The Deputy Sheriff shoots himself in the foot


Winston Churchill once nastily remarked that the problem with the Germans was that ‘they’re either at your throat or at your heels’. Asian observers of current Australian security policy might be forgiven for substituting ‘the Australians for ‘the Germans’. These days, we seem to be either arrogantly proclaiming an Australian right to attack anyone we consider threatening, or we are supinely waiting by the phone for instructions from headquarters at Team America.

The Prime Minister’s performance at the ASEAN conference in Laos earlier this month was a classic instance of counter-productive arrogance and rigidity. Despite the importance of establishing deeper levels of trust as the basis for cooperation against regional terrorism, Mr Howard declined the opportunity to shift even an inch from the unilateralism of the deputy sheriff. Australia’s right to a pre-emptive attack on neighbouring countries, none of whom have a conceivable rational interest in hosting any kind of threat to Australia, was not something Mr Howard was prepared to discuss.

But not only was the ‘in your face’ assertion of pre-emption allowed to stand on an occasion designed to build bridges and establish working-level trust amongst regional leaders, but the Prime Minister deliberately and publicly declined the invitation from the ASEAN states to consider acceding to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Australia’s public reluctance was all the more marked by the contrast with the recent accession to the treaty of India, China, Japan, South Korea and the Russian Federation, and by New Zealand’s positive attitude.

The public reasons for rejecting the ASEAN invitation were two fold, and neither were credible. Firstly, if we joined the treaty, Mr Downer said, the ASEAN preference for avoiding criticism of ASEAN member states would limit the Australian government’s ability to criticize human rights violations in places like Myanmar. Avoiding any comment on the Australian position, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark announced that New Zealand would seriously consider acceding to the treaty, and then set about trenchant public criticism of the Myanmar government within the ASEAN forum in front of the Myanmar delegation.

The second reason proffered by the Australian government for avoiding accession to the ASEAN treaty was equally revealing. While at first dismissing the 1976 treaty as a remnant of non-alignment from the Cold War, the government then demonstrated that the attitudes of the Cold War are alive and well in its own thinking when it suggested that the treaty may cause difficulties with the much more important Australian alliance relationship with the United States. The fact that Japan and South Korea, both somewhat more important American allies in Asia than Australia, have acceded to the treaty with no ill effects was ignored. Moreover, the anachronism of the Australian rejection highlighted the distance between Southeast Asia and Australia’s echoing of the Bush preference for unilateralism. This is starkly opposed to the emerging Asian preference for cooperative diplomacy, as witnessed in China’s auspicing of the six-party talks over North Korean nuclear weapons.

The distinguishing features of Australian foreign policy in recent years seem to have been exactly those of both the infamous conga line and the blustering deputy sheriff. Last week the deputy sheriff was shooting himself in the foot over the ASEAN treaty, and bristling with indignation about suggestions that an illegal pre-emptive attack doctrine was anybody else’s business. Meanwhile the Southeast Asian nations on the receiving end of any Australian pre-emptive attack, most of whom have very publicly criticised the Iraqi war, could not but have noted the participation of Australian forces in the razing of Fallujah. Equally, the Foreign Minister’s latest expression of disinterest in serious inquiry into systematic torture in Iraq by Australia’s closest ally would have been filed, quite appropriately under ‘Double Standards – Australian’.

Nothing could have more clearly confirmed Australia’s distance from the outlook of the governments of Southeast Asia than the combination of arrogance towards neighbours, the smaller the better, and craven and highly public complaisance in a war in Iraq, the effects of which are slowly filtering into Southeast Asia. Indeed, it may well seem to the governments of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific that the problem with John Winston Howard is that he is either at the throat of neighbours or at the feet of distant empires.

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.