MARK BEESON. New series: We can say ‘no’ to the Americans?

Getting to ‘no’

Ideas have their moments. The way we think about the world is partly a reflection of who ‘we’ are and partly a consequence of the times we live in. One of the biggest ideas that has informed Australian foreign policy since it became formally independent is that we live in an especially insecure apart of the world, a long way from our natural allies.

The need for what Bob Menzies famously called ‘great and powerful friends’ has consequently been the default policy setting for generations of policymakers and strategists. It’s not hard to see why: it’s been electorally popular; the alternatives look risky and expensive; that’s what all serious analysts security think.

History offers many examples of the perils of ‘groupthink’ throughout military history. My own modest epiphany in this regard and subsequent interest in strategic issues was initially triggered by the possibility that George W. Bush might invade Iraq. Even if this made sense to the people running foreign and security policy in the Bush administration, what on earth could it possibly have to do with us?

In the aftermath of what most people agree is one of the most consequential, entirely unnecessary strategic blunders of modern times, it still looks like a good question that has never been satisfactorily answered. The same question could be asked about our continuing participation in the bombing of Syria.

This is not to deny that there may, indeed, be good reasons to stop despots from doing dreadful things to their own people. Clearly, there are. The question, as ever, is: what is the best way of bringing this about, and what role can a ‘middle power’ like Australia usefully play in such a process?

This is where a genuinely independent Australian foreign policy might be especially valuable. If we really do have the influence over our American cousins that is frequently claimed by alliance supporters, offering some critical feedback on the Bush administration’s plans – rather than the usual blank strategic cheque – might have been rather more valuable and appreciated in the long-term.

The potential merits of independent thought and even action look even more compelling since the election of Donald Trump. The idea that Australia’s national interest will inevitably correspond with America’s has always been implausible, even at the best of times. Now it looks bizarrely and potentially dangerously at odds with what passes for strategic reality, as much as we can understand it at the moment.

The great hope – even expectation, amongst many observers – is that the presidency and the institutions of government in the US will shape the man rather than vice versa. We must hope such optimism proves well founded. The alternative is a violent – possibly in every sense of the word – lurch to the right, a potentially authoritarian American government, and an entirely unpredictable and destabilizing set of foreign policies.

Business as usual does not look like a practical, much less a principled, option in such circumstances. If we do have any political capital in Washington, this might be a good time to start spending a little.

Plainly there are limits to what even the best of friends can do when someone is impervious to reasoned advice. Indicating that we might not want to play our usual uncritical and legitimating supporting role might not be quite so unthinkable or damaging under such circumstances though.

Professor Mark Beeson from the University of Western Australia, is Series Editor, Critical Studies of the Asia Pacific.

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