Richard Butler. Foreign Policy. An Independent Australian Foreign Policy  

May 13, 2015

Fairness, Opportunity and Security
Policy series edited by Michael Keating and John Menadue.


For fifty years, since Australia entered the war in Vietnam in 1965, Australian foreign policy has been made increasingly subservient to a specific concept of Australia’s relationship with the United States. That concept, first enunciated by Prime Minister Menzies in 1955, was that for its survival, Australia needed ”a great and powerful friend”. All of our key decisions in foreign policy since then have been shaped by our own construct of what loyalty to the United States and the Alliance demanded. That construct has been to follow the US practice and to identify foreign policy with military and security policy.

By acting in this way we have substantially compromised our independence and, contrary to what this policy supposedly intends, we have exposed ourselves to increasing danger. The latter fact derives in good measure from: the disarray within the US polity, which is now endemic, the distortions and self-delusions which have shaped US policy, particularly the notion that the US is “the exceptional country”. We need to free ourselves from the habit of echoing the Americans.

This is a matter of maturity, self respect, national interest, and our security.

The Problem:

In the recent period, significant decisions were taken by Australia in implementation of the notion that our national interest dictates that we support US policy and actions.

On Vietnam, the Menzies Government misled the Australian Parliament and people when claiming that it had been invited by the Government of South Vietnam to participate in the war. The Labor opposition pursued this claim, specifically the alleged letter of invitation, and this revealed that the Menzies’ Government had in fact asked the Diem Government in Saigon, to invite Australia to join the war.

These actions reflected Menzies’ conviction, which he stated publicly, that every such step taken by Australia would tie the US ever more closely to Australia’s national defence, and the determined representation, in the United States, of the civil war of Vietnamese national unification as the “downward thrust of communism”, the so called “Domino Theory” of the expansion of communism in South East Asia. Australian policy imbibed and broadcast that same false narrative.

On the Middle East, Australia’s participation in virtually all of the United States’ ill judged, contrived and unproductive ventures into that region, particularly since the terrorist attack upon the US on September 11th, 2001, have lacked reason or substance in terms of Australia’s direct interest or stated attachment to principles governing the conduct of international affairs.

The US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was illegal. It rested on a rationale – the continuing existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – that was fabricated by the US Administration. The invasion violated the fundamental provisions of the Charter of the United Nations yet the Howard Government considered it to be of national importance to join the US and the UK, in that venture. In taking that decision, the Howard government ignored the largest public protests ever seen in Australia. They eclipsed the very substantial protests that had expressed opposition to Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.

The harm that was done by the 2003 invasion is proving to be massive and by no means over. Analysts, scholars, and area experts from many parts of the world are demonstrating, that the central cause of the current extreme violence and political breakdown in the Middle East, and the rise of ISIS, is that 2003 invasion and the subsequent continuing interventions by the United States, including the widespread use of drones.

Australia has supported all US decisions on Iraq and participated in consequent combat operations. No amount of fulmination by Prime Minister Abbott about the “death cult” of ISIS can divert attention from the absence from the Abbott government’s current decisions on Iraq of a persuasive assertion of Australia’s concrete interests in and a remotely clear eyed assessment of where the continuation of selective western intervention in the Middle East will lead.

A fundamental aspect of America’s policy in the Middle East is its protection of Israel. Virtually the whole international community of nations recognises that the United States’ unbending protection of Israel, irrespective of whatever crimes its government commits and including its role as a state possessing nuclear weapons, constitutes a distortion in international affairs which is doing immense harm and has the capacity to cause a major war. And, there is widespread rejection of the offensive notion, widespread in the US, that any criticism of the policies of the government of Israel constitutes anti-Semitism.

On Afghanistan, again no serious interests or principles based analysis of Australia’s interest in NATO’s military action in that country can be identified other than if fundamental importance is placed upon an extended notion of western loyalty.

Australian Foreign Policy:

A sound Australian foreign policy would give expression to our nationally determined, intrinsic, interests and values. At present others could be forgiven for assessing that our stance is, in fact, determined by American values. This is deeply harmful to us.

Naturally, there will always be agreement that a key national interest will be in the preservation of the security of the nation. But, at present, Australia is subjugating foreign policy to national security policy, following the US model, which elementally asserts the primacy of military solutions to foreign policy problems.   

Australia’s needs to conduct its relations with other States, through a diplomacy and foreign policy that has clearly articulated concrete objectives and supports the accepted principles of international conduct set forth in the Charter of the United Nations and derived normative Treaties and Conventions (for example: The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Conventions on Torture, the Rights of the Child, the Arms Trade Treaty and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons).

This approach would ensure that Australia is identified as a country which attaches importance to principles of law and human decency and able to; live in amity with others, be considered by them to be a valued partner, enjoy national security.

Clear, independent, predictable, rational foreign policy, supported and projected by open and highly informed diplomacy, is the means through which other states can be given confidence that they can pursue their interests with Australia on an acceptable basis and also enjoy security in their relations with Australia.

