A review of Australian foreign policy is long overdue, not simply because of the election of Donald Trump. This should include redefinition of our conduct under the Alliance.
Foreign Minister Bishop’s decision to conduct an overall review of our foreign policies is not needed because of the result of the US presidential election, but because the formulation of Australian foreign policy has for some time, been overtaken by the defence establishment and its corporate and think tank supporters.
Trump’s victory is an authentic product of the US political and media system. It must be accepted, as such.
The application of an entirely rational analysis to Trump and his likely policies in office, based on what he has said in the recent past, is a mistake. His statements have often been ill-informed, mutually contradictory, unachievable, of dubious legality.
Detailed analysis of the substance of Trump’s statements and twitter messages involves the serious error of giving them a coherence his posturings do not possess. He has expressed attitudes rather than addressed facts.
His continual dismissal of facts has become so spectacular that many commentators are writing of our having entered into a post-factual world.
The historian Simon Schama has described Trump as fostering a:
“ parallel universe of lies which are habitual, massive, cumulative”.
What Trump has understood is the strength of the anger and resentment of a significant number of people in the US about what has happened to their standard of living. The truth is that the US version of capitalism, has left a substantial number of people behind and enriched a fraction of its people, to an astonishing degree. Of course, the US is not alone on this path.
Where Trumpism will lead, overall, remains to be seen.
US foreign policy has already been substantially militarized, especially during the last 15 years, since 9/11. The people around Trump can be expected to argue that the reason for the US being in the sorts of extreme difficulty it is in, for example vis-a-vis the Russians in Syria, is that under Obama, it didn’t use or threaten to use enough force. And, he has placed in key cabinet positions, relevant to international and security affairs, Generals, military men.
During the election campaign, Trump gave voters repeated assurance that, as President, he would threaten the use of US military force liberally, to “Make America Great Again”. In truth, however, he has voiced both isolationism and interventionism. But, above all he has vowed he’ll put America first, making no reference to agreed principles of international conduct.
Trump’s election has installed into the presidency a person who is crisply described by the scholar, Mark Danner, as:
“the high flying song and dance man, of manic energy and ravenous narcissism and colossal neediness”.
This does not suggest a capacity in Trump for calm judgement of international challenges.
Amongst his many distinguished achievements, Danner wrote, in :The Secret Way to War: The Downing Street Memo ( NYRB, 2006), the definitive study of the deceptions employed to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq. These were deceptions in which Australia participated.
Many who share alarm at Trump’s election, have expressed the hope that Trump will learn on the job and accept guidance from better informed, more experienced, more careful advisors. There is no reason to support that view, nothing in what we know of Trump, before he ran for office, during the campaign, or since, does so.
On Australia’s relationship with the US, it has come to have several abiding features.
Above all, the apparently enduring conviction by our political leaders that we must follow the US everywhere, do whatever they ask of us, because of our alliance relationship. They have believed that they will change this policy at their domestic political peril. Why they have so little confidence in their own powers of persuasion or the nous of Australians, is lamentable.
Increasingly, in the 15 year period referred to above, successive Australian governments, have sent Australian military personnel and equipment to wherever the US was involved in a war, principally in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
It’s not clear whether this has always been in response to a request from the US, or we have made the offer. What is clear however is that such decisions by us have always been justified in terms of Alliance duty. This has rested on an interpretation of the ANZUS relationship, chosen by us.
The ANZUS Treaty incorporates one main obligation between the US and Australia – to “consult” when the security of either is threatened in the Pacific region.
Importantly it also commits its parties to conduct themselves in conformity with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations; peaceful settlement of disputes, non- aggression, non-intervention, for example.
The US’ illegal invasion of Iraq violated those Charter principles, and we chose to accompany it. That invasion is widely recognized as having caused the overall chaos that prevails in the region today, including the rise of DAESH. And, as Danner has demonstrated, was based on intelligence fabrications. It was a war of choice.
That John Howard has subsequently sought to apologise for his role in this by saying he believed the intelligence at the time, is incredible.
We have also chosen to support the US in wider foreign policy terms, for example in voting with them on a range of unpopular resolutions at the UN General Assembly.
A few weeks ago, we voted with the US against a resolution to commence discussion of an international instrument to outlaw nuclear weapons. In spite of fervent lobbying by the US, that resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority of member states, including every one of our important neighbors. And, we voted against simply authorising a discussion of the issue!
It was a decision which highlighted our chosen, client relationship, with the US, disturbed our neighbors and our friends in other regions, and perhaps above all dismissed some 30 years of distinguished effort by Australia on nuclear arms control and disarmament, which had produced widely acclaimed results, and had been supported by both sides of our politics.
Such voting instructions at the General Assembly are normally given by the Foreign Minister. Can we hope that her awareness of this policy error is one of the reasons she has now called for a review of Australian foreign policy.
She and others amongst our political leaders need to find the courage to forge an independent foreign policy for Australia and speak truthfully to the Australian people about the need for and benefits of it.
Richard Butler AC was Ambassador to the United Nations, Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq, and Convenor of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.