The US Studies Centre: Washington’s mole in plain sight

Jul 25, 2023
Man wearing glasses.

Espionage, surveillance and monitoring in a society require guile, judiciousness, and care. Secrecy matters. Inserted agents assume roles for years as friends even as they are purloining your secrets. They are the charming thespians of treachery.

Then come those who work in plain sight, drawing salaries from foreign powers, yet tolerated for the services they provide. These are the sponsored agents, those on the take who go so far as to boast about it. During the Cold War, such ties were kept quiet. The conservative journal Quadrant, while aspiring to a donnish standard of poetry and literature, maintained its political colours by receiving money from the Central Intelligence Agency via the Congress for Cultural Freedom. They at least had the good sense not to boast about it.

These days, those sponsored by foreign powers – at least those considered friendly to Australian interests – are proudly advertised. The United States Studies Centre lodged in the University of Sydney has become a security growth, not merely in Sydney, but the Australian media commentariat.

The opinions of those who spend time supping at the Centre resemble, almost to a fault, the views of those in Washington. It is an ideal set arrangement, with soft hues of professionalism, a smattering of tailored evidence released for public consumption, and a permanent connection to all the main networks, notably the Australian national broadcaster, around the clock.

The origins of the USSC are revealing. Founded in 2006, its goal was that of soother and softener, a healing wash to distract baffled Australians from the calamitous invasion of Iraq in 2003. That debacle had shown Washington to be a traditional, furniture smashing bully indifferent to the very norms of international law it professed. Thuggishly, it violated a country’s sovereignty, with Australia’s assistance, committing what the Nuremberg War Crimes trials of 1945 found to be the ultimate international offence: the crime against peace.

One of the inspirations behind establishing the centre was Rupert Murdoch, a figure whose war crazed papers had, almost without exception, bayed for blood in 2003 and encouraged the despoiling of Iraq with mutilating frenzy. His error exposed and his jaundiced reasoning found wanting, Murdoch thought it galling that US foreign policy could now be seen as a foreign policy threat to global peace, notably by Australians. At the 2006 inaugural dinner of the American-Australian Association (AAA) held in Sydney, Murdoch expressed his angst at what he perceived to be a “facile, reflexive, unthinking anti-Americanism that has gripped much of Europe”. He knew that the Iraq War had proven to be “unpopular among many Australians.” (Rupert is genetically fortified against giving mea culpas.) But not to worry, he told his audience encouragingly. Wars ended, and administrations came and went. The only question he posed to the AAA was “what are you blokes going to do about this?”

The USSC became the largest fruit of this effort. The goals of this enterprise became clear rather early. Never admonish US foreign policy, accept when it tries to avoid war or realise a vision linked to Donald J. Trump. (The latter tendency emerged after 2016.) Advance the militant goals of Freedom Land; never critique them. That would be in poor taste, and discourteous to your sponsors. As Michael Baume, former Liberal politician, diplomat and one time deputy chairman of American Australian Association Ltd, promised in 2006 at its initial establishment, the Centre would avoid “ludicrously unbalanced” assessments as those given about the US-Australia free trade agreement. (Baume was inadvertently correct about the imbalance, in so far as the agreement overwhelmingly favoured the US.) What mattered to him was avoiding the “anti-American prejudice endemic in Australian universities”. Were it to break out like a rash at the USSC, “the AAA would pull the funding.”

The current makeup of the Centre continues the tradition. Resident and non-resident members can be relied upon to sing to the Pentagon-White House-State Department song sheet without caveat or qualification by broadcasting networks, including the ABC. Michael J. Green, Chief Executive Officer of the centre, not only suggests that the US remains Australia’s “best bet” but proceeds to make the risible claim that Australia can, somehow, find the “kind of America [it] needs”. He holds to the view that “Canberra and other like-minded states [can] shape US strategy in ways that underpin Australian sovereignty and security.”

In another piece for the Centre from June this year, this time co-authored, Green babbles about the benefits Australia has drawn from an “international rules-based order for more than 70 years.” But the Oriental Despotic power to the North looms large, with Beijing trying “to ‘rewrite the rules’ in Australia’s near region.” Its “ideological dimension […] for unchallenged regional primacy, and its illiberal and coercive behaviour both domestically and throughout the region, stand contrary to the agreed-upon norms and regional character that Australia favours.” Between the thinly stretched tissue of reasoning here is an obvious point: what the US favours, Australia favours as a matter of course. It’s so obvious it need not speak its name.

The Centre also runs regular tea readings by veteran pro-US advocates such as Stephen Loosley, who, writing in a capsule of petrified ignorance, follows the Washington line that Ukraine has every chance of victory, while Russia will, bloodied and humiliated, somehow run up the white flag. The Russian army, his inexpert analysis goes, “lacks defence in depth.” Yet Ukrainian casualties continue to mount in its stalling counter-offensive, and Russia shows no sign of running from the battlefield.

The current director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre further exemplifies the problems. Peter Dean was appointed the lead author of the Australian Defence Strategic Review, having previously served in a number of positions, including that of Senior Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre. Dean is also knee-deep in US State Department programs intimately linked to the US-Australia alliance, including programs that look less like indoctrination than summer school re-enforcing. What else can you make of such names such as “Looking to 2040: Developing Next-Generation Leaders and Policy Thinkers of the US-Australia Partnership in the Indo-Pacific Region”?

The Centre should be treated for what it is: an agent of foreign interference and ideological meddling. By all means condemn Confucius Institutes, Islamic Centres and Russian-backed organisations for promoting their agendas, but lump the USSC into the same job lot, and more besides.

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