Fatal attraction


A combination of American hubris and Australian loyalty has exposed a weakness in our alliance. The Americans under George W. Bush are too entranced with their exceptional virtues and global military reach to pay attention to the voice of a marginal player, and we under John Howard are too concerned with our need for American protection to raise our voice. We each protest that we do otherwise.

The alliance is in danger of becoming not just a security arrangement between two countries but a test of how, as Australians, we see ourselves, the world and the future. Our maturing as a nation had led us to believe that we had developed an autonomy of outlook, an independence of spirit, co-operative but not submissive.

Australia will not readily give up the advantages it has gained over a long period by its military association with the United States, no matter which political party governs in Canberra. There is an advantage to us at the high-technology end of our intelligence links with the US. There is some, incomplete, assurance in the ANZUS treaty if we are attacked.

An American military presence in our region is accepted as contributing to a stable equilibrium. Without it, rivalry between Japan and China and perhaps others might surface. It is not an impediment to our trading and investment prospects, as shown in the recent gas and oil deal with China, nor does it prevent us from working on sensitive political and security issues, as shown in dealing with Indonesia over East Timor.

As an economy and as a creative industrial and scientific society, the United States is magnetic, and on human rights Australia has more in common with the United States than with most other countries in our region. Also, while the Australian public favours the ‘idea’ of self-reliance, its capacity to bear the costs is not self-evident. We have had defence on the cheap. Without the alliance, there would be a revival of the nuclear weapons option.

In theory, we could disengage from the alliance, as New Zealand has done. In practice, however, we have no need. The choice is not whether or not we have the alliance but how we manage it, whether we use it to exert American power in pursuit of American objectives or whether we use it to promote common interests, including ours and the security of our region.

We should try to engage the Americans in arrangements with others that contribute to regional and global security, including a counter to terrorism likely to be more productive and less disruptive than at present. In doing so, we have no need to submit ourselves to some kind of test of loyalty to America itself.

The activism we discovered in ourselves when the Cold War ended included coalition building, but it had other qualities. One was a commitment to thinking and acting internationally.

By their nature, middle powers like Australia lack the capacity to get their own way in the world, so they have an interest in a rules-based system which they have some say in establishing. Their manner is co-operative rather than assertive. They are able to see a way through impasses and to lead, if not by authority, then at least by the force of ideas.

In other words, if you’re not powerful you need to be imaginative, which great powers are reluctant to be. To do so would suggest that they do not value enough their prime possession, which is their power and the authority that comes with it. Middle powers, on the other hand, especially when, as in most cases, they have no hope of becoming great powers, rely on the appeal of ideas in statecraft.

Ideas are not enough; the resources and the energy to implement them in a practical way are also needed. An active middle power needs a competent diplomatic service, as well as discretionary funds. It needs, above all, stamina. But, as the old ideas of statecraft fail to work in the contemporary world, imagination is an essential starting point, and imaginative solutions to the pressure of state sovereignty on the land and waters of our region, unlikely to respond to pre-emptive military pressure, are a priority for Australia.

The states likely to prosper in the future are not those that seek war as a test of their independence but those that respond successfully both to the human demands from within their boundaries and the opportunities for international co-operation from without. The successful state will repay the loyalty of its citizens with higher living standards and access to a world wider than their defined territory, rather than by going for glory. It will still need the respect of other states, but it will gain this not by brandishing its military might but by forging common interests and accepting a common destiny.

How to get the Australia’s military alliance with the United States to fit into this future is a task awaiting political leaders on both sides of the Pacific. The current ‘war’ on terrorism has distracted us from other tasks. The United States, still smarting from the 11 September attacks, is not currently in the mood to think outside traditional international security, including military alliances, but there is a role both regionally and globally for Australia in this emerging world, in which power is diffused and the organisation of security requires skilful management and understanding.

So we keep the alliance, but we do not submerge ourselves in it or submit ourselves to tests of our fidelity. I believe that we see ourselves as a different kind of nation from the Americans, with something more to give the world than a pale version of the virtues that have made the United States great. Robin Boyd said it well during an earlier time of trouble. We are something more than Austerica, a cut-price, austerity version of America, with a dash of hysteria thrown in when we think we are not up to scratch.

History and geography have moulded us differently. The US won its independence by revolutionary arms and its people fought each other in a terrible civil war. Its commercial vigour is legendary. Australia got its independence a century later from a distracted and benevolent Britain without a shot being fired.

Our public enterprise has been as enterprising, until recently, as our private enterprise, and there is a residual respect for the state as social safety net and redistributor of wealth.

Our kind of modernity is more eclectic, more post-modern than the thrusting core values that drive the United States. And, as earlier noted, our political geography is vastly different. The Americans are dominant in their hemisphere. We have to accommodate to ours.

Yes, we have a history of looking for protection from our neighbourhood. Yes, we have a history of copying the manners of those who protect us. However, we have not become a predatory warrior state and our expeditionary valour has helped to keep alive a sense of responsibility for the world beyond our shores.

A powerful, perverse region and an impenetrable, intransigent country have forced us back on ourselves, and we have discovered a resourcefulness. In our region, we have worked our way into a kind of familiarity, still short of integration but no longer apart.

Our needs now are no different from our neighbours. We want to keep our individual identity, live in a secure and prosperous neighbourhood and have access to the wider world. The alliance with the United States needs to support those needs, not raise doubts about them.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.