From imperial romance to practical security history

Apr 25, 2024
Sun stars shining through white crosses and red poppies. Out-of-focus people paying respect to fallen soldiers. Anzac Day commemoration.

At the levels of public ritual and private observance, the ANZAC narrative is much about processing loss and assuaging grief. But let us recall here its nature as an imperial romance, and what that might mean for our place in the multi-polarity of the current world order?

With its genesis in imperial war, the Anzac narrative was set in British colonial histories. The narrative was fixed reflexively in the British imperial expeditionary tradition in the New Zealand Wars by 1864 and at Gallipoli in 1915. By reflexively, we mean the triggering of expeditionary thought and action by implicit cultural understandings, which have been shaped by a romance of empire — as distinct from serious strategic analysis for virtually our defence history.

In the British imperial romance of 1914-18, myths of the cultural supremacy of ‘the English-speaking peoples’ and of ‘the white man’s burden’ supported the central notion of political obligation: ‘British race patriotism’. The Anglican Church implied automatic spiritual identification with the empire. The reality of the economic global order — at least since the Royal Navy weaponised the world’s financial system before World War One — was automatically assumed.

Since the large divisions of the ‘Australian Imperial Force’ projected those automatic understandings into expeditionary military action in two World Wars, the imperial frame has continued to reconfigure itself in ever new forms.

The fall of the British Empire in the 1940s, decolonisation in Asia, the Cold War, and the US alliance changed the vocabularies of the ever-re-emerging Anglo-American world order. Empire became ‘development’. Western civilisation became the ‘rules-based international order’. The relationship between white superiority and empire also changed over time. Meanwhile, Anglo-sphere alliances and older practices of informal imperialism were reimagined in a new architecture of global economic governance. These culminated in the late twentieth century neoliberalism of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Anzac expeditionary understandings effortlessly adjusted. ‘Small wars’, which had been the imperial paradigm for expanding and defending the empire in the face of native rebellions, became ‘guerrilla wars’ and ‘counterinsurgencies’ post-1945. Think Malaya, Confrontation with Indonesia, and Vietnam.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, far-flung Anzac expeditions were involved in increasingly ‘virtual wars’ — ‘on terror’ — meaning those with an increasing emphasis on technology — against no rational construction of a military threat, ‘terror’. ‘Proxy wars’ are now fought, as US military jargon has it, ‘with, through and by’ — others, that is. Others, including Anzacs, supported by US air power, weapons, finance, and special forces as well as grunts in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

What, then of the empire in the Anzac nations? We are talking here, for example, about the ideal behaviours that helped fortify soldiers on their long and dangerous campaigns far from home, courage, mateship, loyalty, and perseverance. To the extent that the values are egalitarian and democratic — featuring larrikinism and disdain for class — however, it is important to remember that the Anzac tradition is uniquely Australian and New Zealand.

It can also be anti-imperial. In 1919, the Anzac nations even disappointed King George V, when, contrary to his wishes, they failed to give precedence — as Britain, France, Canada, and the United States all did — to November 11 and the end of the war, as the main day of wartime remembrance. Quite the reverse, Australia and New Zealand prioritised Anzac Day 25 April, which marks their Gallipoli landing and the beginning of their wars.

So, how does the imperial expeditionary narrative square with those distinctive national and anti-imperial characteristics? The answer is it doesn’t. What we see is the national character being ambivalently asserted in a sub-imperial, colonial, or dependent national narrative. Why dependent? Most reasonably, because the Anzac nations prize partially race-based, partly technology-based Anglo-American imperial protection above all else, including sovereignty.

Protection against what? And this is of central importance to understanding the Anzac narrative: its expeditions build, with only minor qualifications, on a deep sense of insecurity in the culture. They build on some inferred threat, which is not named, but against which the great incapacity of the Anzac countries to defend themselves is mindlessly understood.

In 1911-14, for instance, deep fear of Japan drove the government to make the secret expeditionary preparations that would enable the AIF to go to war with Britain against the Central Powers, the Turks, and the Germans, in the hope of reciprocal empire support when the Japanese inevitably attacked.

