The American Alliance: More incantation than inquiry.

Our chosen national heroes are the young men who died fighting for King and Empire on the coast of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. When will our focus shift to the many thousands of indigenous men and women who died fighting for their kin, their customs and their country all over the continent for well over a hundred years?

The tumult of the moment has led to much discussion about the future of the American alliance. While there are many voices the scripts remain much the same, seemingly impervious to ambient uncertainty. There is, indeed, more incantation than inquiry. Two recent comments illustrate this observation. In the Guardian Kevin Rudd declared that,’ Australia must not-and will not walk away from the U.S. alliance that has been the bedrock of Australian foreign policy since the Second World War.’ What is more ANZUS ‘remains overwhelmingly in Australia’s national interest.’ Professor Simon Jackman from the Sydney University American Studies Centre agreed, remarking that ‘Australia’s alliance with the U.S. remains an inviolable element of foreign policy.’ The choice of words was telling. ‘Inviolable’ embodies intimations of sacred writ which must not be profaned or questioned.

The arguments in support of ANZUS are well known. It has kept us secure for seventy years and provided the conditions which have enabled Australia to flourish. There are ritual references to our access to advanced weaponry and to five eyes intelligence. But that doesn’t take us very far. What have we done with them? The overbearing reality is that they have enabled us to fight America’s enemies , to go to war in places chosen for us against people who could never have presented a threat to continental Australia. It is true that the alliance has probably made many Australians feel secure and official rhetoric has assiduously nurtured this sense of dependence and cosy conformity.

But the big questions are rarely asked and almost never answered. Feeling secure for seventy years is all very well but it has nurtured an atmosphere of intellectual inertness among the security and defence establishment. But whether the alliance has made us more secure than we would have been without it is never considered. It is still an open question.But one thing is certain. The alliance has not kept us out of wars. We have been involved in them for just over half the time since ANZUS was signed. We have been at war in the Middle East for the last 20 years. Just over 900 Australians have been killed and many more injured. We have spent billions of dollars in the process. Was the loss of life and treasure really justifiable? Or is there an instinctive reaction which implies that going to war overseas is what Australians do and they are good at it? What is never discussed is the death and destruction left behind by the Australians, those hundreds of devastated families which was the lasting legacy of our aggression.

Has any of this made us more secure? It seems doubtful but as there has never been a serious and publicly available cost/benefit analysis who can tell? But an even bigger question is what exactly has the Alliance protected us from? Which country in all those seventy years presented a threat to the homeland….the North Koreans, the Viet Cong, the Taliban, the Baarth Socialists in Iraq and Syria? Islamic extremists would in all likelihood have shown little interest in Australia if we hadn’t sent our soldiers, ships and aircraft into the maelstrom of the Middle East .We led with our chin.

It surely should be a necessary exercise to consider what would have been our fate if we hadn’t begged the Americans for a treaty in unnecessary fear about a resurgent and militaristic Japan? Presumably we might have kept out of all these war. Would anyone have threatened us even once in seventy years? Did we have any enemies with either the desire or the capacity to endanger us?

Once we follow this line of argument we arrive in a very different place. It is not our diplomacy that has made us secure it is our geography. It is not our proximity to great and powerful friends but our size and location. We have no land borders, no traditional enemies, no neighbours harbouring irredentist claims. An island continent we are far too big to invade and occupy. The so called empty north which worried generations of our politicians was clearly a great strategic asset. A great power might have had the capacity to launch the vast Armada which would be required to conquer Australia but what possible reason would they have to do so? And how could the continent be occupied and held down by a hostile enemy? The eventuality is so improbable that it is scarcely worth considering. That leaves us with the strange paradox of a country that is inherently, even uniquely secure, that finds it necessary to constantly engage in warfare and what is more to appear to be proud of our uncalled for belligerence. In fact the security of the homeland has been a necessary condition allowing Australia to persist since the start of the C20th with the tradition of the expeditionary force.

In the 1950’s the opportunity emerged for Australia to detach itself from the disintegrating British Empire and for the first time to strike out alone. That would have provided us with the occasion to develop plans for continental defence and to make as many of the weapons required ourselves. It would not have been more costly than our feckless overseas adventures. And of even greater importance was that while we might not be able to predict when a realistic threat to our security might emerge we would ,at least, know where we would be fighting. The American alliance means we can never be sure where our next war might be. We don’t get to choose which enemy we might next be asked to kill.

But we are dealing here with older and deeper currents of thought. Australia took a wrong turn on the eve of federation when it chose to cleave to Empire rather than to Nation. The country had all the attributes necessary for successful, independent nationhood, more abundantly than many of the then existing sovereign states. It was able to defend itself from any foreseeable threats to its security. But the choice was made in favour of the Empire and the Crown over loyalty based on place and an overriding commitment to the continent itself. Over sixty thousand young men died between 1914 and 1918 on overseas battlegrounds as a result. And that pattern of behaviour has remained with us. Rather than developing a patriotism rooted in the soil we have continued to identify with larger collectives. It was the British Empire and all the King’s men , the White Race then the’ Free World’ and ‘the West’ and now America’s informal, entangling Empire.

Perhaps this was an inevitable outcome for an immigrant society where loyalty to the old world was more compelling than deep commitment to the adopted homeland. The soft power of the great Empires has been hard to resist. But our reluctance to cut our ties with the British monarchy or even fly a flag of our own is symptomatic of our inability to finally put the colonial past behind us. So too is the whole pattern of our relationship with the First Nations. Our chosen national heroes are the young men who died fighting for King and Empire on the coast of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. When will our focus shift to the many thousands of indigenous men and women who died fighting for their kin, their customs and their country all over the continent for well over a hundred years? Only then will we have national heroes who were patriots in the precise meaning of that word, men and women whose exclusive loyalty was to the land on which they stood.

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Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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