CAVAN HOGUE. Has the alliance got us into more trouble than it has got us out of? Quo vadis series.

Nov 28, 2016

Quo vadis – Australian foreign policy and ANZUS.

Summary. Trump does give us an opportunity to do things we should have done long ago.

The American Alliance is the basis of Australian defence and foreign policy and is something which Australians are required to accept on faith. The Alliance is accepted as gospel by our politicians, media and public. When Bill Shorten suggested that we needed to take a look at it in the light of the Trump presidency Malcolm Turnbull accused him in emotional tones of heresy and of threatening our security by denying our one true protector. Rational analysis is discouraged. This recent comment has made it clear that domestic political games will hamper any serious discussion of Australian interests.

The basis of the Alliance is said to be ANZUS which was negotiated in 1954 because we were afraid of a resurgent Japan. The threat later became Communism and now is presumably jihadist terrorists. However, the treaty only requires the US to consult in accordance with its constitutional processes if Australia is threatened in the Asian region. We asked for support against Indonesia when the Dutch wanted to retain West New Guinea but President Kennedy backed President Sukarno because he was afraid Indonesia might go communist. Note that we could only ask for support if Indonesian sovereignty over West New Guinea was a threat to Australian security. No doubt some people at the time believed that but it was hardly a tenable claim. We also asked for more help than the US was prepared to give in East Timor but, again, this could hardly be called a threat to Australian security. Thus we come up with the so-called insurance policy argument. If we want the US to protect us in our hour of need we cannot rely on the ANZUS Treaty but must establish ourselves as an ally deserving of protection. This at least is rational but ultimately depends on whether or not you believe that the US would come to our aid if Australia were threatened and the US was not. It also means we must keep paying our premiums by following US policies including getting into wars we should keep out of.

The US is said to be a force for stability in our region but this again must be taken on faith. It is true in the case of the war against Japan and the Korean War but we might ask how it has contributed to stability after that. Vietnam was hardly a stabilising event. If the US had not had a presence in the region what would have happened? How would we have been threatened? The insurance policy argument has got us into wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all of which are disasters. We might ask whether the Alliance has got us into more trouble than it has got us out of but this is heresy. Australia is locked into the US military and diplomatic system. Pine Gap is an important part of the US defence system and would be a prime target in the case of a US war with a major power. We have Australian officers up to the level of major general embedded in the US military who would also be involved unless we pulled them out as we did in the case of the Falklands War. Would we?

The USA is a great power and behaves like other great powers to protect its interests and spread its influence. It talks about a rules based international order but only obeys those rules when it suits US interests. The invasion of Iraq is a classic example, not to mention the myriad subversions of democratically elected governments in Latin America that did not suit perceived US interests. Like the other nuclear powers, it opposes nuclear disarmament and Australia has trotted along behind it because we believe we need the US nuclear umbrella. Nor does the US accept the jurisdiction of the International Court for itself. Americans have got hot under the collar about Russia and China mounting cyber attacks on the USA. This is naive at best since all countries capable of it do it. The US has a large organisation devoted to reading other people’s confidential messages and interferes in other people’s elections, most recently in Ukraine. We also do it.

Intelligence sharing is another argument in favour of the Alliance. We do get valuable intelligence especially of a technical nature but we need to ask how much of this really serves Australian interests and how much of it we would need if we were not an American ally? The assurance that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction was hardly their finest moment and we were told that the US was not supporting the contras in Nicaragua when they obviously were. In other words, the US will lie to us if it suits them just as most other countries will.

Finally, we argue that we have shared values. We do share some values with some Americans but by no means all. Clearly it would be madness to try to make an enemy of the USA. While a future Gibbon will write that the decline of the American Empire had begun by now, the fall is a long way off and the US will remain a significant world power for many years to come, even if not the uncontested superpower. Our current approach is that we do not judge the US by the same standards that we apply to other countries because of the shared values and our strategic dependence. The appointments made by Donald Trump to key defence and intelligence related cabinet posts suggest that we may have to change our values on torture and some other unpleasant things but no doubt our government will rise to the challenge. Then there is climate change and guns.

There are two problems with making changes. The first is the insecurity of Australians who are frightened of the outside world and want a sugar daddy to protect them. The other is what the US will accept. It is instructive that Gough Whitlam’s attempts to be more independent without abandoning the alliance caused great ructions in Washington. We are so embedded in the American system that getting out of it would not be easy. New Zealand has managed to become less of a mindless follower but they don’t have facilities like Pine Gap which are important to the US intelligence and defence network. How can we find a middle path that makes us less of a client state without making an enemy of the US? To eject Pine Gap would be a major snub yet this is probably the installation that creates the greatest threat to Australia.

So is President Trump going to make a difference? He does give us an opportunity to do things we should have done long ago and some commentators have put this thought forward. The problem is we don’t really know what he is going to do and perhaps he doesn’t either. The desire for a deal with Putin is a positive step but is opposed by the hawks in his country. In Australia, Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating have urged a more independent policy on Australia and there are many who agree with them. Trump may force change on us but we don’t yet know.

Cavan Hogue was a former Australian diplomat, including ambassadorships in USSR and Russia.


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