Australia and the United States: the opposed fantasies at the heart of the alliance relationship

One of the refrains among those defending Australia’s alliance with the United States is that arising out of their  pasts, sharing a core set of moral and ethical values, political and economic arrangements, and visions of the desirable world order.

Accordingly, each “knows and understands” the other, even if this requires an occasional reminder. If this is true, then Australia is cursed.

The danger for Australia arises from the confident assertion of mutual understanding, from forgetting, and from overlooking, or otherwise accommodating to the fact that, to be allied with the United States is to enter a union with a dominant partner whose instincts are shaped by a national identity mindset which can only condescend to those who approach it even in friendship. The Other has little, or no saliency.

At the heart of this alienation are belief systems that are beyond Australia’s imagination to conjure up: the preposterous conceit that is American Exceptionalism (and its bastard child, Manifest Destiny), both of which continue to exert a mesmerising influence. Before all other differences – and they are numerous and significant – are marshalled against the alliance, priority of critique must go to these mobilising forces of the American imagination.

The schedule of societal ills that includes extraordinarily high levels of illiteracy, inequality, racism, violence, drug addiction, and incarceration in a country perpetually at war under a system of government that defies any definition of democratic politics – is important, but not as important as the pre-existing executive programme of American consciousness.

The reason? Social and political pathologies are amenable to reform in ways that a covenant with God – which is the essential framing of American Exceptionalism – is not because it is immutable. It is, therefore, pointless to pretend that Australia (and all other allies for that matter) and the US can meet on common ground because they are not parties to the covenant. A consensus ad idem is simply not possible. Any self-respecting, self-critical democracy would also find it to be undesirable.

Consider the set of attitudes through which the world is understood. It begins with the idea that America was, from the beginning, possessed of an “inexpungible uniqueness” beyond the common conceits of national identity found almost universally.

Since America was defined in oppositional terms to Europe and its entrapment in history, America was to be “the land that left Europe and history behind” because it was both outside of history, and the end of history.

Change, in any qualitative sense, was thus not only impossible but unnecessary (although Richard Hofstadter once observed that this logic did not preclude eruptions of the belief that America was the only country that was born perfect and continued to progress). And since Europe’s own exaggerated imagination held that continent to be the repository of civilisation, “America” effectively degraded the intellectual culture from which it fled and rendered all other cultures and experiences worthless.

Inseparable from an understanding of this fantasy is the meaning given to the land which was America and its method of seizure. It was a continent of virgin land, abundant in natural resources, and without the structures which gave rise to history as understood by the European settlement.

When, in time, a successful revolution led to the establishment of republican government, and the ample opportunities for wealth creation which the land afforded, the mythic views of the new world which were first expressed in the old, European world blossomed: America was part of God’s eternal plan which by definition meant “America” was ahistorical, and which, accordingly, rendered human history as experienced in Europe, chronopolitically impossible and theologically inadmissible for America.

This essentially religious and sacred character construction of the United States eventually cascaded into the conjoined fantasy of being entrusted with a clear view and a divine mission in the world, articulated in the mid-19th Century as Manifest Destiny: it found expression a “higher law” which superseded all other considerations and provided, by way of two examples, for the expansion of the US in territory, influence and moral leadership, thus sanctioning the annexation of the Republic of Texas from Mexico and the Mexican-American War of 1846.

Within it, also, are found heavy deposits of Romantic nationalism, American Exceptionalism, claims hailing the superiority of the “Anglo-Saxon race,” and a large measure of ambition: the eventual absorption of all of North America – Canada, all of Mexico, Cuba, and Central America. Thus, Manifest Destiny assumed the virtue of the American people and their institutions, the mission which extended from this virtue, and their destiny under God to accomplish it.

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense, consummated the joining of national conceit with historical fantasy when, in 1776, he wrote to ongoing applause, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.”

Manifest Destiny authorised what a lesser rationalisation would not sustain in an America given to the ideals of republicanism – a view if itself as the readily apparent world example (“the last, best hope of Earth,” in Lincoln’s Message to Congress of 1 December 1862) and a sense that its progress was inexorable.

Without the capabilities or the intentions to proselytize, beliefs of this nature would be little more than a relatively harmless consolation; with them, they are costly delusions which reign without serious challenge because they have attained the status of truth, “in no need of further tests, a truly synthetic a priori.”

Moreover, given that their reiteration over time has instilled both a national distinctness and a sense of superiority, the practice of repetition is realised as an abdication of intelligence, by speaker and cheering listener. It is as well a clear and permanent danger, because, when the precepts and tenets of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny are widely subscribed to, as they have been in Australia, the first lead to a lack of awareness as to how such perceptions are influencing perceptions of the world, and subsequently and consequentially, to a source of defeat and eventual ruin.

When attempting to understand the United States it is never inappropriate to approach the project as one would approach the study of religion – most especially a religion drawn from the Old Testament and the Mosaic Distinction between true and false religions, many gods and “the only true god,” and the resultant urge to sub-distinctions in search of purity of belief which, ultimately, entail conflict, intolerance and violence. Familiarity with the Book of Revelation also helps.

