MARK BEESON. The US Lobby and Australian Defence Policy, Vince Scappatura, Monash Publishing (a review)

Jun 21, 2019

One of the most enduring features of Australia’s foreign and strategic policies is the close relationship between this country and the United States. A number of other countries such as Britain and Japan also claim to have a ‘special relationship’ with the US, but no country has worked more assiduously to turn that rhetoric into reality. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a country that has made greater sacrifices of blood and treasure than Australia has on behalf of its American ally and notional security guarantor.

Given Australia’s comparatively benign security position, this willingness to unquestioningly offer support to the US, especially in conflicts of questionable strategic relevance and rationale, takes some explaining at any time. In the era of Donald J. Trump, it is even more remarkable. After all, Trump has demonstrated little reciprocal loyalty to long-standing allies such as Canada and the European Union, and systematically undermined the so-called ‘rules based international order’ to which Australian policymakers attach such importance.

Vince Scappatura’s forensic analysis of the activities of what he describes as Australia’s ‘US lobby’ provides some potential answers to this puzzle. While there have been other discussions of the alliance relationship they have frequently been remarkably uncritical; Greg Sheridan’s The Partnership being quintessential example of the genre. Indeed, Sheridan is a prominent and influential member of a lobby group that is responsible for the ‘rather peculiar situation whereby a group of pro-American Australians facilitate the socialisation of other Australians into acquiescing or reinforcing American political interests’, Scappatura argues.

One of the principal mechanisms of this socialisation process is the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, the brainchild of the prominent Australian businessman, Philip Scanlon. While it is difficult to be precise quite how much impact a body such as the AALD has on public opinion and the management of the alliance relationship as a whole, there is little doubt it has made true believers out of many of those inducted into its inner sanctum.

A major contribution of this book is to provide an enormous amount of detail about the activities of, and motivations for, the AALD, which has hitherto been subjected to surprisingly little critical analysis. In this regard Scappatura provides ‘critical’ commentary of the best sort: not simply a litany of possible alliance failings and shortcomings, but a plausible explanation of why it has proven so difficult for generations of policymakers from both of the major parties to do anything other than go along with the conventional strategic wisdom.

The first part of the book spells out some of the comparatively well known, but still surprising, origins of the ‘alliance orthodoxy’: the belief that Australia’s strategic interests are aligned with those of the US and ultimately reliant on the latter’s military might to guarantee its security is the ideational bedrock of policy thinking in Australia. It has been for more than half a century. Even without institutions such as the AALD, it was likely that strategic thinking in this country might have developed a good deal of path dependency. What Scappatura persuasively argues, however, is that the AALD in particular has played a prominent role in entrenching a particular view of the unchallengeable merits of the alliance relationship among Australia’s strategic and policymaking elites.

There is a good deal of revealing detail about the head-turning potential of the AALD, with illuminating vignettes on the conversion of the likes of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard in particular. ‘Schmoozing’ is an American word, after all, and mixing with US policy making elites has clearly had a transformative effect on most invitees. It could hardly be otherwise, though: as Scappatura points out, critics—even thoughtful former insiders like Hugh White—are not invited if they depart from the ruling orthodoxy.

One of Scappatura’s most perceptive observations is that ‘the objective of the US lobby is not to hijack and transform Australia’s national security policy but to preserve and protect the status quo, instilling and reinforcing the alliance orthodoxy among the public and especially in the minds of the next generation of elite and alliance managers.’ It is this latter function, which the lobby does so effectively through the mainstream media, organisations such as the Lowy Institute and ASPI, and – current debates about the alleged impact of ‘left-wing academics’ notwithstanding – the nation’s universities. The discussion of the activities of a number of ANU academics is especially illuminating in this regard.

There is some doubt about the future of the AALD when Scanlan departs the scene, and more might have been said about this perhaps. But if the alliance can survive what Martin Wolf has described as a process in which ‘the US has become a rogue superpower, hostile, among many other things, to the fundamental norms of a trading system based on multilateral agreement and binding rules [in which] US allies, too, are a target of the wave of bilateral bullying’, perhaps it can survive anything.

And yet as Hugh White has pointed out, the seemingly unthinkable problem as far as the US lobby is concerned, is  what happens if we ‘find ourselves in an Asia dominated by China, where America plays little or no strategic role at all.’ Supporters of the alliance look especially ill-equipped to consider, let alone answer, such questions.

Scappatura’s timely and important book helps us to understand why Australia’s political and strategic elites remain so wedded to a view of the world that is generally subject to little critical analysis, but which is being rapidly overtaken by profound systemic changes, many of which emanate from the US itself. For a community of security specialists and supposedly hard-headed realists, developing a world view that is based on a national frame of reference might actually be a good idea. Until Australia’s dominant strategic culture evolves, however, not much is likely to change.

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia



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