myth (ABC TV 7.30 29 May 2017).

Until now, we have been able to avoid the Merkel moment. But we now have a threat and an opportunity. The threat is that we are already so committed and embedded with the US military that if there were a war in the south or east China Sea, or against North Korea, Australia could not act in our own interests and stay out of it. The opportunity is for Australia to recognise that the US ‘pivot to Asia’ is worthless and that our security relies upon the long-delayed engagement with our neighbours, not upon gearing ourselves up to fight whichever of them the Pentagon decides is the enemy du jour. The US Studies Centre declined my acceptance of their earlier invitation to hear Senator McCain on 30 May. If I had been able to ask him a question, it would have been this: ‘If Chancellor Merkel and NATO cannot rely on the US alliance, what assurance does ANZUS give Australia?’

Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA, formerly an Australian diplomat, is vice-President of Honest History and of Australians for War Powers Reform.


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