America is a foreign county for Australians

Scott Morrison: “The great thing about the United States, it is a great democracy and it does have great institutions and we have a deep and wide relationship with the United States which is incredibly important to Australia. We are both like-minded and [a]like in so many ways – our values, our partnerships, economics, security …”  This is a myth.

The myth that Australia and the USA are like cultural peas in a pod has been furiously peddled in recent months, especially by conservative politicians and their mates in the alt-right media in Australia (read Murdoch and his pontificating minions).

The myth implies that Australia and America are closely related nations, that they share the same values, that their political institutions are based on the same democratic principles, that their strategic interests are the same, and that their free-market economies are in sync. This myth underpins Australia’s commitment to the ANZUS treaty with the USA, a commitment that borders on the craven.

It is also dangerously misleading. It’s time it was called out. The fact is that, in so many respects, America is a profoundly foreign country. It is alien to many things that define contemporary Australia.

When thirteen American colonies signed the Declaration of Independence on 4 July in 1776, they were in the midst of a revolutionary war against Britain. Out of this historical struggle came the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, laying the foundations of America’s liberal version of representative government and the American obsession with the freedom of the individual (including – especially – the freedom to have and to use guns).

Australia’s origins could not be more different. There is nothing revolutionary in our history apart from a few surly rebellions (for example, the Rum Rebellion of 1808; the Eureka Stockade of 1854), and they went nowhere. The glum compromises that coagulated into the tediously written Australian Constitution had none of the philosophical excitement or revolutionary fervour of the USA’s Constitution. There was no declaration of independence from Britain – after all, Australia’s Constitution was originally an Act of the British Parliament!

The two countries have evolved from their different origins into very different cultures today. As the 2020 presidential election has demonstrated, America is deeply – possibly fatally – riven along gender, class, racial, economic, and regional lines. The dominant influence of fundamentalist Christian organisations (in effect they are businesses) is only the tip of a distorted ideological religiosity that underpins a great deal of contemporary American social and political thinking and action, at home and abroad.

While there is some evidence that American-style fundamentalist religious organisations are beginning to penetrate Australian politics (hello Scott Morrison), Australia is significantly more secular than the United States (although secularism is a particularly contentious concept). Moreover, historically the state has played a major role in developing the social, political and economic institutions that have built the Australia we have today. The hyper-individualism of historical America has no equal in Australia’s historical development which a French observer, Albert Métin, interestingly described in 1901 as being based on “socialism without a doctrine”.

The ideology of possessive individualism that is fundamentally central to America’s culture and politics is foreign – even alien – to Australia. It results in a political culture that cultivates a naive belief in the minds of many Americans in their country’s “manifest destiny”. This leads them to imagine (incorrectly) that what is good for America is good for the world. Since the end of World War II, America’s cultural imperialism has been glaringly evident in its movies, television, print media, and social media that have the much of the world in its grip.

This cultural imperialism reflects the fact that America is a major military power – a superpower. No other country in history, currently, matches the capacity of contemporary America to wage war – which it does with a frequency that is frankly terrifying. The size of its military permits it to demand fealty from its smaller allies, as is evidenced in Australia’s shocking record of Australian troops and materiel being regularly sent off to war with the Americans (remember Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East …).

Like all big military powers, America should never be trusted. As one leading right-wing US commentator (John Mearsheimer) has noted, a big power like the USA will (indeed must) always act in its own interests. If those interests align with its allies’ interests, fine. If not, the allies can go to hell. (Let us never forget Trump’s sneering at US allies.)

Clearly, Australia is not in America’s league when it comes to military capability. We are a small country (though with inflamed “middle power” pretensions), with only limited capacity to defend ourselves. Our economy lacks the complexity and dimensions of the US economy. While we have abundant natural resources, we have never built a manufacturing base into our economy in the way the US has done over the years. Our population is less than eight percent of the American population.

The notion that Australia and the USA are closely aligned culturally and strategically needs therefore to be repudiated. It can lead – and in the past has often led – to Australia parroting American platitudes internationally and at home (remember “All the way with LBJ”), gazing on all things American with ridiculously adoring eyes, slavishly following America’s lead in international forums and, as noted earlier, going to war on America’s side. We behave like a delirious dog having its belly scratched when a US president tells us we are America’s “sheriff” in the Asia Pacific.

Australia has very little in common with the USA historically and culturally – and increasingly, in strategic terms. Understanding this point is now is essential because the USA is a big power in decline. Witness its failure to contain the COVID pandemic raging among its peoples. Its economy is in the doldrums. Its international standing is the lowest it’s been in over a century. While the end of Trump is happily in sight, it is unclear that President-elect Biden will be able to arrest these and related problems festering at the heart of the American dream – a dream that is fast becoming a nightmare.

It’s time for Australia to get over its adolescent hero-worshipping of all things American. The mealy-mouthed words of Scott Morrison at the head of this post reveal all that is backward and counterproductive in Australia’s relations with the USA today.

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Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science at the University of Melbourne.

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