Reclaiming Australia’s strategic character

May 25, 2023
Two chairs with flags of US and Australia isolated on white.

America feels above any need to explain its calamitous geostrategic actions. Of course, it has no obligation to. But its character is revealed as being comfortable with threat fabrication, on a grand scale. It is practised at making war on false premise. And appears energised by it, not repentant. Deception, including of allies, is integral to its geostrategic armoury.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr put it well:

“We are permitting ourselves no character of our own under the architecture of the Alliance. It means we’ve accepted the status of a kind of client state, or American territory. I won’t say the 51st state. It means we’ve got even less independence than a US governor would have” (Bob Carr in conversation with ABC host Phillip Adams, 8 May 2023).

Which raises two questions. What should Australia’s character be, if we were to permit it? Answering that takes us only so far. The same question has to be asked about America. What is the character of America today in the Alliance? Then we can address the big issue of Australia’s way ahead.

The Alliance began with significant politicians, on both sides.

Percy Spender, Foreign Minister of the Robert Menzies government, went to the United States in 1950 seeking a treaty for mutual security. Western Europeans states had succeeded in negotiating such a thing, which became known as NATO. Menzies had already expressed scepticism: “Tell Percy Spender that the Pacific Pact is not at present on the map because Americans are uneasy about the stability of most Asiatic countries”.

Spender tried but failed in his quest. Despite months of persistence on site. But he did return with a piece of paper, to be known as the ANZUS Treaty. That document is of a form which America hands out when it judges that it’s worth having a security relationship with a State but without armed defence obligations. Stripped down, it means that America will help you to help yourself. So long as you pay. And it suits America sufficiently in some way.

Robert Menzies, ever alert to the electoral merits of security, unashamedly promulgated the ANZUS treaty as a triumph. His government had delivered a protector for Australia. Reality was easily fumbled aside. From the outset the Alliance was arrantly political. And falsely presumed to be an American guarantee of Australia’s security. The hubris continues with leaders of both nations to this day, reflexively.

Australia Creating Its Character 

The cathartic experience of our war against the Vietnamese at America’s behest, which had nothing to do with any ANZUS condition, had one profound benefit for Australia. Together with America’s deflection of Australia’s request for support over Indonesia’s Konfrontasi, it led to pondering in Canberra, within Foreign Affairs and Defence, about Bob Carr’s question – the character of Australia under ANZUS.

Our strategic character became a major undertaking across Departments. The work straddled the Whitlam and Fraser governments, unfettered. Extraordinarily, politics took a back seat.

The conclusion was monumental and clearcut. Australia Should take full responsibility for its own security. Because long standing assumptions about Britain’s deep affinity had been near catastrophic. And America was equivocal. Asked to consider a mutual security guarantee, America rejected the notion. Australia finally had to recognise that no other nation would take responsibility for it.

That was a monumental advance in our nationhood. It was accepted bi-partisanly.

The thinking was no dalliance. It was explained fulsomely in the Defence Review tabled in Parliament in 1972. Then came Australia’s first ever White Paper on Defence in 1976. A masterpiece of clarity, surveying the challenge and addressing the hard questions. Its message was that Australia should work towards its security self-reliantly. It identified uncertainty of all sorts. It offered intelligent approaches to it, and identified priorities within a comprehensive plan. It put forward such a plan.

Our leaders embraced it. And thereafter had plenty to say on global issues from this new stance. Often the US sought our military participation outside the ANZUS remit. At times we declined, because we judged our interests did not coalesce. And we said so. Whenever we did act beyond the ANZUS remit, our contribution was circumscribed.

Big changes followed in Defence. The administration was rationalised. The aircraft carrier was scrapped, reshaping the Navy. An emphasis on land- based aircraft emerged from analysis and common sense. But Army remained impervious, utterly confused and self- absorbed. Hard-nosed criteria were devised for local industry participation which had nothing to do with electoral merit.

Four decades of disciplined, heavy investment delivered a potent self-defence. Inconceivable at the outset in 1976. Once seemingly impossible barriers were overcome, by astute application of technology. This was the essential character of Australia within the Alliance for thirty five years.

The Alliance Now

But that character has been assaulted by politics relentlessly. Orderly financial plans often were subverted for unavailing industries, bereft of commercial potential, with shameless cost premia offering little security utility. But electorally appealing. The affliction is advanced now, its symptoms flaunted by politicians as they take up lucrative employ across the travesty. More widely, we subscribe to US wishes as a matter of course, none of which derive from ANZUS. The electoral value of powerful leaders seen embracing in important places has overpowered a once tenacious and balanced independence. Our politicians’ passion for security-linked media coverage is in exponential growth.

But for the US always there has been an underlying agenda, extracting concessions at little cost. Today The Alliance is characterised by evermore politics and ever-diminishing security for Australia.

