RICHARD BUTLER The Ostrich in the Room: The Alliance

The ostrich buries its head in the sand in the belief that what it can’t see isn’t there; won’t harm it. If perception is everything, the Ostrich has a point. But it isn’t and, the wilful exclusion from our recent election campaign of any debate about Australian foreign policy, especially the demands being placed on Australia by the US, did the ostrich credit. Like it or not the new Government will have to lift its head.

The two main antagonists during our national elections apparently agreed that there were no votes and , indeed, dangers in making any policy proposals or pledges on Australian foreign policy. It was truly remarkable that a national election saw virtually no substantive discussion of foreign issues Australia faces which have the potential to shape our future security and prosperity. What drove this strange instance of cooperation?

Clearly there is a spectrum of views, from left to right, including: a shared and scornful belief that these foreign matters are too difficult for ordinary people to understand, or at the least are of little or no interest to such people; the conviction that the US Alliance is a settled matter and a bit like an Aussie ant-hill, best not disturbed; a widely held view that international affairs is best understood in the same way that Australian football is understood – there are teams; ours (good) and the others (bad) and the key task, if you are to win, is to join the right team and, blindly support it.

This analogy does not trivialise or scorn the sentiment that has motivated Australia’s now century old stance of the lesser but willing partner in an Alliance with a significantly greater power. That stance has become habitual but has acquired all of the characteristics of a syndrome: fervent attachment to a behaviour that has repeatedly yielded dubious and often damaging results.

The two main parties were right in their assessment that to strike out for an independent Australian foreign policy during the elections would court big trouble but, like the ostrich, they are wrong if they think the issues which now demand attention will go away; if we look away.

The following three points need to be addressed by the new Australian government, because it has a clean slate: and, thus the opportunity to refresh policies :

1. The main narrative of the Alliance is that we need it for our protection and survival. This implies that the US will unfailingly protect us but, to ensure this, we are obliged to implement whatever the US asks of us. There’s a neat symmetry to this: a balance of benefits and obligations.

These contentions are based however, more on faith and prejudice than reality. They specifically ignore the dangers posed to us by our ever increasing participation in: US militarism, including in its expansion of military assets in our region, directed at China (we’ve made our own contribution to this, such as through the awful decision on the new submarines) ; and, our continuing involvement in its nuclear command, control and, communication mechanisms; these too are primarily although not exclusively, directed at China. In addition to US demands affecting our own region, our new Government can expect to face allegedly Alliance based demands to support whatever the US chooses to do to Iran, for example, and, that could include military action against it.

The costs and benefits to us of the Alliance needs urgent reassessment. At root this would also involve beginning with more than a little truth telling about exactly what the Treaty requires, as distinct from what its propagandists assert is its cast- iron obligations. That truth should then be told to the Australian people.

2. On the truth of these matters, the new Government should acknowledge that it faces a major task in examining the role now played in policy formulation by: our official intelligence and assessment Agencies; the now very influential privately funded think tanks; the arms industry lobbyists; and, the media, most particularly that owned by Murdoch.

These organisations have repeatedly misled our Governments for reason of their: ideological and financial interests; their connections with the US polity and economy; and, their assertion that there is a terminal struggle under way between the western, occidental, and, the oriental teams in the world. Ergo, we need to ensure that we are on the right team. The underlying assumption is false and, thus, so is the choice it is said we must make.

The size of the overt and covert propaganda effort targeted at sustaining this world picture is massive. The task in resisting it cannot be understated. The new Government must demand that these sources of alleged data be based on fact and not tailored to what is assumed to be the political preferences of the Government. This has too often not been the case in recent years and has led to disastrously costly decisions, such as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in which John Howard alone, decided Australia should take part. He has now, grudgingly acknowledged that the so called intelligence produced to justify that invasion was wrong and, mainly fabricated. His incredible excuse is that he believed it at the time.

3. If our new Government were to start this kind of work; which truly would be consistent with our enduring national interest, it would need to address the capacity for any review it undertook to be misrepresented and at the least, misunderstood. This means it would need a significant programme of public information.

For example, if the Government were to resist a US call upon it to take part in an attack upon Iran it would need to explain its reasons for this publicly, including specifically rejecting any assertion that the Treaty obliges us to take part in an action so far removed from the Treaty area and, the implication that by this decision we would have jeopardised US protection of Australia, if it is directly threatened.

