Australia’s alliance with the United States: passed its use by date

Jul 23, 2021

Australia’s alliance with the United States has become an unthinking custom and practice. It has already cost us dearly in both blood and treasure with little to show for it. It is time to look at the alternatives.

I enlisted in the Australian Army at the age of 17 in 1995. During my 24-year career, I deployed on three operations, to East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Sumatra after the Boxing Day Tsunami. Early on in my career, when posted to an artillery unit in the ‘Ready Deployment Force,’ I remember the extreme disappointment of both my soldiers and I when Prime Minister John Howard announced the deployment of Australian troops to Afghanistan but that my unit would not be deploying!

I am proud to have served in the Australian Army. It and the broader Australian Defence Force are important national institutions. Australia continues to need an appropriately structured, trained, and equipped defence force as an important tool of our national power; to be used judiciously in the defence of Australia.

For much of my Army career, I was of the firm belief that the United States was a force for good in the world and that Australia benefited from its alliance with the United States. No doubt this was a hangover from reading too many Tom Clancy novels and watching movies such as Red Dawn as a teenager. From a military perspective, there was something alluring about the power of the United States. I clearly remember the massive difference between the Close Air Support provided by the United States Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force when fighting fictional ‘Musorians’ in Shoalwater Bay. No requesting fighter aircraft two days in advance with the United States Navy, they were continuously on hand whenever they were needed.

Somewhere along the way however it became apparent that the United States was no longer – if it ever was – a force for good in the world. It took many years to come to this conclusion but the empirical evidence supporting this view is overwhelming if not incontrovertible. That such a view is not commonly held by many more Australian’s can be ascribed to the mythology that has been built up over generations around the ‘beacon on the hill’ and the smokescreen that is the modern media environment.

The evidence of evil emanating from the United States has become so normalised that it barely registers in the consciousness. But it is clear that if any non-Western country behaved in the same manner as the United States, and its allies, then Australia’s politicians, media and the commentariat would be apoplectic.

Imagine the reaction if it was Sergey Lavrov handing out cookies to BLM protestors during the height of the protests after George Floyd’s death, or if the PLA fired missiles at wedding parties in France killing dozens of people, or if Putin ordered the assassination by drone strike of our own Chief of the Defence Force, or if Xi placed unilateral sanctions on Papua New Guinea such that the lack of basic medicines caused tens of thousands of deaths, or if Russia and China placed dozens of military bases in Canada, Mexico, Cuba and Panama? All of these hypothetical propositions are mirrored by actual examples of the foreign policy of the United States in action. When the United States acts in this way, we either turn a blind eye or actively encourage it.

The angst directed at China and Russia is not so much about what these countries do but what they are. They provide an alternative model to the ‘rules-based global order,’ a euphemism for the global hegemony of the United States. This is intolerable for the leadership of the United States who still believe in the myth of their own exceptionalism. It also explains the increasing belligerence of the United States towards these countries; belligerence which is inversely proportional to its power relative to Russia and China.

The military threat posed by Russia and China is grossly exaggerated. Whilst both countries have the capacity to defeat the United States, and whatever allies it can cajole into a ‘coalition of the willing,’ in a regional conflict, neither seek the global military dominance the United States once held during its brief ‘unipolar moment’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This does not stop the ‘anti-China threat porn industry’ from beating the drums of war. We should not assume, however, as noted by retired US diplomat and Assistant Secretary for Defense, Chas Freeman, that just because the United States had the Monroe Doctrine and manifest destiny that China does too.

To reinforce this point, China has lifted the best part of a billion people out of poverty, a unique feat in human history, whilst avoiding military conflict. Conversely tens of millions of United States citizens have fallen into poverty during the last few decades of that country’s military adventurism. It is unclear why China would risk its hard-won developmental gains at this point through initiating military conflict. Such a proposition seems highly improbable given the risks it would entail, including for the legitimacy of China’s Government.

Unfortunately, war is part of the human condition. Australia needs the capability to defend itself against credible threats. But we should not overstate those threats. And we should not involve ourselves in military campaigns and alliances that are destabilising and detrimental to our national interest. Perhaps former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser said it best: “Australia needs the United States for defence. But Australia only needs defence because of the United States.”

With the risk of war between nuclear-armed powers, whether by accident or design, arguably higher now than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis, it is an opportune moment for a national debate on Australia’s defence strategy. It is thus timely that the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network has launched a People’s Inquiry into the costs and consequences of Australia’s alliance with the United States.

The alliance has become an unthinking custom and practice. It has already cost us dearly in both blood and treasure with little to show for it. Past costs would be dwarfed by orders of magnitude if Australia were to be drawn into a nihilistic and likely unwinnable future conflict with either Russia or China at the behest of the United States. And what would be gained from such a conflict? What would victory even look like? There are alternatives to the alliance. Dr Albert Palazzo from the Australian Army Research Centre has for example proposed armed neutrality as a viable defence strategy.

Australia urgently needs a national and rational debate on the alliance. The issues at stake risk our prosperity, security, sovereignty and democracy for generations to come. Now is not the time to mindlessly follow a flailing and ailing once-great hegemon into the abyss.

Cameron Leckie is a part of the People’s Inquiry into the costs and consequences of the U.S. alliance. You can make a submission to the public inquiry via the website.

The Inquiry was initiated by the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) a coalition of organisations around Australia aiming to build public dialogue and pressure for change to a truly independent foreign policy for Australia — one in which our government plays a positive role in solving international conflicts peacefully.[category Defence & security]

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