In all liberal democracies, Australia included, national self-regard resists identification with the harsh implications of reliance on, or celebration of, military force – unless it can be viably represented as defence of freedom, just war, or wars against unspeakable Others.
And, in the case of liberal democracies originating in a settler state with ongoing unrecognised conquest of indigenous peoples, the racially inflected violence at the foundations of state-formation and national identity continues to ramify through the default settings of contemporary foreign policy.
WikiLeaks has posed a threat to a compelling part of the Australian unmasterable – our unrecognised connected history to the sources of ongoing profound global inequality and our continuing role in militarily containing the consequences of that shared imperial history. As Jacqueline Rose writes in The Last Resistance:
We are the past masters at getting rid of something un-masterable so that we can panic at the threat, which then becomes as inflexible as our own violent response to it, of something else. From displacement to projection is a single step.
WikiLeaks embodies the contemporary spirit of resistance to imperial power, when the external structure of empire derives from the fusion of two systems.
The first is material power represented by the more than 1,000 United States military bases outside its own territory. The second is the less visible but critical and equally potent digital network of the US government communications and computing infrastructure that the US military calls the Global Information Grid (GIG) – the globe, of course, being in American eyes presumptively US territory.
One way I can sketch the dimensions of the contribution of WikiLeaks to my understanding of empire today and Australia’s place within it is to look back at the ways in which I have relied on that unique body of material in my published research on Australia’s defence policies, its current wars, the ‘joint’ US–Australian military and intelligence bases in Australia, and the parallel case of US and Japanese signals intelligence facilities in Japan.
Sometimes, WikiLeaks documents, in small doses, show Australian and United States political leaders speaking to each other offstage, in tones markedly different from their remarks in public, especially about Australia’s alliance wars. One sequence from the US Embassy in Canberra in 2008, released by WikiLeaks in 2010, demonstrated the brazen duplicity of the Australian government towards the Australian public about the state of what was to become Australia’s longest war, beginning in 2001 and still ongoing today. At the same time as he was publicly predicting success in the war, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told visiting US politicians ‘that the national security establishment in Australia was very pessimistic about the long-term prognosis for Afghanistan’. Ric Smith, the former Secretary of the Department of Defence and subsequently the government’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was reported by US Embassy officials in Canberra to have ‘described the … mission in Afghanistan and Afghan government presence as a “wobbly three-legged stool”’. Given that there were no domestic political benefits to be gained from the ADF’s Afghanistan deployment, Rudd’s lying was aimed at bolstering the real rationale for the costly and strategically counter-productive Afghanistan deployment – demonstrating loyalty to the United States and maintaining the US alliance.
As far as the United States was concerned, Australia was one of the small number of allies it could rely on to conduct war as it ‘should be conducted’, unlike major European allies such as Germany and France, which the US thought were too concerned with peace and reconciliation.
Australia’s attitude to this divide among US allies in attitudes to war was confirmed by comments made by Prime Minister Rudd to visiting US political figures in January 2008, later revealed by WikiLeaks. Rudd quipped: ‘In the south-east, the US, Canada, Britain, Australia and Dutch were doing the “hard stuff”, while in the relatively peaceful north-west, the Germans and French were organising folk dancing festivals’.
In fact, contrary to the insinuations of Rudd’s distasteful borrowed machismo, the French had by that time lost 50 soldiers in Afghanistan, the Germans 45, and Australia 21.
Read more by Phillip Adams, Jennifer Robinson, Richard Tanter, Clinton Fernandes, Suelette Dreyfus, Quentin Dempster, Julian Burnside, Scott Ludlam, Benedetta Brevini, Lissa Johnson, Antony Johnson, Paul Barratt, George Gittoes, Gerard Goggin, Helen Razer, Guy Rundle, John Keane, and Julian Assange
in Felicity Ruby and Peter Cronau, A Secret Australia, (Monash UP, December 2020).
An extract from Richard Tanter, ‘WikiLeaks, Australia and empire’, in Felicity Ruby and Peter Cronau, (eds.), A Secret Australia: Revealed by the WikiLeaks Exposés, with a foreword by Phillip Adams, (Monash University Press, 2020.)