CAVAN HOGUE. Entangling Alliances?

Should Australia take more notice of Charles de Gaulle than Donald Trump? What is the value of an alliance?

  • ‘It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world’ – George Washington’s Farewell Address.
  • ‘Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations-entangling alliances with none’ – Inaugural pledge of Thomas Jefferson.
  • ‘No nation has friends only interests’ – Charles de Gaulle.
  • ‘Congratulations to new Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. There are no greater friends than the United States and Australia!’ – Donald J. Trump.
  • ‘On 4 July 2018 Australia and the United States of America will celebrate the first 100 Years of Mateship.’ – Australian Embassy, Washington.

So should Australia take more notice of Charles de Gaulle than Donald Trump? What is the value of an alliance?

Up to the end of WW2 Jefferson and Washington prevailed. Treaties with the Indian nations were constantly broken and the US did not join the League of Nations which Woodrow Wilson had fathered. After WW2 the US joined treaties like NATO which had clear legal obligations and ANZUS which didn’t. SEATO had the same aims as NATO, i.e. to contain international Communism led by the USSR but was something of a paper tiger. The US has joined other nations under Security Council resolutions like Korea and the first Gulf War but made up its own alliances like the second Gulf War aka the Coalition of the Willing.

All of the alliances or semi-alliances the US has entered into have been clearly designed to further US interests and have usually openly or implicitly been led by it. The Hmong in Vietnam and the Kurds in Iraq were abandoned when it no longer suited the US to support them, as were the Taliban when the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan. When Australia sought US backing over West Papua President John F. Kennedy supported Indonesia instead because that was in US interests.

Alliances can get wars started. WW1 began when a minor incident in a minor country grew into a monumental massacre created by a series of alliances. This led to what the American historian Barbara Tuchman called Europe’s collective decision to commit suicide. Hitler’s alliance with Japan made him declare war on the US which was not a wise move. He had of course broken his alliance with the USSR which was an equally unwise move. So alliances are a sometime thing. They can get you into trouble or out of trouble. Powerful countries tend to dominate alliances while weaker ones follow.

Australia is a follower. We constantly harp on friendship and shared values in an attempt to persuade the US that we matter and deserve to be looked after. This is something like grooming the alpha male in a gorilla group. The weak seek the protection of the strong. Constant claims about mateship and outpourings of delight when Americans tickle our tummy are the order of the day. We have a naïve belief in the value of friendship and seem impervious to the truth of de Gaulle’s observation. Both Australia and Saudi Arabia are important allies of the USA. What values do we share? There is no evidence to support the view that democracies behave differently internationally than autocracies or that values are important in alliances. Both look after number one.

The 100 years of mateship might more accurately be called 70 years of dependence. The American troops put under General John Monash’s command were removed when the American General John J. Pershing found out that they were not under American command. In WW2 General Douglas Macarthur was overall commander of Australian forces in the Pacific as also in Korea. We then followed the Americans into Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Given our integration into US forces at present presumably this will continue. Some of these occasions were sensible or inevitable. WW2 in the Pacific and Korea were American-led operations and in the case of Korea, initially at least, under a UN Security Council resolution. The others were because we chose to follow the US and our current embedded personnel are there because we choose it.

ANZUS does not commit the US to do anything except think about what to do in accordance with its constitutional process – obviously the Congress versus the President. It says nothing about trade. We have tried to get some trading advantages in return for political loyalty but, as we are now finding out, when the going gets tough the big power gets tough. Clearly the US has put pressure on China to buy agricultural products from the US instead of from Australia which China is happily going to do because we followed President Trump’s election strategy to target China over COVID19. We will still be expected to follow the US line on China but can expect nothing in return.

The incompetent Australian inquiry proposal has brought out pathetic responses from Australian politicians and media about how we punch above our weight, when in fact we suffered a defeat on points if not a knock-out blow.

So do we really need a protector? Who is going to attack us? Will the Alliance get us into more wars? How likely is it that we will find ourselves in a war with a powerful country that the US is not involved in and would the US risk American lives to save us?

The shared values argument doesn’t stand up. The European countries that went to war in 1914 had shared values as did so many protagonists in other European wars. The US did not come to our aid in 1942 because of shared values but because they wanted a base from which to retake the Philippines and defeat Japan. There seems to be a growing doubt amongst Australians that we share values with Trump’s America. Is our stress on the universality and importance of democratic values simply an updated version of the Christian missionary efforts of a hundred years ago? Do we just want to convert the heathen to the one true political faith or is it possible to hold different values without being in league with the Devil?

There is much to be admired in the US and it is not in our interests to needlessly offend Americans or appear as an enemy. There are many Americans with whom I would like to think we do share values but do Australians really believe the US has a God-given right to determine the fate of other countries? Do we agree with their gun culture which may be perhaps a domestic facet of the same mentality? One of the reasons the US has the highest death rate in the world from Coronavirus is that many people refuse to take the preventive measures some urge them to take because it is a threat to their freedom of choice. Much the same argument is put forward by the gun lobby.

If we are interested in values, perhaps we should try to persuade Americans to live up internationally to the noble ideals they so often espouse and to tell the emperor he has no clothes? Otherwise, do what they do and take more account in our foreign policy of shared interests than of shared values.

So will the Alliance save us from war or get us into war? We don’t really want to make China a successor to the UK and the US so what do we do? The claim that we don’t have to choose sides is looking increasingly difficult largely through our own efforts. How do we get out of this mess? Australia looks like being collateral damage in the looming China–US cold war. The result of the American election later this year will be important as will what China does to us.

In the meantime, what Trump will do next is anyone’s guess! The poor standard of media reporting in Australia doesn’t help.

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Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.

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