Understanding the Austral-Americans

Mar 9, 2023
Cute little koala holding heart in USA patriotic hat and glasses.

Embedded within the foreign policy debate in Australia is the claim that an epochal shift of Copernican significance is underway. So disturbing is this transformation in world politics – seemingly from light to darkness, from joy to woe – that its troubling possibilities have dissolved the sense of national self.

The consequence: an almost medieval response to a quintessentially modern conundrum, which Martin Heidegger phrased as, “Only a God can save us now.” The high priesthood of this new dispensation are the Austral-Americans, a policy elite which relegates Australia’s national interests to a position considerably inferior to those of the United States.

Former Prime Minister, Paul Keating (among others), defines them as “little Americans,” those who not only place their “exclusive faith” in the US, but cannot see past the US and its interests. In so doing so they disclose their ambivalence as regards their identity and allegiance, and sacrifice Australia’s sovereignty.

While accurate and apposite, this state of affairs demands further understanding of its underlying causes. And they indicate a diseased mindset composed of two interrelated conditions.

First, a regard for the Australia-US alliance as a civil-religious agreement to submit to a higher power by way of a sacramental relationship.

Second, a fusion of national personality disorders arising from dependency and a cultivated inability to understand the self.

Neither claims are to exaggerate the condition of the Austral-Americans: in 2004, Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, when addressing a meeting of Australian and American politicians and academics in Washington, used the term “sacred” to describe the relationship.

In Australia, Hugh White is well aware of this and his outline of the consensus gatekeepers of the alliance, and the problems they create for any possibility debate to be entertained, is exceptionally relevant:

[These] people – some of whom I admire . . . believe Australia’s commitment to its alliance transcends the ebb and flow of events. For them, the US alliance is more than just a policy instrument, to be kept while it works and discarded when it doesn’t. For them, the alliance is an end in itself, an object of loyalty, part of our identity. For them, an Australia that abandoned the alliance would no longer be Australia. For them, no price is too high to pay to keep it going.

Essentially, White describes a disposition to reflexively commit to wars and expeditionary forces ordained, essentially commanded, and controlled by the United States, without any reference to the history of past involvements or whether they were ethical or just.

It is again curious, therefore, that the conclusions White reached in 2005 regarding Australians and war provoked little reaction in policy circles and the ‘strategic studies community’ in Australia.  He found that:

¥   ‘Soft’ wars – defined as low cost conflicts in terms of casualties – have made Australians more bellicose.

¥   The perceived need to preserve the American alliance makes most wars acceptable in Australia.

¥   Australians are reluctant to focus on the purposes of war.

¥   Australians celebrate the experience of war – with ANZAC being central – while downplaying the reasons for fighting particular wars.

¥   Romanticising war makes future wars more likely.

In sum, the only rule that matters is to follow and fight. Memories are either erased or regarded as impedimenta. Ignorance is embraced and knowledge of the unpalatable is discounted.

And given that our waking moments in general, and our moral calculations are derived from the interplay of memory and anticipation, if the former is radically incomplete, the personality required is that of a Rambo with dementia.

Richard Lichtman is most apposite when he concludes that “not only can individuals be dysfunctional and pathological but that societies can be irrational, self-destructive and given to denial, self-deception and violent self-contamination.” What reigns is immature nationhood and triumphant reflex over any latent reflection and self-doubt.

Questions such as: why trust the US given its serial strategic failures, and why trust the Austral-Americans who advocated Australia’s commitment to them are judged to be impertinent. Worse, the empirical record of the past is regarded with contempt.

Why? Because to understand it under the conditions just outlined would only exacerbate the feeling of hopelessness and the lack of confidence in one’s own abilities to comprehend the world from the standpoint of where one actually lives and to negotiate a sensitive and sensible place within it.

The choice is existential – between a condition loosely defined as Liquid Bowel Syndrome, or its putative antidote, an alliance patented numbing agent.

In a formal, conceptual sense this disorder conforms closely to the underlying demeanor of Australia in international politics that the former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Alan Renouf, used as a central theme in his book, The Frightened Country. And formally it is categorised as Dependent Personality Disorder, the symptoms of which include:

  • Has difficulty making everyday decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others.
  • Needs others to assume responsibility for most major areas of life.
  • Intense fear of abandonment and a sense of devastation or helplessness when relationships end; often move right into another relationship when one ends.
  • Pessimism and lack of self-confidence, including a belief that they are unable to care for themselves.
  • Placing the needs of their caregivers above their own.
  • Goes to excessive lengths to obtain nurturance and support from others, to the point of volunteering to do things that are unpleasant.
  • Feels uncomfortable or helpless when alone because of exaggerated fears of being unable to care for themselves.
  • Urgently seeks another relationship as a source of care and support when a close relationship ends.
  • Is unrealistically preoccupied with fears of being left to take care of themselves.
  • Over-sensitivity to criticism.

At times the condition is so pronounced that the observable symptoms are those of what is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder, a pathology in which the sufferer experiences “two clear identities or personality states, each of which has a fairly consistent way of viewing the and relating to the world.”

Thus “frightened” Australia can find itself unrecognisable in the mirror when it is celebrated as a close and victorious ally of the United States.  Indeed, a phrase commonly used by Australian political leaders of late is that the country “punches above its weight” – a term referring to a boxer fighting successfully way above his weight division, which is to say in an alliance venture which would never have been entered into had the United States been absent from it.

To this extent the true power-political position of the country is derealised by an illusion of sovereignty; worse, the mechanisms by which Australia travelled to this imagined state – and the crude calculations of imagined benefits which are held to flow from the US – become casualties of the necessary lapses in memory.

How then to understand the Austral-Americans beyond their betrayal of the national interest?

One answer is to see them as religious refugees seeking sanctuary – essentially heretics opposed to the credo of the Realism they claim to espouse, but in collective denial of Hans Morgenthau’s resigned pessimism that we live “under an empty sky from which the Gods have departed.”

Another is to recognise them as modern-day Visigoths of the type that dominated Western Europe between the 4th and 6th Centuries CE.  They were an energetic lot, horsemanship being what they are most positively remembered for.

Basically, they were brutal, crude, and shallow barbarians, unsubtle in language, destructive of other, more sophisticated cultures, and inhumane in their politics.  Knowledge, for them, was purely instrumental, being measured in terms of the profit, or the power over others, it realised.

They nevertheless adhered to the familiar conceit that the world revolved around their doings and that their ways should be the ways of all mankind.

Before they were overturned their wake of destruction was so extensive that they are seen as responsible for the Dark Ages.

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