The Changes Needed

A new, independent Australian foreign policy, should be developed on the basis of the following eight main constructs and goals:

  1. We do not need to accept choices between false opposites, such that spoken and written of increasingly, particularly in American circles, of the need choose between having a strong relationship with China or the US.
    We are capable of maintaining a constructive relationship with each of those States in terms set forth by us. This question is driven by an elemental hostility in which we should not participate. It is of no importance for us to be part of an ideological team. Sensible adults know how empty ideological stances are, how readily they are jettisoned when they conflict with concrete interests, ( see the relationships of the US with Egypt and Saudi Arabia), and how dangerous they can become when they imprison their owners.
  1. On our Alliance relationship with the United States, we need to consider for how much longer we will be prepared to be formally identified with a country that: has some 800 military bases in the world; is the only State that has killed others through the use of nuclear weapons; has invaded or bombed some 40 countries since the Second World War; maintains a defence expenditure larger than the next nine states put together; is a massive arms exporter to all sides in the Middle East; jeopardises peace and nuclear non-proliferation through its protection of Israel and its nuclear weapons; proclaims itself to be the “exceptional country”, meaning that it is not obliged to conform to international law; and, holds a view of its right to use military force, including deadly force anywhere in the world where it identifies the existence of an enemy, in ways that are contrary to international law and the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war; is now developing new nuclear weapons, in violation of its Treaty obligations. Russia is doing the same, suggesting that a new nuclear arms race is now underway.
  1. Clearly, it is in our national interest to maintain a positive relationship with the United States in all respects: politically, in economic and in trade relations, and in science and technology. This should form an important goal within our foreign policy.
    But, if that relationship were to continue as it has, particularly during the last 15 years, it would increasingly harm us.
    Our decisions have been at fault. We have decided to join the US in its conduct as the “exceptional country”. This has cost us, to an unacceptable degree: in financial and human terms, in our relations with others, in the exercise of our independence, and in a heightened threat to us and our people from anti-western, non-State groups.
    We must: separate ourselves from the excesses of the US led “global war on terror”; substantially de-militarise our foreign policy; and institute a balance between our foreign, national security and defence policies which would ensure that they worked as set of mutually reinforcing efforts in the service of our overall foreign policy.
  2. We must initiate a discussion with the United States on the future of US military and related communications installations in Australia. Our aim should be to remove them. Their presence on our soil involves us in potential nuclear war fighting, makes us a target for attack with nuclear weapons, and renders ultimately empty the notion that we are an independent nation.
    The goals of maintaining a positive relationship with the United States and carrying out the adjustments to the past Alliance relationship, outlined above, are not in irreconcilable conflict.
    Clearly a period of adjustment would be required, but as we would in fact be moving ourselves into a position virtually identical to most States which enjoy a constructive relationship with the US, that adjustment would be achieved. The alternatives are not between being a completely compliant member of the US Alliance or an enemy. This choice has been rejected by, for example, by Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Brazil, India, without doing harm to their bilateral relationship with the US. It is worth remembering that the UK refused to take part in the Vietnam War. They paid no particular price for that.
    We should begin the process of asserting our independence by withdrawing Australian armed forces from Iraq and other deployments made on the basis of alliance loyalty and far from Australia. We will need to explain to the Americans what we are doing and why but that will become very clear when we require that a discussion be started on the withdrawal of US facilities within Australia.
    There will be hostility and the US will use Australian media in their attempt to stop us. Mr Murdoch will willingly help. But this should not be permitted to divert attention from two key facts: what is at issue is our independence and integrity, principles of life and politics to which the US proclaims deep attachment; and, their reaction will be driven by their needs and interests, not ours.
    It will be difficult but achievable. New Zealand did it 30 years ago.
  3. We must focus our policy attention more deeply on our own region and area; Asia and the Pacific, South East Asia. To this end, it makes immense sense for us to work far more closely with New Zealand. That would be a useful ANZAC legacy.
    Beyond our area we need to significantly expand our contacts with the emerging affinity groups, such as the BRICS. We already have a detailed and productive relationship with China. We need a similar growth with Brazil, India and South Africa.
  1. With respect to our military postures, they must be formed on the basis of our need and right to self defence, and it is crucial that others recognize that they have also been formed independently, not simply in support of the postures and interests of others. Our defence policy must assert and reflect our commitment that our armed forces will not be used in breach of the principles of the Charter of the United Nations – that armed force will only be used in self defence, or when authorised by the Security Council.
  1. We must place at the centre of our foreign policy our Australian values and our interests. If they are clearly defined and then pursued in a foreign policy which gives effect to them, our diplomacy would then be directed to ensuring, where possible, that our policy stance is evaluated accurately by others in terms of its goals and manner of formulation. This will enhance our security.
  1. On concrete policy goals, in addition to the self-evident economic and trade objectives, the maintenance of our regional security environment, and our global intellectual and cultural relations, we need to assign high priority in our Foreign and External Aid policies to the major non-military threats to human life and security: poverty, public health, communicable diseases, migration, natural disaster mitigation and relief, climate change, the global arms and narcotics trades.
    Australia’s skills and capabilities in these fields are highly developed. Making them available to others would both deliver real value and positively reflect our values.


Australia possesses a national character and values that should not be suppressed by the demands of any imperial power, as they were by Britain until half way through the 20th Century, and which we have now permitted to happen in relation to US policies, and the continuing assertion of the notion that, as a nation, we need a protector.

Australia is now the 12th largest economy in the World Bank list of the 192 national economies. We can look after ourselves and our national security, provided we pursue a nationally determined foreign policy.

It is time to do so.

Richard Butler AC. Former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations
Distinguished Scholar of International Peace and Security,
School of International Affairs, The Pennsylvania State University.

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