Jul 30, 2018

The poster was launched by the Australian Embassy in Washington on July 4th, Independence Day. It attracted no attention at all locally which may have been a blessing. I only heard about it when reading the Australian edition of the Guardian online. It featured the faces of 15 men. It was a strange collection of both Australians and Americans. There were all white and there were no women at all. This was the main theme of the Guardian’s criticism and Ambassador Hockey felt it necessary to issue an apology for the partial selection of the people who were called ’patrons’. But the choice of participants was only one of the problems with the hapless poster.

The Embassy explained that it was part of their“ mateship programme” which was designed to “highlight Australia’s strong military alliance over the past 100 years”. The mateship had been “forged in battle” and was” the bedrock (sic) of a unique contemporary relationship across many shared fields of endeavour.” It is hard to know where to begin. It is ridiculous to claim that there has been a military alliance over 100 years. It is simply not true. Is it a case of ignorance of Australian history or shameless mendacity? And mateship? Whatever does that mean in this context? It is a rather silly attempt to equate the relationships of states with those of families and friends. How could such a simple minded, embarrassing piece of propaganda be released in Washington of all places?

But two conclusions present themselves. Australia’s tradition of deference was initially enhanced by the Trump ascendancy. Turnbull’s declaration that we were joined at the hip is only the most egregious example of obsequiousness. Our words exude the subservience of an insecure functionary in the court of a capricious tyrant. Have our leaders no self- respect?

The second thing to note is the way in which the whole complex relationship with the United States is conflated with the ANZAC Alliance. This massively exaggerates the significance of the treaty and diminishes the autonomous relationships associated with trade, travel, tourism and investment. They have a life of their own and would have been much the same whether or not there was a military alliance . And Australia would have had close diplomatic relations with the United States even if ANZUS had never been conceived.

But what we have here is a much more general problem. Australian leaders have almost universally exaggerated the importance of ANZUS mainly for domestic political reasons and have never explained its real limitations. Neither side of politics has dared to question what has become holy writ. This has had serious consequences. It has narrowed down debate about foreign and defence policy and helps account for the intellectual indolence displayed by much of Canberra’s defence and security establishment. The comparison with the rigour and intensity of comparable debate in America itself is particularly revealing.

It seems now that the reality of Trump’s erratic behaviour and chronic unpredictability has finally provoked serious discussion about the alliance. But deeply compacted complacency inhibits creative thought. Where do we go from here? Do we even have the language to explore new directions? How do we explain the new realities to an electorate which hasn’t much experience of serious debate about foreign and defence policies? Can the present generation of politicians rise above the temptations of playing to the crowd for ephemeral electoral advantage? Can Australia even have a serious debate about the American alliance while we are hobbled by the chains of the Murdoch press?

One of the things we badly need is an assessment of the alliance itself. It has been far too easy to argue that Australia has largely benefitted from it. It seems as though agreement on this central question has been a requirement needed to be taken seriously. The ANZAS Treaty, it has been assumed, was better than nothing. But that was a deeply flawed assessment. ANZUS was not a treaty like the Washington Treaty of April 1949 which underpinned NATO. It didn’t guarantee anything much. More to the point Australia has not been threatened since ANZUS came into effect in April 1952. So did we need it at all? The war against Japan illustrated the reality of international relations. When it was in America’s strategic interest to defend Australia they would did so despite the lack of any prior engagement or treaty. A weak treaty like ANZUS was, in fact, worse than no treaty at all. And there was no way to remedy the vast disproportion of power between the parties. It meant that Australia had to keep topping up a flimsy insurance policy, trying to prove over and over again our loyalty and our dependability. It is here that we find the source of the endless deference. And it meant that the Americans could always take the Australians for granted as long as they employed a little judicious flattery and talked, as they did to many others, about a special relationship.

It should have been predictable in 1952 that Australia would end up fighting in America’s wars rather than the reverse situation. And what bad, imprudent wars they turned out to be—fought for the wrong reasons in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so here we are today. Still involved in the Middle East with no end in sight. Fighting far away from Australia in countries we know little about. We are not even clear about what we are there for or what possible advantage we are likely to gain from the lives lost and blighted and the billions of dollars spent since the turn of the century. We never take into account the Vietnamese, Afghans, Iraqis or Syrians we have needlessly killed and the hundreds of families devastated in our name.

On balance it is clear ANZUS was a mistake. The best that can be said for it is that it made many Australians feel secure and in itself that was no bad thing. But it was signed at a time when Australia was emerging from the stunting shadows of a crumbling British Empire. It could have been the moment when the country finally seized its full sovereignty. But the new great and powerful friend was there and old habits were perpetuated. .Australia remained Empire- minded. As in the days of the British Empire it proved difficult to distinguish between the interests of Empire and those of Australia itself. The ethos of the expeditionary force trumped the idea of continental defence again and again. Ideology was given precedence over geography. And Australians continued to behave as they had done in the past when white men ruled the world. With what might be called sub-imperial hubris they felt they had the legal and moral right to send our armed forces to fight in other countries taking sides in complex civil wars fighting against people who presented no possible threat to the homeland. And all to what end?

Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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