The alliance with the United States is not now what it was thought to be at the beginning because the US itself is not now what it was thought to be. The problem was that, even then, it wasn’t what Australian leaders thought it was. The rose-coloured view remains however: no evidence in official Australian thinking and acting that the US is almost self-evidently a dangerous actor. The indicators proliferate nevertheless; they suggest alliance partners exercise caution, prudence, continuous critical scrutiny and the avoidance of all measures presaging war.
In recent days several contributions to this site have made erudite, and compelling cases for a re-examination of the Australia – US alliance on the basis that it is, overall, and to use Malcolm Fraser’s term, “deadly.” My only problem with them – and this is expressed while respecting all who wrote them – is that they are too polite, too civil.
This piece is not a criticism of them; rather, it is an extension of the conversation we must have but infused with explicit anger and outrage because the context and conduct of the Australian security discourse is crude, dangerous, undemocratic and embedded in historical structures of multiple deceit and debilitating intellectual dishonesty.
Accordingly, it is guided by three principles which offend the reigning pieties of the university-sanctioned, state-blessed inarticulacy of mainstream political analysis in Australia. Reading it, as one must do to know the unfolding mind of an adversary with power and influence, the commentators’ appalling lack of seeing and reporting the world recalls a phrase from James Joyce: “Tonguetied sons of bastards’ ghosts.”
The first we find in Orwell: “during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Taken to heart, and extending the obligation, Adam Garfinkle interprets this as the duty of all honest men, “in certain destabilized times . . . to simply restate the obvious.”
The second in E. P. Thompson: “For dissent tone is as important as context. It must say, not only that these things are true, but that they matter.” Nathaniel Hawthorne was of the same mind when he expressed the view that some types of imagination perforce encourage “dissent from the orthodoxies of dissent.”
The third we find in Hannah Arendt who wrote that “the clearest sign of dehumanisation” of a dissenting community in the face of chronic and profound injustice is the absence of rage.
So guided ,the alliance with the United States is an indictment of the critical faculties of government because it is an alliance with a power whose pathologies would caution any self-respecting power to rigorous discipline its contact with across the full spectrum of politics and especially in matters of defence and international security.
Consider just a few of the domestic character traits of what CNN still repeatedly calls “the leader of the free world:”
- 50 percent of Americans are in, or near poverty. This includes 20 percent of all pre-school age children who are classified as living in “foreboding poverty.” One-third of all Americans cannot afford food, housing, or health care. Even before the recent tax-cut legislation poor Americans paid the highest taxes and received little of the safety net. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which even then did not cover all in need, an estimated 44,000 lives per year were saved; if it is repealed, as the Republican Party proposes, these lives, and many others, will once again be forfeit.
- The US is a carceral state: about 2.3 million people annually are confined in its 1,700 state prisons, more than 100 federal prisons, 900 juvenile facilities and 3,100 local jails. In addition to the 2.3 million in prison, 3.7 million Americans are on probation and 840,000 on parole. US prisons now house 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. In the California’s prison system the annual cost for single inmate – $USD75,560 is greater than the total for tuition, fees, room and board at Harvard. The prison sector is now an economic hub.
- Violence is endemic: US citizens, who constitute 4.4 percent of the global population, own 42 percent (357 million) of the world’s guns. In the years 1983-2012, 325,000 were the victims of gun-related violence; police in the US now fatally shoot 1,000 people per year; mass shootings in general occur at the rate of at least once a day. Since the founding of the United States, gun-related deaths within the country outnumber its war deaths by 120,000. Schoolteachers in some jurisdictions are now being trained to shoot students they judge to be a lethal threat.
- Understanding the world is made almost impossible by the fact that, according to the US Government’s own Institute of Education Sciences, functional illiteracy in the United States is growing at a rate of over 2 million new inductees per year and the total number of functional illiterates in the country is at least 42 million and as high as 60 million. The estimate is that only 15 per cent of the population are fully literate.
- According to four-yearly surveys conducted by the National Geographic Education Foundation which go back to at least 1988, the 18-48 cohort of the US population (which necessarily includes university and college students and some graduates) tends also to be not only ignorant, but profoundly ignorant, of both world affairs and those of the United States.
- Avoiding the world is now increasingly thought to be available through medication, specifically opioids: the most recent figures and research reveal that 97.5 million Americans used, or misused prescription drugs under this heading in 2015. Americans now consume 30 percent of the global prescription opioid supply and the annual death toll from misuse is 64,000; nevertheless 50,000 scripts for opioids are written each day.
Responding to this schedule some will say that there are millions of decent Americans who care about the poor, abide by the law, are knowledgeable and can read and think in a sophisticated manner, do not own a gun, eschew opioids, and are appalled by the state of the republic and seek a return to republican ideals. And I would agree.
The problem is that, ever present as they are, they are not the bearers of hope. They do not count now; in truth, they have not counted for a long time now. Exactly when they faded into impotence is a matter of conjecture but true republicanism has been declaratory rather than operational for some time but substantial and significant scholarship dates the erosion into a gerrymandered plutocracy / oligarchy as early as 1790.
If that sounds like an excursion into Genesis, then consulting The Pentagon Papers will suffice. And paying close attention to the ways in which the US acts globally . to be undertaken in Part 2. provides uncomfortable confirmation.
From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught diplomacy international relations and strategy in the department of Politics, at UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.