MIKE SCRAFTON. A tale of two Americas: Australia’s foreign policy choices post-pandemic

Apr 14, 2020

As Michael Shoebridge has rightly pointed out, how the US rebounds from the COVID-19 crisis will be important for international relations and Australia’s foreign policy. However, hagiography and selective historical references don’t substitute for serious reflection and reassessment.

Apart from being illusory and misleading, it is dangerous to posit an excessively flattering picture of the US. The US will have suffered a shock to its presumptive values and to its social and economic systems as a result of the pandemic and will not necessarily rebound strongly. As the world finds its feet again, Australia will need to look to its own
interests first.

The central thesis of Shoebridge’s analysis is that ‘[t]he time beyond this current pandemic will reveal once again the energies and powers that drive America—and Americans’. The crisis will release the ‘enormous intellectual, innovative and creative flourishing in America’, and reveal the ‘potential that the pre-crisis era did not’.

To support this rosy view, Shoebridge calls on history. A glorious tale in which ‘America made massive development strides in the early phase of the industrial revolution’. Where Industrial expansion continued after the Civil War into ‘the Gilded Age’. Followed by a continuous process of economic reinvention following crises like the First World War, the Great Depression, and Second World War, and then ‘reaching out and building the defining global institutions’ and reshaping ‘the world’s economy several times, through industrialisation, globalisation’. None of which is wrong, just incomplete.

Neatly, this quick survey passes over the darker antebellum eras of US history: when economic success was accompanied by slavery and the decimation of the indigenous peoples, and where post-Civil War reconstruction saw extreme racial violence. He ignores the times that left white supremacists in charge of many Southern States and which saw the passage of the Jim Crow laws, which persisted into the 1960s. And the Progressive era that saw eugenics become respectable, even advocated by Theodore Roosevelt as President, and the proliferation of anti-miscegenation laws, not completely overturned until 1967.

There is some irony in the reference to the Gilded Age, which comes from the title of a 1973 book co-authored by Mark Twain that satirized the greed and corruption in post-Civil War America. Current historical scholarship is more inclined to see the Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and the Progressive eras as showing significant continuity, rather than as a period punctuated by crises. A time spanning roughly the period between 1865 and 1920: beginning with Andrew Johnson’s presidency and ending with Harding’s landslide victory.

There are some excellent introductions to this complex and ambiguous period of the US: including Southern Nation: Congress and White Supremacy After Reconstruction (2018), A Companion to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (2017), Reading the Market Genres of Financial Capitalism in Gilded Age America (2016), and The Rise of Militarism in the Progressive Era 1900–1914 (2007).

There is no doubt that the US retains enormous resources, and vast human, intellectual and economic capital. It is also true that alongside many of the key inventions and innovations that have shaped the modern world, the US has provided some of the most inspiring thinkers, writers and leaders of modern times. The US won’t disappear as a force in world affairs overnight or in the foreseeable future. It will rebound in some form and demand international attention because of its residual power.

American progress has always been at a cost. That’s not unusual in great powers. The progress of the US has been in lock step with racism, discrimination, white supremacy, poverty, and war. The US, like other hegemons before it, has dressed up acting in its own interests with a veneer of idealism mixed with altruism. However, it is the US’s fallibility, the fact that it is a normal country governed by imperfect people, that makes any uncritical appreciation dangerous.

Why is all this important? It is crucial that Australian foreign and strategic policy-makers have a realistic and unvarnished understanding of how the US might approach the post-pandemic world. For better or worse Australia is tightly bound with the US economically and strategically. Yet foreign and strategic policy formulation is much more an art than a science, much more a matter of judgement than skill.

The study of history is important for developing the talent for policy in these domains. But it only gives up its lessons when approached objectively. History provides a valuable perspective on how previous crises, disruptions and discontinuities have played out, on how national directions can be reactions to contingent circumstances, and how bias, prejudice and self-interest can intrude into the reasoning of even the well-intentioned.

Michael Shoebridge is a well credentialed policy expert. His CV is impressive. Currently Director of Defence, Strategy & National Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), he has held senior positions in the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Finance and Defence. He is undoubtedly someone to whom people listen. So it’s surprising and concerning to see this mythologizing of America, or promotion of a Hollywood-style image.

His previous writings reveal a degree of opposition to the Chinese regime and may indicate that his purpose is to bolster arguments for a realignment of Australia-China relations. This is a hotly disputed area of policy and, in the uncertainty of the post-pandemic era, one that needs to be approached realistically.