This is not an approach to which Australian policy-makers, analysts, and mainstream commentators are readily given, even when they effectively subscribe to the alliance with the US in terms which scholars of religion find to be standard confessional fare.

So long as this exists any notion they have of dealing with the US as a secular international actor of superpower status who respects Australia as a sovereign, but separate and equal, is misplaced to the point of being a dangerous double fantasy.

The problem is that, where the tenets of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny coexist as memes in the US imaginary, diplomacy – negotiation and compromise – is essentially a denial of the covenant with God to omnisciently direct the universe and the affairs of human kind with wise benevolence.

To see America in secular terms is to deny America’s self-image as having a history that is inherently different from that of other nations; that it has a unique mission to transform the world, and that its history and mission give it superiority over all other nations. It is furthermore to deny the self-acclaimed special virtues of the American people and their institutions and their irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty.

This is the dogmatic centre of America’s civil religion; it is nothing less than a missionary liturgy, prescribing a form of public worship and performance, and a set of formularies for the conduct of both.

The civil religion, moreover, denies the temporality of America. Being born outside of history, and being chosen by God as His herald, America is simultaneously situated at the dawn of time and in the end time: essentially, it is the timeless embodiment of timeless truths.

As Johan Galtung observed nearly 40 years ago, what is to hand is not so much Manifest Destiny as the appropriation of another people’s metaphor and the proclamation of something more accurately described as Manifest Theology: the US as the incarnation of the dream of mythological Israel; indeed, God’s new and real Israel. Importantly, Galtung, but also others who have studies the phenomenon, identify concrete consequences which flow from it, which are significant for allies and non-allies alike. The exceptionalist mindset is both template and predictor of processes and outcomes for particular concern to Australia.

The first is that the US views the world in hierarchical and Manichaean terms: it is divided between good and evil with the divinely ordained United States situated at the top but surrounded by allies and friends who are faithful to the American way. For those who refuse the light of ordained belief, there is implacable hostility, as evidenced by President George W. Bush’s promise at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, following the 9/11 attacks: he promised then to, “rid the world of evil,” a grand strategic objective which not even Jesus Christ had laid claim to.

The second is implied in the first and holds that the United States not only has a right but a duty to assume Godlike characteristics, which include a way of war that is not like that of other nations.

in war, as God’s representative on Earth, the United States can only ever be the just party, the implication of which is that all countries in conflict with it are in the wrong and it is, therefore, incumbent on the US to manage the situation by taking whatever remedial action is necessary to ensure that God’s will prevails.

Appropriately, levels of reassurance commensurate to the carnage being wrought, are forthcoming – as reactions to the advent of atomic and nuclear weapons in the US arsenal attest:

We thank God the atomic bomb came to us instead of to our enemies and we pray that God may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes. (President Harry S. Truman, 9 August 1945)

The bombing of Hiroshima was the greatest event in world history since the birth of Jesus Christ. (Senator Brian McMahon, 1952)

The atomic bomb is a marvellous gift that was given to our country by a wise God. (Phyllis Schlafly, American conservative political activist, constitutional activist, and anti-Equal Rights Amendment campaigner, 1982).

Third, unconditional surrender is the only acceptable outcome in a conflict with evil and is, by necessity, mandated by the status the United States asserts. Only ordinary nations can find the requirements of diplomacy – negotiation and compromise – to be acceptable and tolerable state behaviour in the terminating of conflicts, because they unavoidably temporise with evil are not in receipt of a divine warrant.

The fourth follows from the above: since there can be nothing between the United States and God, the legal equality of all states is a broadly perpetrated fiction; thus treaties which infringe the relationship with the divine are to be repudiated as intrusions into sacred space are indicative of a “hatred of God’s order.”

If the premise is that expressed immediately above – that there is nothing between the United States and God, then the United States can be accountable only to God, the fifth consequence is that, simply expressed, the United States Is the ultimate decision maker, in world politics and not accountable to anyone else. To suggest that there are temporal courts whose jurisdictions cover the US is to mistake the US as just another earthly power of greater or lesser proportions, as, in crude terms, ordinary.

Through the ages, the claim has found affirmation: in recent history Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, expressed its biblical and strategic unity with the claim that:

If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.

Sixth and finally, the overall consequence is that the US expresses its own, constructed truth according to the formula: Americanisation of everything is the way of bestowing God’s order on others. Applying the opinion that it holds of itself, there can be no religiously correct, morally higher, or politically worthy aspiration by any other country or state than that it should be alike unto the United States.

Denial abounds – of the Enlightenment tradition and of living breathing people – which is to say the elevation of a mystic and irrational concept appropriated from an ancient tradition over logical thought, undiscriminating skepticism, and a sense of historical perspective befitting a self-conscious people. It is, furthermore, undertaken within the confines of a siege mentality in which the temper of discourse is anti-democratic, militarist, authoritarian, and ultra-nationalist; understandably, the mindset implacably opposed to reason.

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Michael McKinley is a member of the Emeritus Faculty, The Australian National University. Formerly he taught International Relations (Strategy, Diplomacy and International Conflict) at the University of Western Australia and the ANU.

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