I was astonished! An SBS news report about the Turnbull visit to Washington declared that the two countries were celebrating their hundred years of alliance. Where had this extraordinary snippet of history come from, I wondered? I then discovered that it was the Australian Embassy which had had been talking about 100 years of mateship.
To arrive at that extraordinary piece of hyperbole the Australian publicists had discovered the Battle of Hamel fought on the Western Front on July 4th 1918. A few Australians would have known about it but presumably far fewer Americans. It was a short, albeit very successful encounter. What attracted the Embassy was that a few companies of American infantry took part with a much larger body of Australians. British and French artillery and British tanks were also involved. This was where the 100 years of mateship began. In an article written for US TODAY Turnbull pushed the rhetoric even closer to grotesque exaggeration. The 90 minute Battle of Hamel marked,he said, ‘ the start of an unbreakable alliance that would see Australia fighting alongside the U.S. in every significant conflict in the hundred years that followed.’
So much could be said about this audacious spiel that it is difficult to know where to begin. Relations between Australia and the United States deteriorated almost immediately after the war. Woodrow Wilson found Billy Hughes obnoxious at Versailles. And then during the inter-war period there were only limited contact between the two countries while Mother England tried to limit what relations there were. The United States showed no interest in the defence of Australia until Pearl Harbour forced their hand. There was no alliance until the Americans grudgingly signed the Anzus Treaty in 1951. And even then it is not much of a treaty and it is clearly not unbreakable. The three members can leave the Treaty by giving a year’s notice of their intention to quit.
It says a great deal about the militarization of Australian history that Embassy staff chose to highlight a few hours of shared combat to illustrate the relations between the two countries. So much more could have been alluded to and in particular the extremely fruitful two-way intellectual exchanges which took place in the generation between 1890 and 1914 involving significant Australian political figures like Alfred Deakin, H.B.Higgins and A.I.Clark. By any measure these deep intellectual friendships were far more significant than brief and chance encounters behind the lines on the Western Front. They have been closely studied by Marilyn Lake who is about to publish an important book on the subject with Harvard University Press. Perhaps Embassy staff don’t know much history or they assumed that intellectual interchange would not spark any interest in the Trump White house or, for that matter, inside Joe Hockey’s embassy.
Turnbull’s article tumbled from analysis to bathos with his references to mateship. They need to be seen to be believed:
- Mateship. The word—and the concept it captures—means a lot to Australians.
- Mateship is reserved for those who share an unspoken bond of friendship, trust, commitment and shared values. Mates stick by each other through good times and bad. Mates have each other’s backs.
- That is the relationship Australians share with Americans. It’s the relationship we will celebrate an reaffirm in the United States this week.
Numerous comments commend themselves. Australians invariably exaggerate their standing in the States. Anyone who spends time there will know how little it is noticed. And even though this delegation was, on Turnbull’s reckoning, the largest and most significant delegation of government and business leaders ever to visit Washington it scarcely raised a ripple of public interest.
But more serious concerns arise. What can only be called the Turnbull grovel points to a far larger problem. It is clear that Australia’s defence and security establishment cannot come to terms with the waywardness of Trump’s presidency and in general terms Australians are shielded from much of the astute analysis in America’s liberal media. They want to go on in accustomed ways as though nothing of consequence has happened. The problem is that they lack the capacity to change course, to imagine ways in which Australia can develop new policies to suit the radically changed times. Turnbull’s earlier declaration that we were joined at the hip with Trump’s dystopia was surely one of the oddest thing ever said by an Australian Prime Minister and far more radical than a predecessor’s promise to go ‘ All the way with LBJ’. Most world leaders have approached the Trump White House with caution tinged with trepidation. And there was Turnbull carolling mateship forever.
The very idea of mateship between nation states is deeply problematic. It conflates personal relations with the way international relations are carried out .Geo-political strategy has little room for sentiment or the caring relationships of friends or kin. For far too long Australia believed there was a familial relationship with Mother England. It greatly obstructed our capacity to strike out on our own and was there underlying our disastrous dependence on the Singapore strategy in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. We are making the same mistake with our attempt to base any viable strategic thinking on mateship. But what it does do is convey a totally false idea of our international relations to the electorate, something which happened so notably in our relationship with Imperial Britain. Turnbull’s declaration that mates stick by each other through good times and bad is profoundly troubling. If it means,what we must think it does, it signals to the Americans that no matter where, when or why conflict breaks out we will be there because ‘mates have each other’s backs.’ We will be there ready to march in whatever direction you like to point. Has any Australian leader in government or opposition said anything in public that would disabuse the Americans of this belief?
The fact that Turnbull militarised the idea of mateship, that he suggested that it was a product pre-eminently of men in combat points us in even more troubling directions. The over-riding problem facing Australia is to manage the relations we have with America and China. Dwarfing every other consideration is the need to avoid being pulled into a future war between the two. There must be serious doubts as to whether the defence and security establishment is capable of avoiding that catastrophe. Or even wanting to? After all the Americans are mates, something the Chinese, presumably, can never be.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who is focused on frontier conflict between Indigenous people and European settlers.