It is not a given that the US will act to ‘remake the post- Covid world’, at least not in a way that will benefit the international community more broadly. The sort of power the US exercised previously is now compromised, and building the post-pandemic world will be a complicated drama with many players. Following the US lead may prove to be the right course. However, good, clear-eyed policy in the post-COVID environment cannot be based uncritically on an illusion.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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7 thoughts on “MIKE SCRAFTON. A tale of two Americas: Australia’s foreign policy choices post-pandemic

  1. I fully agree that our alignment with the US post-Corvid 19 needs a fresh look with clear eyes. The first question to consider is, which US? Staying within the last century, I see three.
    The first is the US as was, best exemplified by the can-do era of FDR’s New Deal which helped pull America out of the Great Depression, and her defeat of Japan in the Pacific and her massive aid to Russia in Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany, both during WWII. This era extended into the 50’s and came to an abrupt end in Dallas in November, 1963.
    The second is the US as never was, a myth pedaled and so beloved by Hollywood. This era gave us the defeat in Vietnam morphed into Rambo, the Marlboro Man before he died of lung cancer and the impossible dream of peace, love and brown rice. This era came crashing down with the Two Towers plus Number 7 in September, 2001.
    The third is the US as is. This one is not a myth, but the cold reality we are dealing with today. Bush the Lesser led off with his imagined weapons of mass destruction leading to a Global War on Terror and the accompanying Patriot Act. He was followed by “Yes we can, but we won’t” Obama and then came the Golden Golem of Greatness himself, a man who might not be able to lie straight in bed but who understands his electorate better than all the others. This is a US so confused, so adrift within itself, that it can hollow out a mostly non-existent public health sector and then blame the World Health Organisation when they all get sick.
    So by all means, let’s consider anew our relationship with the US, but first, let’s decide which US we are dealing with.

  2. Since Mike wrote this article, Michael Shoebridge has gone further off piste with his extraordinary proposal, published in yesterday’s edition of The Strategist, that Australia should invoke ANZUS and make common cause with America in the fight against COVID-19 in both countries:
    “Invoking ANZUS will be more than symbolism. It will result in the entire Australian system working jointly with that of our American counterparts to defeat the pandemic in both of our countries—with all the means of our governments and our medical professionals, scientists and engineers, in government agencies, universities, hospitals, health institutes and private companies.”
    This seems quite absurd. The US is a wealthy country that has completely stuffed up its response to COVID-19 due to appalling policy making by a narcissistic President who has no interest in leading a global response to the crisis and who appears to have no concern at all about the unfolding health tsunami that is about to engulf the developing world. Presumably Michael Shoebridge’s concern is to butter up the US in order to make America more likely to provide military support for Australia in a much more dangerous post-COVID-19 world. If so, this is extremely naive: whatever we do now, the US will only ever come to Australia’s aid in the future if it is in its national interest to do so.
    A much more sensible response to the coronavirus crisis would be for Australia to provide a very high level of aid and medical assistance to the developing countries in our region, not just those in the Pacific but with a major focus on Indonesia. One likely outcome from COVID-19 is that the strategic balance in our region between America and China will undergo a step-change in favour of the latter. As well as being superior from an ethical perspective, a policy of providing generous, no-strings aid to Indonesia would make far more strategic sense than invoking ANZUS to tackle a health crisis for which it was never designed and in order to butter up the world’s richest nation.

  3. Well thank goodness for Mike Scrafton and this corrective to the Michael Shoebridge love-letter to the US – the equivalent of Menzies homage to QEII “…and I love her till I die!”

    All those references to the actuality of US power – built like Gina Rinehart’s wealth here – on the theft of land/”country” by her father who imagined assisting in the “dying out” of First Nations people in Australia’s north-west – in the US on perfidy towards the First Nations peoples right across that North American continent – the slavery – civil war – Jim Crowism – and not actually finished with in the 1960s and MLK – but continuing on as New Jim Crow murders adults and children on the streets – in their cars – locks up and disenfranchises Black citizens, Hispanic citizens – is as cruel to its neighbours dispossessed by US political and military interference in Central and South America who try to escape into the US. (And is easily as bad as the way Dutton/Pezzullo continue on the inhumanity begun by Abbott/Morrison towards asylum-seekers arriving for protection by us.)

    Watching the disintegration of the US as a psychopathic Trump jumps up and down at his press conferences when asked important questions and when his total inadequacy for dealing with the Covid-19 virus is laid bare to the entire world – there is no way I want my country – Australia – beholden in any way to that mess. It is time for us to withdraw from any contracts signed for US weapons of mass destruction – to use those billions for our own land – shoring up relations with our South Pacific and near north neighbours. It’s time for US spying installations and access to our north (Darwin so-called rotational base) to be revoked and closed down.

    We cannot allow our country to be linked to such a mess – just imagine – 100 million of its people have no health cover! Four times the population of Australia – unprotected – actually probably way beyond that now as people lose their jobs and so lose their work-attached health cover!

    Poor Fellows – All My US Cousins.

    But maybe a bit of international abandonment might send a message to the ordinary people of the US to rise up against their dictatorship? And then we could send across our troops to help ensure free and fair elections. Establish a few bases – to help protect the citizens… Things we’ve learnt from the example of the US itself……Just saying!

