Geography or history in determining our defence and foreign policies

Jul 20, 2022
Australian Flag Flying
Image: Wiklimedia Commons

I was living in London and had been referred to an eye specialist in Wimpole Street. In conversation he remarked that the problem with Australia was that it had too much geography and not enough history. This observation came back to me when I was thinking about the evolution of Australian defence and foreign policy which has, for much of the time, privileged historical ties with great and powerful friends ahead of the opportunities and challenges of scale and location.

The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 sparked one of the first serious debates about colonial foreign policy. Empire loyalists responded enthusiastically to calls for instantaneous support for the Crown and for the ties of blood and culture. A dissident minority led by the radical Presbyterian cleric John Dunmore Lang disagreed arguing that the colonists had little knowledge or interest in European conflicts. Once Australia became involved it was likely that the Pacific Ocean would become ‘a battlefield for the nations of Europe. ’ When charged with disloyalty he explained that he saw patriotism as the duty to seek the good of the land ‘in which we dwell.’

In the final decades of the C19th a coherent and dissident foreign policy evolved. It was based on a number of key propositions. The Australian colonies were , in effect neutral ,and their ports were open to all countries in the world. They had no enemies and were far removed from the sites of potential conflict. Geography alone was Australia’s source of security. Distance and the continental scale of the country were sufficient to deter any invader. The port cities were easily defended. The greatest threat was the close ties with Britain which could at any moment commit the colonies to war and she was almost perpetually at war somewhere in the world during the C19th. Europe had always been a cockpit and would in all probability remain so. But there was no reason why the colonies should be involved. In 1914 the worst fears were realised. But by then the alternative foreign policy had been overwhelmed.

Ideas of Greater Britain and Imperial federation were promoted with all Britain’s soft power and cultural authority. Race and kinship not place were what mattered. Henry Parkes’s ‘crimson thread of kinship’ could stretch far beyond Australia’s borders. That quintessential Australian John Forrest declared that Australia was not a nation but part of a British nation which transcended geography. When in1899, all six colonies committed themselves to war in South Africa the die was cast. Imperial leaders were triumphant. Shared war experience had bound the Empire together. Geography which had been regarded as a defensive asset was increasingly seen as a liability. Anxiety ballooned out of all proportion after 1905 with Japan’s defeat of Russia. In 1907 the defence minister Thomas Ewing declared:

Every sane man knows that if this country is to remain the home of the white man , it must be held, not by the power of Australia alone, but by the might of the white man in all parts of the world. In years to come, it will take the white man all he knows to hold New Zealand

and Australia. Therefore, we must not break the link which binds us to our fellow countrymen in other parts of the world…….we must seek to knit together the white men of this and other lands in preparation for the last deadly conflict which will assuredly come upon Australia.

The past casts long shadows. But they are often seen more clearly by outsiders than by those who have grown up with them. Australia’s century long obsession with white Australia is still remembered by our neighbours. So too our fear of the ‘yellow peril’. Concern about Japan was still apparent after 1945 and motivated our pursuit of a treaty with America the consummation of which neatly coincided with the communist victory in China. The source of the threat changed but the anxiety persisted with even renewed momentum. Our current obsession with the Chinese threat clearly has deep roots reaching back to our racist past. How else is it possible to explain the sudden and dramatic change in public opinion over the last five years .There was clearly a co-ordinated campaign by the Canberra’s defence and security establishment to cast China as an enemy. But it would not have flourished so well without a receptive, pre -prepared audience.

And then there is the abundant and varied evidence that Australia is still not at ease with our location in the Asia-Pacific world .It is as if we still have two homelands. Our national flag gives us away. Australians think it is our flag but it’s not. The Flag Act of 1953 which for the first time gave it official status declared in the preamble that the Australian flag was the British Blue Ensign. It’s a strange and anomalous situation . Of the fifty or so one- time British colonies only four retain their old colonial flags—Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tuvalu. Only a handful of such countries have retained their allegiance to the Queen and with the impending departure of the erstwhile Caribbean colonies there will be even fewer. Symbolism of this sort matters. A majority of the word’s nation states were, like Australia, once colonies. They must wonder why Australia has dawdled for so long on the much travelled road from dependence to sovereign statehood.

Strategy is influenced too. The establishment of AUKUS reinforces the message of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership that there is an exclusive post Imperial Anglo club. The Prime Minister’s recent journey to Madrid gave a clear message to the world. Australia was strongly supporting NATO’s decision to sign up to the American crusade to contain and if necessary confront China. Britain and France both indicated their intention to become more involved in the East Asia and the Pacific. Whether any of our own neighbours will welcome the return of the old Imperial overlords is another question altogether. The last thing they want is for the Western powers to turn their hemisphere into the location for a cataclysmic war with all the terrible consequences which would follow. There is a real danger that Australia will be seen as one of the leading promotors of this outcome with direct responsibility to turn the Pacific into what Dunmore-Lang long ago called ’ a battlefield for the nations of Europe.’

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