What makes sense of the global Turk-to-Taliban array of Anzac’s expeditionary enemies, almost none of whom have threatened Australia, is indeed the tradition’s primary support for the empire, regardless of its enemies. And this primary impulse to fight for the empire, is related to the fact that the Anzac narrative doesn’t really say what its fears are.

From the 1880s to the 1970s, of course, these is abundant evidence in the culture of anxiety about the ‘yellow peril’. The history of white Australia was built on it. Originally an aspect of that history, however, the Anzac expeditionary narrative has little to say about any threat to the nation. In fact, it can only infer, and not discuss a threat, whatever it might be.

There are two good reasons for this silence. There is no evidence, even in 1942, when we had to fight the Japanese for various reasons, that any Asian country has ever intended to invade Australia or New Zealand. And second, anti-Asia rhetoric has been officially suppressed more than once in our history for fear that it might provoke the ‘Asian invasion’ our governments most feared. For this reason, anti-Japanese commentary was indeed banned in 1914-18 and ‘yellow peril’ rhetoric was consciously replaced by that of the ‘red peril’ in 1949-1965, during the period of decolonisation.

Two points follow. The Anzac narrative can only rest on the illusion of imperial permanence because it has never really been tested by the ‘yellow peril’ — which doesn’t exist; and second, because the very romance of imperial permanence underpins something of central importance that keeps the expeditions going. This is the nation’s capacity to domesticate — which is where the public ritual kicks in — the empire’s long line of expeditionary losses, losses that have moreover had little direct relevance to the defence of the dependent nation.

Lest we forget the imperial catastrophes that have befallen the Anzac nations from the Somme to the falls of Singapore, Saigon, and Kabul. And here, finally, we come to the primary power of the Anzac narrative as a reflexive Anglo-American imperial romance. Regardless of any set back to the empire, the romance maintains its imaginary permanence because it is driven by the unthinking expectation that, in the end, the empire will always win.

The emergence of the multi-polar world now forces us to realise the problems of that history from a strategic perspective.

The historical absence of a threat of invasion from the north does not mean that, because Australasia is one of the most secure regions in the world, there will be no future threat from that direction. Neither does it mean that invasion is the only threat. Nor is there any reason why Australia should not attempt to maximise the security benefits of a prudent American alliance.

Still, a prudent alliance would be one that registers two strategic realities that run counter to the Anzac story’s identification with the spurious threat driven Anglo-American imperial romance and its tremendous losses. In fact, China, with a comparable economy to the US, is now a great global power, which dominates the part of the world we have historically feared; and second, it would be most unwise to hang the defence of Australia on the forever illusion of Anglo-American imperial permanence — as in the ‘impactful projection’ now officially attributed to AUKUS.

The remarkable unipolar moment, in which the US hegemony dominated the world between about 1991 and 2017 has passed. The US is still tremendously powerful. Yet its electoral problems at home, which are seriously threatening democracy there, are currently intersecting with its major foreign policy problems in Ukraine, the Middle East, and South China Sea. Right-wing nationalisms are stalking the world. Russia is also a great power. There is no reason to believe that the US will automatically want or be able to protect us from future threats from the north. Leading strategist Hugh White is not the only thinker who warns us further that, regardless of what the Americans say, their primacy in our region will ‘change and shrink.’

Where, then, does the current multi-polar moment, leave the Anzac story? In relation to China alone, it leaves Australia unable to relate to a large chunk of contemporary strategic reality. Since its inception, the Anzac narrative has been predicated on a reflexive understanding of the global dominance of white Anglo-American imperial powers. Now, as the configuration of the still awesome power of the US hegemon changes, we need a change in a narrative that began its career with a 70 year stint as race-based imperial romance.

In the multi-polar world, Australian defence and security thinking needs to make a shift away from the old imperial romance driven by spurious threat-construction. To focus and develop the independent nation’s interests, we need a more practical security history based on a rational calculation of strategic reality.

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