Many are thinking: we can surely do better as a nation

Feb 16, 2018

Across the country there is much amusement, and a good deal of bewilderment. People are asking: how can our subservience to Washington’s bidding hit such an all-time low? How can a government think it can shape Australia’s future security and prosperity by mouthing one inanity after another?

In the year that Trump has been in the White House, ministers have continued to repeat the well-worn mantra hat we are committed to defending and upholding the international rules-based order and the web of norms, alliances and institutions created over the last seventy years. Such glib rhetoric, a feature also of the Foreign Policy White Paper released last November, conveniently forgets to mention that much of this rule-making has reflected America’s dominant position in the world and served primarily US interests.

The government seems oblivious of the fact that this rules-based order, far from delivering peace and prosperity, has seen a host of armed conflicts within and between countries that show no sign of abating. The US contribution to this mayhem is far from negligible. In the 19th century the US participated in 18 international armed conflicts, that is, one every 5.5 years. In the course of the 20th century, the number rose to 38 wars, or one every three years, and the period since 2000 has seen the United States engage in 10 wars, the equivalent of one every 1.7 years.

Notable among these wars are the Korean conflict of the 1950s (close to 1 million battle deaths), the Vietnam War of the 1960s and early 1970s (1.6 million battle deaths), the Iraq War (some half a million deaths since the 2003 US invasion), and hostilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan (well over 150,000 deaths since 2001). In each of these, the US launched a major military intervention, dutifully supported by Australia.

In a similarly questionable contribution to a rules-based order, US administrations overthrew or sought to overthrow some 14 governments during the 1950s and 12 governments during the 1960s. This pattern continues unchanged right to the present day. Over the past 67 years, the United States has attempted regime change in 58 separate instances, that is, the equivalent of one every 14 months.

To this should be added the overt and covert use of economic and military aid to bring pressure to bear on other governments, and the increasingly coercive reach of the state justified in the name of the ‘war on terror’. The last fifteen years have seen the vastly expanded authority of law enforcement and security agencies, numerous cases of extraordinary rendition, interrogation techniques bordering on torture, and massive surveillance of one’s own citizens.

American leaders and their Australian counterparts  may wax lyrical about their commitment to the rule of law, individual freedoms and democratic institutions, but in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, such protestations are now generally taken with a grain of salt.

The defining feature of America’s presence in the world since 1945 has been the growth of its ‘national security state’. Presidents come and go, but what endures and grows is a security apparatus whose tentacles reach into virtually every area of policy, every institution of government. As I argue in my latest piece in The Conversation, it is the US security state, not Donald Trump, which continues to call the shots.

The US National Security Strategy unveiled a week ago by Defense Secretary Mattis delivers a stark message. Countering China’s rise and Russia’s resurgence are once again at the core of US policy. Whether in Europe, Asia or the Middle East the United States is readying itself for future conflicts and building the hard and soft infrastructure needed to prosecute them. The Cold War mindset is alive and well. Conspicuously absent is any notion of neo-isolationism or renewed dialogue with Russia, both of which featured prominently during the Trump campaign.

These are deeply disturbing trends for Australia, for they imply an almost inexorable slide into further military engagements at the side of the United States, some foreseeable, others not. They also imply that in any eventual conflict pitting the United States against China, Australia will be expected to comply with US policies and priorities. This places Australia in a particularly dangerous bind, for even before any hint of armed conflict, it deprives it of the room for manoeuvre it needs to maintain any semblance of balance, let alone equidistance, in its relations with these two competing great powers.

All of this simply reinforces the urgency of a thoroughgoing reassessment of the ANZUS alliance. Australia has to adjust to a radically transforming landscape brought about by the rise of China and the decline of the United States, but also by an unprecedented global cultural shift from Occident to Orient. Australia is uniquely placed by virtue of its multicultural fabric and its history and geography to navigate this difficult transition, but it must be willing to summon the necessary will and wisdom.

While a national conversation must begin without delay, the transition itself cannot be achieved at one fell swoop. A number of concrete intermediate steps can usefully lead the way. Several such steps readily suggest themselves.

  • Strongly advocate and support in practical ways an ongoing and expanding dialogue between the two Koreas
  • End all military involvement in Afghanistan and Middle East conflicts unless it is as part of a UN authorised peacekeeping operation
  • Actively support a regionally agreed code of conduct in the South China Sea
  • Avoid any military arrangements or commitments which are explicitly or implicitly aimed at containing China’s rise
  • Greatly expand the resources, skills, capacity and authority of the Department of Foreign Affairs in dialogue facilitation, mediation, and conflict resolution, especially in the context of Australia’s engagement with Asia
  • Develop a major initiative, in collaboration with like-minded governments in Asia and elsewhere, for radical UN reform, with particular emphasis on the functioning and membership of the UN Security Council and other UN organs, notably the General Assembly and the office of the UN Secretary-General.
  • Vigorously work with like-minded governments to breathe new life into the nuclear disarmament agenda, and achieve as quickly as possible the fifty ratifications needed to bring the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty into effect
  • Extend strong practical support for the Sustainable Development Goals, by making them central to the framing of Australia’s economic and social policies as well as to its aid program, which in practice will require greatly enhancing both the size and quality of that program.

All the indications are that the present government has neither the inclination nor the intellectual equipment to undertake a comparable package of practical initiatives, let alone the comprehensive reappraisal of the US alliance and related military and diplomatic commitments. Nor is there any evidence that Labor in government will proceed in this direction. Its performance in recent years in both opposition and government has been pitiful to say the least, and those occupying leading positions in the parliamentary party have displayed extraordinary timidity when it comes to challenging the current direction of Australia’s foreign and security policies.

The Greens often present alternative, generally well-intentioned proposals. However, neither their leaders nor their rank and file seem able to imagine, let alone stimulate, the national conversation proposed here. Several factors are at work. The Greens are not, certainly not now, able to command the attention of a wide public. Their forays into political discourse are at best spasmodic and often reactive. Their approach remains far too electoralist to offer a carefully thought out alternative to politics as usual.

Sadly, there is no escaping the conclusion that the present party machines and the institutions of parliament and government within which they operate are unable to forge a new, coherent and compelling narrative of Australia’s past and future. Such a narrative cannot be constructed overnight or from the top down. It has to emerge organically from the diverse efforts of civil society. Of particular importance is the role of public interest groups, educators, writers, artists, other professional networks, those engaged in media, the business community and trade unions. They have the opportunity to take stock of unprecedented risks and exciting new opportunities, not alone but in tandem with similar efforts in other parts of the world.

Joseph A. Camilleri is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and Executive Director of Alexandria Agenda, a new venture in ethical consulting.

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