The “little Americans” that populate Australia

Feb 25, 2023
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation member countries flags on world map with national borders.

Greg Sheridan, in his opinion piece of Tuesday 21 February, provides yet another display of his spiteful, vacuous journalism – his erroneous claims that I am not the progenitor of the APEC Leaders’ Meeting, and that my views on Australian strategic policy are eccentric and at odds with the US alliance.

PJ Keating reply to Greg Sheridan – The Australian, 21 February 2023

I will deal with the APEC Leaders’ Meeting first. This is easy enough because the Australian government records of the time are now open. Sheridan was never one to let evidence stand in the way of his prejudices and clearly prefers the fact that Bill Clinton failed to mention me in his autobiography re the Leaders’ Meeting than he does Australian archival evidence.

This is strange, for in his 1997 book, ‘Tigers of the Asia Pacific’, Sheridan wrote ‘Keating had in 1992 himself first proposed that APEC national leaders should meet’. 1992, was of course, before Clinton came to office.

Every Australia Prime Minister before me sat at only two international fora – the great non-meeting of the world – the Commonwealth Heads of Government annual meeting and the local South Pacific Forum. There was no place for Australia organisationally beside an American President, let alone a Chinese or Indonesian President. I wished to change that.

When the Cold War ended with Mikhail Gorbachev’s dissolution of the Soviet Union on 26 December 1991 – five days after I assumed the Prime Ministership, I could see a clear opportunity for open regionalism of the kind the bi-polarity of the Cold War had prevented. And prevented for forty years.

And, as it turned out, I was to meet US President George Herbert Bush at Kirribilli House six days later, on 1 January 1992.

At that meeting, the minute of which was recorded by Ashton Calvert, later to become Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, I proposed to President Bush that APEC be turned from a Pacific focused mini-OECD into a heads of government meeting. I urged him to run future US Pacific policy from the State Department and the White House, not from the US Navy out of Honolulu.

The President was attracted to the APEC idea. And subsequent to our meeting at Kirribilli, he exchanged classified correspondence with me, suggesting I take the lead in talking about the proposition to Asia and Pacific leaders.

President Clinton, who followed President Bush wrote in March 1993 that he would ‘give serious consideration to an APEC heads-of-government meeting’. That is, for Sheridan’s sake, ‘serious consideration’ to an APEC heads of government meeting as I had proposed. In June 1996 the President wrote another letter, also available in the records, noting that the first APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Seattle in 1993 had been ‘built on the important institutional foundations you laid’.

Sheridan’s continuing and fallacious journalism opens another vital angle in our national debate.

The historian Manning Clark used to refer to people like Menzies, Stanley Bruce and Casey as Austral-Britons. People whose ambivalence as to their identity and allegiances compromised their commitment to Australia.

Australia now has another class of such people in its public life – Austral-Americans – people who don’t know which side of the national fence they are on or should be on.

People skewered by their own ambivalence.

Greg Sheridan is one such person. Sheridan’s commitment to the United States is so uncritical and unalterable he should give consideration to registering himself under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act.

But Sheridan’s problem is part of a wider problem. The national foreign policy debate in Australia, is now heavily populated by an army of ‘little Americans’ who cannot see past the United States and its interests. That is, the interests of another country.

These people populate our security agencies, the likes of ASPI, the military services and important sections of the media.

In terms of Australia’s sovereign interests – the gift of a continent, our position and proximity to Asia – these people prefer an exclusive faith in an Atlantic power half a world away.

Not that the alliance with the United States is not important to us. It is. The alliance has been and remains central to our security and foreign policy. But not to the exclusion of good and appropriate relations with the region and especially with China.

The ANZUS Treaty, struck in 1951, is an equivocal document which offers strategic consultation but fails to guarantee automatic military support to Australia by the United States in the event of Australia being attacked.

This differs from the first quality guarantee the US provides to NATO partners who are guaranteed an automatic military response by the US in the event a NATO partner is attacked by another state.

Personally, I have no problem with the contingent quality of the ANZUS Treaty provided Australia does not over-invest in it or shun other regional partners. Particularly regional partners who have displayed no interest in attacking us – or who lack the capacity for a conventional invasive attack.

Sheridan prattles on about the nuclear submarines and my warnings about them.

The nuclear propelled submarines under consideration by Australia would be armed with conventional torpedoes – the same as the existing Collins class submarines.

Were we to procure eight Virginia class US submarines – only two or three would ever be at sea on station.

At about A$9billion per submarine – a fleet of eight (in twenty-five years’ time) would cost around A$70billion in today’s dollars.

$70billion to fire conventional torpedoes from two to three boats only at the same time.

The price tag is outrageous and beyond any value for the utility – especially when far cheaper conventional submarines can be acquired to do the same job.

And, of course, the submarine would, in part, be crewed by Americans – so the United States would be in full possession of Australia’s operational choices at any one time. Hardly the stuff of the sovereignty Australia both needs and is entitled to.

Sheridan perpetually demonstrates a disregard for truth and accuracy.

He may resent the fact that someone in the polity speaks unambiguously for Australia, celebrating our geography, and with an inclusive view of the region around us.

Post-Cold War groupthink dies hard – Sheridan repeatedly demonstrates this. He should book himself into a retreat of the kind people used to go to find renewal both in themselves and the world around them. Or maybe spend some time in the archives.

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