By Dr Alison Broinowski, WikiLeaks Party Senate candidate for New South Wales
The topic for an Intelligence Squared debate in Sydney on 1 August was the American alliance, and whether Australia needs it. On entry, the audience polled almost evenly for, against, and undecided, but by the end the audience had changed its mind and voted more than 50 per cent against the alliance. The debate included US Ambassador Jeffrey Bleich and former General Jim Molan (on opposite sides).
If this result reflects public opinion, it suggests that claims by the Lowy Institute and others of overwhelming support for ANZUS may be misplaced, or that they are asking the wrong questions. Politicians of both major parties refuse to question it; no major party will go to the electorate on the issue; and generations of Australians have been indoctrinated in the belief that our contributions to the US alliance guarantee that it will defend us. But now that America’s status as an economic superpower is in decline, its military and diplomatic capacity is diminished, and its claim to be an ideological exemplar to the world is eroded, all this should be questioned. Now more than ever
From 1941 on, in all US wars apart from Panama and Granada, Canberra adopted Washington’s enemies as its own. A figleaf of UN Security Council approval was pasted over some of these conflicts (Korea, Afghanistan); several were undeclared, or illegal; the US declined to participate in one (East Timor); and only one (the Pacific war) resulted in an allied victory. Australia volunteered, even pleaded, to be included in successive US wars, sought little information about what they would involve, and only once (Vietnam) did Australian troops leave before the Americans. Menzies pressed to get into Vietnam in 1965, and later urged the US to escalate the war by bombing the North. Hawke volunteered Australian troops to defend Kuwait against Iraq in 1991, and Howard did the same ten years later to attack Iraq. Gillard, at least, kept them out of Libya (2012) and Syria (2013). The scoresheet reads, in summary: won one, drawn one, lost three.
The bipartisan objective of Australian policy since World War II has been to ‘keep the US involved in the region’, that is, committed to defending Australia. Our leaders often claim that Australia is an independent country, but as Sir Alan Watt perceived five decades ago, Australia has always been intent on maximizing not its independence but its dependence. Manning Clark called Australia a ‘suckling society’, and Dennis Altman said it was ‘America’s 51st state’. Others have described it as a ‘lapdog’ and a ‘deputy-sheriff’. A succession of Australian prime ministers have delivered slavering assurances of loyalty to Washington. The repeated justification for allowing the US alliance to dominate Australian policy, as Howard, Rudd and Gillard have increasingly done, involves four propositions about access. These are always trotted out, as they were at IQ2 in Sydney, but each of them is flawed.
1. Australia gets access to American intelligence. But intelligence that is wrong, limited, or manipulated, is dangerous and useless. Other countries, including Australia’s nearest neighbours, know the five Anglo-phone UKUSA allies (who share intelligence intercepts) have this access, and that creates a barrier of suspicion between them and Australia. If US intelligence couldn’t warn Australia about 9/11, two Bali bombings and an attack on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, and if it told Canberra Iraq had WMD, how good is it?
2. Australia gets access in Washington. But so do many supporters of the US, and with equal blandishments. Allies become known by the company they keep, and acquire guilt by association. Access has to be measured by its results, and if they are inadequate or negative, independent countries would be wise to favour other company.
3. Australia gets access to military equipment and cooperation. But military purchases from the US are expensive, delivered late, often unusable in Australia. Meanwhile equivalent or superior equipment is offered to many other countries, creating an arms race. The purpose of interoperability and training is not to defend Australia but to prepare Australia to fight against enemies of the US.
4. Australia gets access to American protection. Successive American leaders have made it clear that the US will act in its own interests, not those of its allies. Moreover, while Australia relies for security on the US nuclear threat, it opposes nuclear proliferation to other countries and seeks nuclear disarmament of others, but not of its allies. By making Australia a surrogate target for nuclear, cyber, conventional or even drone attack, US military and intelligence installations on Australian territory endanger more than they protect Australia.
What fundamentally concentrates the attention of US policy-makers on Australia, as all leaders since Menzies have known, is not Australia’s access to the US, but America’s access to Australian support for its policies, to Australian troops for its coalitions, and to Australian territory for its bases, now numbering more than 30. Logically, the more bases it has in Australia, the more certain the US is to defend them. Coral Bell perceived long ago that this gave Australia a negotiable advantage, though few prime ministers have used it to advance Australia’s interests.
Australia continues to live on outdated fantasies, relying on an over-extended US that admits it cannot and will not wage a sustained war, let alone defend others. Moreover China, the notional enemy, is the largest trading partner of Australia and its Asian neighbours, as well as the United States’ biggest creditor. More than ever, Australia now needs independent, global, foreign and defence policies to deal with the looming choice between the US and China which Australian leaders claim they don’t have to make, though covertly they made it long ago. Australia could start by implementing the Asian Century White Paper’s aspirations, by cultivating the peaceful, positive relations with its Asian neighbours which it proposes, and by genuinely putting into practice the non-threatening behaviour to which the UN Charter and the rarely-mentioned ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation commits Australia, the US, China and all its parties.
Why does all this matter? For three reasons: war crimes, war powers, and the next war.
1. War crimes. Australia and the UK are signatories to the International Criminal Court, and the US is not. Australia has agreed to extend the jurisdiction of the Court to crimes of aggression, which means that Australian ministers, service chiefs, and governors-general could be investigated over decisions to engage in future wars. Australia is obliged to set up credible and independent processes for such investigations by 2017, or the ICC may intervene to do so. Blair and Howard, both lawyers, may hope their recent public self-justifications will deter anyone from accusing them of committing war crimes in invading Iraq.
2. War powers. Howard exercised them in 2003 with no authorization by the Governor-General, no vote in Parliament, and no real debate, even by the Coalition parties. It is much easier under the Australian Constitution for a prime minister to do this than it is for the executive leaders of the other Anglo-allies. Both Blair and Howard advised Parliament of their intentions, and Blair secured Lower House approval of the invasion in advance, but Howard was not obliged to do so and only sought it retrospectively. According to Peter Hollingworth, Governor-General at the time, Howard cited Australia’s entry into peacekeeping operations and the undeclared war in Vietnam as precedents. This process could be repeated unless the war powers of the executive are redefined, something about which Gillard and Rudd have shown no interest.
3. The next war. In Sydney on 9 April 2013, John Howard made an ominous comment: he anticipates Australia being involved in Iran. Presumably that would validate what he did in Iraq. A true conservative, Howard assumes that nothing needs to change, and that Australia will press on as deputy-sheriff in America’s posse for yet another expedition. Why Australia should invade Iran, he did not explain, but the record speaks for itself. In recent years Australia has become not less but more dependent on US defence, culminating in Gillard’s offer to the US of bases on Australian soil for the first time since the Pacific war. Wherever the US is at war, Australia will be inextricably involved, for better or more likely for worse, unless we change our own rules.
Dr Broinowski wrote Howard’s War (2003) and Allied and Addicted (2007). She is a member of the Coalition for an Iraq War Inquiry.