Letting go of the US
August 26, 2013
Australia must assert its independence or risk being dragged into conflict with China.
You might think that Australia is a strategic independent nation, but in fact, we never have been. From our foundation in 1901 to World War II, we relied on Britain for defence. We thought the Empire, the British navy, would always be able to save us. After the war, the United States was coerced into agreeing to the ANZUS Treaty.
There was a rationale for our close relationship with the US, during the Cold War and until the break-up of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was regarded as an outward-looking, thrusting, aggressive force, whose invasion of Afghanistan, as late as 1979, seemed to confirm that view. Thus, the policy of strategic dependence upon the US made sense during the Cold War.
In 1990, the Soviet Union disintegrated. The threat of Soviet aggression disappeared. The ideological war appeared to be over. America emerged supreme, the absolute power, no challenger. This was an opportunity for Australia to say, ''Well, now we need to exhibit a little more strategic independence. We need to make our own decisions. We live in the western Pacific, our priority should be to carve out better and secure relationships with countries of our immediate region, east and south-east Asia.'' The strategic need for a protector was no longer present.
But instead of showing some degree of strategic independence, we chose quite deliberately to tie ourselves much more closely to America's coat-tails. This was a major strategic error, a betrayal of Australia's national interest.
The first major reason that continuing our policy of strategic dependence on America was an error is that substantial changes have occurred within the US. America's political make-up, attitudes and aspirations have changed in the decades since the Berlin Wall came down.
The US emerged from World War II as the world's wealthiest and most powerful single nation. But its power was always held in check by the power of the Soviet Union. The two superpowers balanced each other. After 1990, that restraint was removed. There was no counter to US power. The European Union, Japan and the newly formed Russian Federation were no match for the world's last remaining superpower.
With its power unchecked and a sense of triumphalism brought about by victory in the Cold War, the idea of American exceptionalism - a nation chosen by God, endowed with a manifest destiny to bring democracy and freedom to the world - has risen to new heights. The simultaneous political rise of the neo-conservative movement in the post-Cold War era, particularly under George W. Bush, has ensured these notions have become central to US foreign policy.
The second reason I believe strategic dependence is an erroneous policy is the wars of no strategic importance to Australia that we have become embroiled in as a dutiful American ally.
We followed the US blindly in the invasion of Iraq, not because of ANZUS but because we wanted to cuddle up to America. We wanted to tie ourselves to America's coat-tails in a totally mistaken view that smaller countries can buy brownie points with major countries. So we participated in the lie about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. The British were leading proponents because prime minister Tony Blair also wanted to protect his relationship with the US. The result: an Iraq in chaos.
It is not the first time Australia committed to America's folly. There was, of course, Vietnam. And there was Afghanistan. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan because it was authorised by the United Nations Security Council to hunt al-Qaeda. But America changed the mission to establishing democracy, American-style, in Afghanistan. That mission is an impossibility. Afghanistan has never been a country with a strong, central government. It has always been a federation or confederation of warlords with their own turf, their own power, their own interests. It will revert to that as America withdraws, just as certainly as Iraq has descended into chaos.
The third reason for my concerns about strategic dependence is we have become complicit in the immoral behaviour of America. For example, the intelligence gathered at Pine Gap is now used to target US drone attacks.
President Barack Obama says he respects the sovereignty of other states, but quite blatantly his drone program does not. We are complicit in it. Under what law does this operate? We have signed on to the International Criminal Court; are we culpable under that?
Many hoped President Obama would expose and wind back aspects of President Bush jnr's administration. He has not done that; he has ramped them up. Are we to take it that, with Republican and Democratic support, a secret, aggressive killing force is now a permanent part of the US political machine?
Australia should be telling the US: ''We do not like these operations, we do not wish to be complicit in them. You had better establish alternative processes that do not touch Australia. You cannot use information collected at Pine Gap to support drone targeting.''
The final reason I believe strategic dependence should end is that I do not want Australia to follow America into a fourth war.
A fourth war would be in the western Pacific. It would likely involve China. America has a two-track policy on China. One track involves consultation, an attempt to understand each other better, to solve matters diplomatically. The second track, in case that doesn't work, involves a ring of armaments from Japan to the Philippines, to Australia to Singapore. We are the southern linchpin of America's policy of containment.
If the next war America is likely to be involved in is in the Pacific, it becomes much more important to Australia's own security than does anything that happens in Iraq or Afghanistan. It will have far-reaching implications for our relations with our neighbours - with Japan, with China, with Indonesia.
There is no inevitability about any of this. If America is prepared to share power, then there is not going to be a problem. But all the signs since 1990 suggest that that is not the American intention. They are No.1, they intend to stay No.1 and they will fight to do so.
We have an interest in a peaceful world, and it is time we began to cut ourselves off America's coat-tails. We do not want to be caught between the US and China. There would be no real winners in such a war. Everyone would lose. A small country allied to the US would lose most of all. We should be telling the Americans: ''We are not going to be part of any of that. We are no longer going to follow you into your wars.''
Australia needs to decide where its future lies and how it plans on getting there. We need to be aware of the domestic changes in America, the folly of engaging in conflicts of no strategic significance, being complicit in unethical tactics, and the risk of a major conflict in our region. Do we attempt to carve a role for ourselves in the region through an independent, intelligent and consultative foreign policy? Or do we continue to rely on an ally whose strategic interests and domestic political values might not directly align with our own?
Malcolm Fraser was prime minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983.