Dutton leads us down a dangerous pre-World War I path

Dec 1, 2021
Peter Dutton
(Image: AP/Rod McGuirk)

Peter Dutton’s support for the US over China risks putting wind beneath the wings of Washington’s hawks. We have been here many times before.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton declared last month that if it came to US action against China over Taiwan, “it would be inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US”. Are there warnings from history we should heed here?

Two days later, the US journal Politico’s “National Security Daily” wondered aloud: might commentary like Dutton’s encourage the more belligerent voices in Washington ready to risk war? Perhaps “having Canberra on Washington’s side in case a still unlikely war breaks out might make the calculation easier”.

We have been down this path before — but further back than the 1930s, Dutton’s go-to decade which he imagines provides the imperishable lesson that only superior weapons and alliances can keep the peace. Let us look instead to the decade before 1914.

Australian ministers spoke in terms identical to those of Dutton’s at a meeting of the British Committee of Imperial Defence in London on May 29, 1911. Australian Labor prime minister Andrew Fisher told the British that in the event of war he wanted Australia’s navy to be “part of the British fleet, and to cooperate in every possible way”. He added that “I can hardly conceive of a national circumstance where it would not cooperate heartily”.

At the same meeting, George Pearce, Labor’s defence minister, declared that keeping out of any conflict was not possible for Australia: “I say it is inconceivable in my opinion that it would take that attitude.” Naval unity of command was “unquestionably’ essential”. He assured the British that in practice “you can always count the [Australian] fleets in”.

How had Australian politicians got to this point? It is a lesson in the dangers of setting up deterrence and alliance as the nation’s household gods.

Let us step back. In the decade before the Great War, the British empire’s decision-makers persuaded themselves that they faced a threat from a new rising power, Germany — notwithstanding growing trade relations. Military and imperial-loyalist lobby groups in Australia drank in this doctrine and preached the need for Australia to achieve security through a massive increase in military spending and unwavering loyalty to Britain. Compulsory military training began, and a “Royal Australian Navy” took shape. From 1908-09 to 1913-14, Commonwealth spending on defence doubled, from 15.5 per cent to 31 per cent of the federal budget.

Alliances became objects of worship. How did Australia get caught up in these? One day in April 1904, Australians woke up to read in their newspapers that, courtesy of the British Foreign Office, they were now in a new kind of alliance — an “Entente Cordiale” — with France, based on Anglo-French plans for mutual expansionism in Egypt and Morocco. No one consulted Australia.

Then, one day in early September 1907, Australians woke up to read that Tsarist Russia was now their ally; an “Anglo-Russian convention” had been signed in St Petersburg, based upon a contemplated partition of Persia. Neither Parliament nor the people had been consulted.

It was Liberal prime minister Alfred Deakin’s minister, Colonel Justin Foxton, who next entangled Australia. At the Imperial Defence Conference in London in 1909, he signed up to a sweeping declaration that Australia would “take its share in the general defence of the empire”. He also agreed that the Australian navy, which was slated for rapid expansion, would be swiftly transferred to the British Admiralty in the event of war.

Periodically, Australian politicians ducked and weaved on these issues. For example, on his way home from London in mid-1911, Fisher was reported as saying that if Britain embarked upon an unjust war, then Australia might have to decide “to haul down the Union Jack and hoist our own flag and start on our own”. All hell broke loose, and Fisher buckled. He was forced to deny in Parliament that he had ever said or intended such a thing. Australia was locked in.

Many other politicians, such as George Reid, George Pearce, and William Morris Hughes, stressed in public speeches that Australia must be ready to deploy its military forces well beyond its borders, at Britain’s command — “forward defence”. As defence minister, Pearce emphasised Australia’s dependence on Britain and conceded that Australia “may at any time be involved in a war in the causing of which we had no voice”. Being drawn into war “willy nilly” was inescapably the cost of “our imperial connexion” (August 18, 1910). Thus, in late 1912, Pearce secretly authorised planning for an expeditionary force to be despatched upon the outbreak of war — that is, in virtually any war that Britain chose.

When a European war loomed in late July 1914, Australia’s politicians accepted that the decision for war or peace was London’s. With a federal election due in weeks, they competed with each other in a love-of-empire auction. “Last man, last shilling”.

In early August 1914, the crisis in Europe exploded. A mere rump of Australian Liberal prime minister Joseph Cook’s cabinet authorised the despatch of a cable to London in the early evening of Monday, August 3 (or Monday morning, London time) offering an expeditionary force of 20,000 men, to be entirely at London’s disposal and at Australia’s cost. This was some 40 hours in real time before Britain declared war at all. Looking to scoop up advantage in the coming election by unleashing the khaki factor, the government released the cable to the press.

In London, British colonial secretary Lewis Harcourt was cool. He replied to Australia that “there seems to be no immediate necessity for any request on our part for an expeditionary force from Australia”. Irritated, he told cabinet that he was “holding back” these forces. Australia had jumped the gun.

What impact did this offer have in Britain? In the last days of peace, Britain’s Liberal cabinet was deeply divided. Initially, four Liberal ministers resigned, denouncing rash promises of naval assistance to France and a perceived failure to restrain Russia. Meanwhile, blood-and-thunder politicians and journalists pressing for an instant British intervention gleefully flaunted the Australian offer. Chiming in, The Times declared it “unthinkable” that Britain could stay out of war when “our brethren overseas” were so “resolute”. It heaped praise on the Australians who had “swept away the phrases of weakness and indifference and ranged their manhood at our side”. Britain declared war very late on Tuesday, August 4.

Did Australia’s early offer embolden the “hawks”? It certainly shocked British prime minister H. H. Asquith. Soon after deciding for war, he told a colleague how surprised he had been to read the “messages from the dominions declaring their intentions to sally forth and attack whatever German possessions might be in their neighbourhood”. “Isn’t this extraordinary?” Asquith exclaimed.

Are there warnings for us here? If we suggest that our not participating in war as a comrade-in-arms with our powerful ally is “inconceivable” — as we did in 1911 and as Dutton does today — do we not risk inciting reckless decision-makers? In a nuclear age, are we not exposing our people to perils beyond our imagination?

READ MORE: Dutton’s war talk election tactics need calling out” — The Australian Financial Review

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