  4. I think it helps to understand US exceptionalism if we regard it as a quasi-religious culture of the intolerant, middle-eastern kind. Its Bible/Koran is the US Constitution, on which universal human rights are to be founded. Socialism is heresy, and countries that refuse to be converted to the American way of life are heretics to be persecuted. When China proved to be a stable mixed culture with a socialist government but a citizenry free to do business, and it became clear that they were not in the process of full and complete conversion to the American way of life, they were declared heretics. In doing business with declared heretics, Australia is also inviting persecution.

  5. Maybe COVID19 is a divine revelation showing the minor cracks in the political and economic systems of the world, with no fear or favour to any nation. The overall revelation in the US is that they are over stretched in their resources to maintain her hegemony where there is more than one perceived challenger, Russia and China.
    The big costs has gone to the maintenance of her military might, non-stop wars since WW2 and overspending domestically, have taken the toll. The military spending is a big dent in the US budget and for such a rich country, it cannot afford to provide universal health care for her citizens and the gap between rich and poor is widening (due to plutocracy).
    Coronavirus accelerate these cracks into large fissures and about 2-3 trillion $$ are pumped into the economy, it is a big sum; this in turn could shift priority from foreign military activities back to domestic essentials and allow the power vacuum to be taken by Russia and China. When that happens, America First will really be the first priority and everyone else include friends and allies second, Australia will become the “power orphan” with no big superpower to rely on; and we can’t ask to join China’s prosperity again after we had bashed her with a cricket bat since Dec 2016.
    Australia should wake up from this nightmare, sighed “Phew, hope we can still talk to China about our mutual trade”.

  6. I was pleased to read Mike Scrafton’s cool and sober analysis here. The tragedy of COVID -19’s large and still growing impact on the United States’ role in the world has to be monitored closely, and above all objectively, by Australia.

    The United States continues to pursue erratic and aggressive policies towards many countries: China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, and Syria. Its role and interests in regard to Iraq, Yemen and Libya are unclear but on the face of it , not benign. There is no sign of the US beginning to rethink its role in the world and in relation to major international organisations like United Nations Security Council , World Health Organisation, and International Court of Justice.

    After COVID-19 runs its course, China will remain Australia’s largest trading partner . There is no way the United States could replace China in this role . Whatever happens to US -China relations – and they could turn quite sour in months ahead , judging by current anti-China rhetoric out of Washington and US mainstream media – Australia cannot afford to alienate China. Comments like those of our Prime Minister today that the Chinese Government decision to reopen the Wuhan Livestock food market was ‘unfathomable’ – by inference, he was making a serious criticism of China – do not sit well with Australian respect for Chinese sovereignty as a valued diplomatic and trading partner and fellow founding member of the United Nations. Nor is the case proven that the virus originated in the Wuhan market . China has denied this, and there are other possible sources.

    We are moving into a different, more multipolar world after COVID-19. Australia will have to be increasingly adept in seeking to maintain relations of mutual respect with all nations of global importance , including US, UK, France( EU) ,China and Russia . I doubt very much whether the Cold War framework in which Australian international relations scholars like Michael Shoebridge have been comfortably functioning for many years will survive COVID-19 in its present harsh confrontational form. At the very least , the Cold War will become less virulent. Evidence of this can be seen in President Trump’s grateful acceptance of Chinese and Russian emergency hospital equipment aid, and of the Russian and Saudi decision today to restrict oil production; and the inroads COVID-19 is making into US naval forces’ global battle readiness. On the other hand, the US continues even now to pursue cruel sanctions policies that are costing Iranian and Venezuelan civilian lives , over and above losses from the pandemic. Moreover, the US has not responded meaningfully to the UN Secretary – General’s call for a global ceasefire including on sanctions.

    All of this suggests to me that Mike Scrafton is right in calling for Australian foreign policy flexibility and independence in the post-COVID-19 world.

  7. Mr Scranton makes some valid criticism of Shoebridge’s perceptions of the world, but he is guilty of much the same errors and that is the description of modern US foreign policy. The blunt truth is that the US was the most violent and destructive force in the world in the post 1945 era. It invaded or attacked more than 70 countries and killed at least 40 million people. That cannot be glossed over, but it is a consistent failure of all writers in Australia of that era. Today it has around 400 military bases aimed at China and only a smaller number aimed at Russia. Yet the persistent propaganda is that those countries are the ones posing a “threat” to the world.
    The US ship is sinking and Australia is so stupid that it cannot see what is happening in the real world and persists in a dangerous alliance that has brought preciously little benefit and enormous costs and risks.
    In terms of foreign policy Australia is functionally no more than a US colony. That is unlikely to change any time soon. Australia needs to study the world map; study the trade figures of the past two decades; and think seriously about where its true future interests lie. They most assuredly do not lie with a dangerous and declining hegemon that manifestly cares only for itself.

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