Let’s get the terms right. What Bob Carr calls “the Alliance” does not reflect the ANZUS Treaty. Nor does it resemble the working interpretation which we shared with America from 1976. The Australian character which we see now under “The Alliance” reflects a decade of politically driven trade-offs. Of Australia’s security for America’s geostrategic objectives.

Today The Alliance is a political vehicle. It has no textual status. It’s a state of minds. Don’t ask whose minds. WSIWYG. Agreements pop up periodically on all sorts of topics – trade, climate, technology as well as security – under the banner of The Alliance. Our enfeebled media is attentive only to politics -sadly uninformed, it cannot distinguish between ANZUS and AUKUS.

The turning point in Australia’s self- reliance came slyly. Amidst the jubilant visit of President Obama in 2010, proclaiming a foreign policy tilt to Asia. We were told, by the way, that US Marines would rotate through Australia in increasing numbers. No commentator foresaw what American planners had in mind. Nor did anyone ask. At this point America made an incision into the throat of Australia’s independence. While our Parliamentarians rose and clapped.

Australia today appears no more refined about its security than when Harold Holt took us “All the Way with LBJ” into war on Vietnam. Despite us learning a hard lesson there, and reacting thoughtfully with distinction.

The Character of America

Which leads us to the character of America under the Alliance. An anecdote might help.

Once, I had the privilege to work within the Office of Sec Def in the Pentagon – across 1979,81. My boss was Frank Tapparo (professional, encyclopaedic policy guy) who ran the “Asia shop” within Program Analysis and Evaluation. Frank reported to Paul Wolfowitz whose responsibility was global. Long after we both had left our governments, my job took me to the US regularly. Frank and I would catch up. On one occasion, well after the US invasion of Iraq, Frank mentioned a lunch with Wolfawitz, at the latter’s request, in the week after GW Bush won the presidential election – December 2000. Frank’s words were carefully chosen: “following that lunch I knew that America would invade Iraq”. Said lunch was nine months before the September 11 attack.

Public commentary mistakenly attributes the September 11, 2001 attacks as driving the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The official US justification to the United Nations cited Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction. That has been discredited. Its purveyor, Secretary of State Colin Powell, openly recanted and died a broken man.

The point of my story is that the world is left to speculate on why America unleashed that vile, vast war. Which speaks to an America which feels above a need to explain its action. Of course, it has no obligation to. But its character is revealed as comfortable with threat fabrication, on a grand scale. It is practised at making war on false premise, and unrepentant. Deception, including of allies, is part of the geostrategic armoury.

What Australia Must Realise

Wolfowitz was intimately part of the neoconservative influence which drove the Republican’s war on Iraq. That influence has threaded itself persistently through America’s geo-strategic manoeuvrings. It is evident today in energetic global interventions and in the pedigree of Anthony Blinken the driver of Biden’s Democratic foreign policy. As Jeffrey Sachs puts it:

“For the neocons the US must predominate in military power in every region of the world, and must confront rising regional powers that could someday challenge US global or regional dominance, most importantly Russia and China. For this purpose, US military force should be pre-positioned in hundreds of military bases around the world and the US should be prepared to lead wars of choice as necessary. The United Nations is to be used only when useful for US purposes. “

The Iraq invasion has come to be seen as the germination of that militarism:

 “long before 9/11, as we now know, the architects of neoliberal militarism were intent upon making Iraq a showcase of their resolve. Pre-emption of any form of defiance would yield long-term benefits as other nations curbed their nationalist impulses lest they suffer the consequences of U.S. destabilisation or invasion. Meanwhile, a very substantial part of the U.S. public, confident in the righteousness of U.S. military power, could be counted on to consent—offering their tax dollars, their allegiance, and their enthusiasm to the application, expansion, and maintenance of revitalised militarism.”

What remains is the question of why this militarism has flourished across the political divide in America. The Red and Blue Parties long have been unable to agree on almost any matter. And America has a deep intellect. So how come a foreign policy of such extremity has not been challenged? Whereby members of the power elite very rarely reveal their motives, speaking rather in an elite code of ideological obfuscation to which their own understandings are often prey. It is likely that they act on structural imperatives that they may not fully articulate”. Which says there is a force at play in US politics which is unspoken, and probably unspeakable. That is for another time.

The character of America under The Alliance is anathema to our values. It has put Australia on a course in Asia glaringly inimical to the national interest. Our foreign and defence policy is at a point akin to the awakening after the Vietnam war. The factors which caused us to pause then and pursue self-reliance endure to this day. Now is the time to pause again, this time before the calamity.

The government’s foreign policy articulated by Minister Wong is consistent with our national values – focussed on “equilibrium“ in our region. But the defence policy is muddled. It has lost the essence of self-reliance. Recapturing that is within our means. A refocus does not require fanfare. But attitude. It should take only persistent, astute nudging towards that foundation once agreed by all. Fundamentally, there is no alternative.

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