Quo vadis – Australian foreign policy and ANZUS.
Summary. Will Australia allow itself to be drawn into Sino-American tensions in the incorrect belief that it has no choice under ANZUS or ‘five eyes’.
At the recent AIIA National conference two analogies from the turbulent 60s were drawn to argue that Australia should stay calm about Trump. The first related to Britain withdrawing from East of Suez, and the second to America bouncing back from the assassination and disgrace of presidents and racial strife to finally elect a black president.
‘This will be the end of Australia – if it matters’, SMH cartoonist Molnar had Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen saying to Prime Minister Robert Menzies, when the Mother country turned to Europe and turned its back on the old Commonwealth.
The worst did not happen, because ‘Menzies had the gift of rationality’, in the words of Foreign Minister Garfield Barwick. He gave in to an extraordinarily emotional appeal from British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and pressure from President John F Kennedy and acquiesced in the British application to join the European Community. He went along reluctantly with his’ ‘great and powerful friends’ decision that the Dutch, their NATO ally, must give up West New Guinea. When Sukarno’s Indonesia immediately confronted Malaysia, Britain’s last exercise in decolonisation, Menzies reversed his lifelong conviction, that if Britain was at war Australia must be at war, and supported Barwick’s insistence that Britain should carry the military load. He even conceded to Barwick that Britain would leave Asia but Australia could not. The cooperation between Barwick and his department constituted best practice in Australian foreign policy.
So the question from that analogy is do Australian leaders have the quality of rationality, the supporting bureaucracy the skills, and the people the national steadfastness, to handle another such era of change?
The Trump years will see national cohesion tested as it has not been for a century. Trump has opened divisions in American society far deeper and more numerous than when (as I witnessed) Washington burnt for the second time in 1968. Even with the political advantage of support of both Houses of Congress and the mysteriously transforming aura of the White House he seems likely to be incapable of grappling with the internal strife. We have a problem because he and those around him view us, as many Americans did in the 1960s on race, as kindred spirits.
Thus the second challenge Trump poses for Australia is to embrace values which distinguish us from his America and to demonstrate a consensus behind them.
A third problem is that Trump is unlikely to have the time, the steadiness or the subtlety to cope with the tactics (salami slicing, tipping the opponent over) China uses to exploit others ‘ weaknesses. He is likely to be out of step with ‘the Asian way’.
China’s first Prime Minister Zhou Enlai said two things about Australia to an Asian diplomat in the early 1950s, the first that Australians are the last imperialists of Asia and the second that one day Australia would accept that it was part of Asia. Accepting that we are part of Asia will be almost as hard for us as it was for Menzies in 1963, and he did not stick to it when in 1964 he saw a chance of using the ANZUS partnership to draw the US into a war he saw as against China.
Will Australia repeat that error of history? Will it be the irresponsible island country which helps to spring ‘the Thucydides trap’, which trips the declining and rising super powers into a disastrous war? Will it allow itself to be drawn into Sino-American tensions in the incorrect belief that it has no choice under ANZUS or ‘Fiye-Eyes’ (which predates it)? Or will we have the courage, confidence and cohesion to play the thankless role of peacemaker, and to make clear what we will and will not do under the treaty?
Garry Woodard is a Fellow at the University of Melbourne and former diplomat and National President of the AIIA.