When the Australian Government allowed the USA to establish a permanent military base in the Darwin area, it began a process likely to result in expansion. Regardless of how local ‘Hawks’ might try to depict the latest plans for ‘investment’ the announcement shows how little they care for Australian autonomy, and indeed, border security.
Ever since the war against Japan in the early 1940s Australian foreign policy has been predicated upon the notion of the USA as the great and good ally. Governments have rejoiced in securing ‘defence’ treaties and generally accepted arrangements which brought no real advantage to Australia. In many instances, Australia has lost respect internationally by blindly obeying American calls to arms. While individual Australian service men and women might have behaved with integrity in wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the eagerness of conservative governments to please the great ally has led them to be mendacious and to abandon democratic principles.
During the period of the ‘cold war’ between the USA and the USSR, American war planners stretched credulity in their determination to ‘prevail’. Australia was drawn into the MAD standoff (Mutual Assured Destruction) while those with any objectivity and rationality pointed out that nuclear deterrence was an absurd doctrine. Prominent strategic analysts, atmospheric scientists and political ethicists argued that blindly following either side threatened the values we claimed to hold dear. When New Zealand insisted that American naval vessels declare whether they carried nuclear weapons, it was expelled from the ANZUS treaty. When it opposed French nuclear tests in the Pacific, France sent agents to violate New Zealand’s sovereignty by attacking the Rainbow Warrior.
While New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange was gaining a reputation for courage and realism, Australian Governments remained happy to host American spy bases which would have a role in nuclear war. Critics suggested that Australia should adopt a policy of armed neutrality. This would entail spending more on defence, but it would also mean ensuring that Australia did not project its military power around the world at the behest of the USA.
According to ABC News https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-29/americas-push-to-expand-naval-facilities-in-northern-australia/11354926 the USA plans a $300 million expansion of its Darwin base. By expanding the access given to the US military in the Northern Territory, the Australian Government will surrender even more of its options in defence procurement and foreign policy. It will become easier and cheaper to fall into step with the US and to accept its priorities in the region. And should the US engage in military action against for example, Iran or North Korea, Australia would not be able to avoid commitment. Indeed, as the US bases became targets, either for nuclear attack or guerrilla actions, all Australians at home and abroad would be at risk.
Recent government policies on border security suggest that we are heading towards becoming a permanent garrison state. Unfortunately, such a position is incompatible with democratic values of honesty, openness and responsibility. Neither the tinkle of cash registers nor the possibility that the USA might one day come to Australia in its hour of need can compensate for these negative effects.
The Americans are fond of talking about ‘boots on the ground’. This is an allusion to the sending of infantry to a combat zone, and is seen as a step beyond merely bombing the stuffing out of a hostile population. The expression shows clearly a difference between engaging in military manoeuvres occasionally and permanently situating a force in an area. While the Australian military might share many of the professional values of their US counterparts, most of us would be appalled should our people follow the US example in some areas. There may have been tensions over black troops during the 1940s, but today, the value of gender inclusiveness is under threat in the US and the American stance on treatment of prisoners is also a worry. In Australia we have already shown a growing tendency to target whistleblowers, but in the US there have been high profile prosecutions.
Our politicians have shown a bipartisan enthusiasm for stopping the boats. Defenceless asylum seekers in sandals accompanied by children are soft targets. To stand up to them takes no courage at all. To stand up to the USA and tell them to keep their military hardware, their dubious values and their boots off Australian soil would require courage that is increasingly beyond the frail, faint hearted politicians supposedly charged with defending our democracy.
Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics. He resides in Wiradjuri country.