Resolution for 2018: persuade our political leaders to work harder on establishing an independent Australian foreign policy

Jan 2, 2018

Australia’s foreign policy must no longer be formed by the interests of the US military/intelligence/industrial lobbies or the neuroses of US domestic politics. 

In their struggle to come to terms with Trump’s Executive Decisions, repeated lying in public and very often vicious tweets; the depressing mire of Congress and politics generally; and the syndrome of civil horrors – mass shootings, for example –  we hear, ever increasingly, the claim by the US commentariat and intelligentsia that “this is not who we are”.  The frequency of the use of this claim, and the facts themselves, have rendered it meaningless, or at best wishful thinking.

Decent and sane people abound in the United States and it has contributed in very many positive ways to the construction of the modern world.  But these realities are accompanied by now customary behaviours in the political and economic spheres which, because of the prevailing interactions of the notions of liberty and individualism, have caused dreadful inequality and deep harm.

A sequence of events and relationships describing this phenomenon is as follows: excessive greed, leading to growing inequality, leading to a general loss of faith in the system, then to a neo-fascist response, exacerbated by the perceived simultaneous pressure upon the economy by outsiders, migrants.

This sort of sequence was described compellingly by Karl Polyani some 75 years ago. His focus was on the period of World War I and what followed it: the depression and World War II, fascism. He spoke of markets becoming dis-embedded from their societies, resulting in severe dislocations and eventually revolt. He could have been speaking of the GFC of 2008, and of Trump and the other so called populist movements of recent years. It is now clear that those movements know only what they reject, revile. They offer no solutions.

These political, economic and social realities, contrary to the “not who we are” slogan, are exactly what the US has become.

The report furnished to the UN by the Australian human rights lawyer, Professor Philip Alston, in his capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, is extraordinary. His travel and investigations within the US revealed that 41 million people are living in extreme poverty. He said he was astonished by what he found in the richest country in the world.  The most salient point of all of this, for us, is the way in which US domestic politics shapes its foreign policy and thus, because of the Alliance and our leaders’ interpretation of it, shapes our own.

Two features of US foreign policy have become central:  First, the militarization of US foreign policy, which has led it to be permanently at war, often in a multiplicity of theatres, for the past 50 years, beginning with the commitment of US troops to the ground war in Vietnam; its insistence, particularly since the attack upon it in September 2001, that those who are not absolutely with them are against them. President Bush made this clear immediately after 9/11, and in his “axis of evil” speech delivered to the Congress.  This determination to brook no difference in perspective; to reject any careful analysis of the origin of the challenging circumstances they, and all of us, have come to face is, one would like to think, not the Australian way.

Secondly, the purely domestic determinants of US foreign policy including the interests of its military industries, whose presence is felt in virtually every Congressional district; its attachment to the use of force, the ownership of guns at home and the neurotic need for there to be enemies of the US, so amply supported by the entertainment industry.

Trump and the Murdoch media have been surfing on that groundswell relentlessly, and they have standout candidates for the current axis of evil in the Muslims, North Koreans, Chinese and Russians, although the latter is a mixed bag for Trump, the content of which is yet to be revealed by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

What has been the track record of US policies?  First and certainly foremost, the US-led invasion of Iraq was the source of massive harm to the people of Iraq; cost countless billions; authored the tumult that has become the overall Middle East and the rise of ISIS; the spread of terrorist action around the world; a migration crisis reaching Europe in particular.

The invasion was an unalloyed disaster, the end of which is not in sight. And why not –  because it was based on a fabrication constructed in Washington. Saddam and Iraq were not involved in 9/11; no weapons of mass destruction were found. They had, in fact, been eliminated by the UN and the US knew it.  Military intervention by the US followed, in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, also with immense cost and failure. The action in Afghanistan is 17 years old and is continuing.

Australia has taken part in each of these actions on the ground that it was a duty of the Alliance. The action in Iraq contravened international law and the others were of dubious legality, including under Australia’s constitutional arrangements with respect to the procedure for the authorization for the use of military force by Australia.  It needs to be recalled here that Australia’s decision to take part in the Vietnam war was also undertaken in the name of the Alliance, and the Menzies government misled the Parliament on the stated reasons for it, claiming that the government of South Vietnam had requested our participation when, in fact, we had asked to be invited.  Similarly, with respect to the invasion of Iraq, John Howard decided that we should take part, as an act of solidarity with the US. Now that he has been confronted with the reality that the stated basis for the invasion had been a fabrication, he has said that he believed it at the time. When did stated sincere belief become an acceptable test for such a decision?

History is littered with rogues who sincerely believed in their purposes as, for example, Tony Blair has now discovered with respect to his public lies on UK participation in the invasion of Iraq. But then, the UK has conducted an enquiry into Blair’s decision and found him unconvincing. We have had no such enquiry on Howard’s decision.

It is truly difficult to know precisely the extent of influence on US policy of its military industries, although if arms sales, for example to Saudi Arabia, are any guide, it is clearly great. But what is beyond doubt is that US foreign policy has become indistinguishable from war fighting and the use of force. Andrew Bacevich has analysed  and described this compellingly.

Incidentally, an important link between poverty in the US and the ubiquitous presence of its military is that a key means of poverty alleviation followed by men and women from poor areas is to enlist.

An obvious contrast to this rigid US policy construct, one which seems to virtually exclude non-military options, is Russia’s success in Syria. It has used force with consequence but seems to have played diplomatic cards simultaneously, with the effect that it now seems able to determine the end of the Syrian civil war, and obviously in a way which suits its purposes in Syria and beyond.

Since its invasion of Iraq, the US has seemed to be able to determine nothing of consequence in the Middle East except, of course, the continuing protection of Israel, hardly a novel outcome. That protection is a major example of a domestic determinant of US foreign policy, now in vivid display under Trump through his widely rejected decision on the recognition of Jerusalem as solely the capital of Israel because of his belief that his domestic “base” includes evangelical Christians who see Jerusalem as their future eternal home.  And Australia abstained in the UN vote to affirm that Trump’s decision contravened international law.

Our repeated self-imposed alignment with US foreign policy, so often driven by US domestic politics, and our participation in the US’s militarisation of foreign policy, has cost us dearly. It is difficult to see how it has served Australia’s foreign policy and security interest, been consistent with our stated principles (including those paid some regard in Julie Bishop’s new Foreign Policy paper, although it is at least a touch schizophrenic on the Alliance relationship), or the need for verity in public discourse on matters of deepest concern to Australia.

Verity, the truth on any given matter – a large subject, currently under virtually intolerable pressure in the time of Trump.

Yet the question remains: when will our political leaders shape up to telling Australians the truth about the Alliance; what it has cost us; what have been the reasons for our actions, particularly our military actions; and, above all, where will their interpretation of our so-called obligations under the Alliance lead us – war on North Korea, war with Iran?

Fifty years has been long enough. Ours is a very different society to the American and one in urgent need of an independent foreign and security policy. We should no longer be a pawn played by the US military/intelligence/industrial lobbies or the subject of US domestic political neuroses.

Our fear of abandonment, as Allan Gyngell has aptly described it, is in fact dangerous to us and needs to be put to rest.

Richard Butler AC  is a former Ambassador to the United Nations, Head of the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq, Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University.

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