Beyond repair: Alliance distortions of Australian national interest in foreign policy and defence. Part 1

Oct 24, 2021
Australian Defence Force light armoured vehicle
In Australia as in the US, defence industry drives consumption of defence products. (Image: Flickr/DVIDSHUB)

Australian foreign and defence policy must be based on an understanding of national interest that reflects the real interests of all Australians.

Just what Australian “national interests” are potentially a matter of contest between different groups in Australian society, with the degree of contest and the content of claimed specifications of national interest varying over time as the external context changes.

We may be deeply concerned, both morally and analytically, with the wider human interest and the sources of insecurity impinging on Australia from economic and political dynamics in the world at large, but until a new political system of democratic accountability beyond the nation-state is invented (and that will most likely come after catastrophic war if history is any guide), we are stuck with the very limited forms of accountability of a capitalist electoral democracy.

In electoral republics (aka “democracies”) like Australia foreign policy and defence policy are the areas of government most insulated from pressures deriving from public opinion. Only rarely do Australian mass social movements, usually in conjunction with external political or military adverse developments break through these insulating layers.

For many years Australia has suffered a severe limitation on democratic accountability on matters of defence policy and the alliance because of a pattern of bipartisan agreement by the opposition with the government of the day, on virtually all except marginal matters.

The existing high degree of political party bipartisanship on the defence relationship to the United States combines with a restriction of citizen access to informed reporting and commentary in defence and foreign policy to seriously impair the operation of public scrutiny of government policy. This in part explains the disconnect between Australian public opinion on the long running wars the Australian Defence Force is involved in and the lack of public pressure on government to address these deployments.

This particularly concerns the inability of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), whether in government or opposition, to articulate a systematic critical stance about the alliance, including creating or maintaining institutional space to ask the central question about what the national interest is at any given point in relation to the alliance: when are Australian interests genuinely aligned with those of the United States, and when are they not? “Wedging the ALP” succeeds as a business as usual tactic in Australian politics not just because of the skill of conservative politicians in making ALP policymakers squirm but also because of the high level of ALP self-censorship in asking that question lest it lead to any public break in bipartisanship.

This in part explains the disconnect between Australian public opinion on the long-running wars the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has been involved in since the 1990s and the lack of public pressure on government to address these deployments. The most striking example of this absence of an Australian institutional capability to ask the core question about the absence or presence of alignment of Australian and United States interests was of course the ADF participation between 2001 and 2021 in the US-led war in Afghanistan. That is being repeated in the case of the decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, with even greater potential for catastrophic outcomes for Australia.

Amidst all the sudden mainstream elite hand wringing in the days after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, there has remarkably little scrutiny of how this came to be: Australia’s second-longest war over two decades, many billions of dollars thrown away, 41 ADF deaths and 240 seriously wounded, unknown numbers of Afghan dead and mutilated at hands of Australian and other coalition forces, ending in a humiliating NATO and Australian defeat that leaves Afghanistan poorer and more ruined, more divided, and more afflicted by the sources of terrorism than ever before. What was at most a third- or fourth-order strategic interest for Australia in 2002–3 until Al Qaeda was forced from the country turned after that in a hugely costly and violent negative that was pursued solely out of a strategically counterproductive, intellectually lazy, and politically pusillanimous obeisance to American empire — fact of which 300 million US citizens are wholly unaware — or interested.

“What were they thinking?” is the title of an account by Max Suich, the former editor of the National Times and The Australian Financial Review, of the sudden and ill thought-through lurch in China policy between 2017 and 2020, based on over a year of patient and persistent inquiry in Canberra. Suich introduced his series in the AFR (17, 18, 19 May 2021) by noting that:

“There has been a note of the casual, she’ll-be-right, the scary shoot-from-the-lip, even insouciance, in the development of our China policy over the past four years…. A former senior official, present at the time the U-turn began, says: ‘We have no overall objective for the China relationship so there’s no strategy that provides a framework for disciplined official statements. So the government can get away with talking from both sides of the mouth. Peace from the PM, war from others.'”

This part one of an edited extract of Richard Tanter’s submission to the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network People’s Inquiry in US-Australia Alliance, September 2021. Next: how Australian foreign policy has ignored the full range of risks to its security.

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