The latter is a larger and more tortuous political argument which is best pursued with caution because it involves truths which are largely thought to be unable to be articulated, at least very publicly. The main one of these has to do with the credibility of that ultimate assurance. Would the US protect us in all circumstances? The answer is clearly in the negative and, that’s not a horror story. Why should the US be expected to itself, endure nuclear war, for example, to protect Australia.

This discussion of the inner truths of the Alliance relationship is made the especially germane today by the fact that the US polity is in extraordinary distress and, that this set of circumstances has by no means run its course.

In the 18 months ahead, prior to the next election of its President, the extreme unfitness of Trump for his job, his increasing irrationality and, the effect of these realities on US policy and actions is certain to grow. It is not possible to calculate, at present, the impact upon Trump of the expected progressive revelation of his criminal behaviour or his and his “base’s” reaction to it. These are heavy matters effecting: the conduct of government within the US; its domestic stability; and by extension global political and economic relationships. And these realities leave aside any speculation about Trump undertaking foreign distractions from his domestic trials.

It would be a travesty if our national foreign policy were to be held hostage to these circumstances. Unless changes of the sort outlined above are initiated, it will be.

There is no shortage in the US of people who are experienced, and ethically and, patriotically motivated. They know that a crisis is at hand and will seek to remedy it. Whether they will prevail or not is, at present, an open question.

Our new government has the opportunity to dismiss the stale policies and personnel which progressively came to characterise it’s doings during the period since John Howard led it and, from which it must be said, Labor was not immune.

Foreign policy, particularly the management of how we work with and within the Alliance, is a critical area in which it could make a fresh start. If it were to look for good company for this enterprise, it could do no better than to start with New Zealand. New ANZACS, working together particularly in the Pacific and South East Asia. China would have to take notice of that.

If we do not start this now and instead persist with the current notion of simply being on the right team, we could well find ourselves pushed into a war with China and Iran.

Rather different from your average footy match.

Richard Butler AC
Former Australian Ambassador

Professor of International Affairs
New York


Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations; Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq.

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5 Responses to RICHARD BUTLER The Ostrich in the Room: The Alliance

  1. Avatar Michael McKinley says:

    Many thanks for your timely and important contribution, Richard. Your proposal suggests measures that are long overdue and are now imperative for any self-respecting self-critical Australian Government.

  2. Avatar Simon Warriner says:

    I raised exactly this issue with then aspiring MHR for Braddon, Gavin Pearce in the form of this question: How do we manage the situation of our economic relationship with China and our security relationship with the USA which a akin to straddling a barbed wire fence with both feet of slippery bits of wet wood.
    I have known him for several years, as a businessman and board member on the local rural supply Coop. He is well regarded and thoughtful, and has a military career prior to his business career in agriculture. His reply came after a short pause and a deep breath.

    “Very delicately”.

    He seemed to think, based on what he had seen as a senior uniformed bureacrat in Army that there were enough securiuty issues there to be concerned about China, but that without China’s role as a major buyer of Australian produce we would be in deep economic poo.

    The question is, how many others in government have that understanding, and how many are captive to the various lobbying forces that would have us cut our nose off to spite our face. Our dear leader claims to believe in miracles. That does not bode well.

  3. Avatar R. N. England says:

    This dilemma for Australia didn’t come up in the election campaign, but it won’t go away. It will play out within the Liberal Party itself. The Minerals Council of Australia, which represents the interests of the mining industry, wants Australia to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as a supplier of raw materials in what is the world’s only chance of industrial growth in the near future. It will be interesting to see whether the Liberal Party’s internal battle royal can be kept internal.

  4. Avatar Bob Aikenhead says:

    A truly excellent article on the most important immediate issue facing Australia, but which is largely absent from public discussion – except through ritualistic recitals of simplistic themes.
    Depressingly we see not even a glimmer of intelligent consideration of foreign policy from the current government, nor from most of the opposition. Entrenched adherence to mythology seems more pervasive on this issue than even the denial of evidence based approaches to climate science that still infect sections of our conservative cohort.

  5. Avatar Cameron Leckie says:

    Great article Richard!

    I am currently reading Paul Kennedy’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.’

    He mentions Lord Palmerston’s view that Great Britain had permanent interests but no permanent allies.

    This seems to be a wise position for Australia to take.

    At one point, in my view now well past, being an ally of the US served our national interest. This is no longer the case. Being an ally of the US is now counter to our national interests.

    At what point will our political leaders realise/acknowledge this?

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