Australia should remain in alliance with the bully

There is a widespread consensus in Australian policy circles that Australia should follow the US in almost any foreign adventure, though preferably on the cheap. The shining example of this was John Howard’s decision to publicly support the US in its war in Iraq in 2003, and yet send only a 1,000 special forces or so. Maximum alliance points, minimal actual risks and costs. Well done, John Howard.

Sure, the US and its Murdoch media empire heavily lobby and cajole Australian politicians and public opinion. Yes, joining the Americans makes one a bit of a target. And yes, of course there is a large element of corruption and laziness to the alliance.

Still, we’d be nuts to break up with the Americans. The best arguments come, ironically, from those who criticise the Americans loudly and convincingly.

The biggest reason to be with the Americans is that they are bullies. Yes, you read it correctly: the fact that they misbehave on the international stage is a very important reason to be with the Americans as all those who have opposed them have found out the last 70 years. Look at American decisions the last 5 years around the Golan, Jerusalem, Khassoggi, Venezuela, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Cuba and Libya. The more we cry ‘injustices’, the more we should want to keep the Americans as friends.

All the ‘left-wing intellectuals’ who write about how many wars the Americans have started and how they have supported dictators and other *ssholes thus provide the strongest reasons for Australia to stay in the US alliance: the Americans get very nasty to those they see as enemies, particularly those who were former friends (think of Panama, Iran, or Venezuela). Why make ourselves the net target?

Sure, supporting the bully comes at a loss to others in the world, but not to us unless the other side really gets more powerful, in which case we can always switch. A new bully would recognise we are just the runt that follows the biggest bully, so it’s up to the new bully to show he is worthy of our allegiance. Till then, we stick with the one we know. That IS smart politics.

Can’t we do a New Zealand and simply be independent, I hear you ask? You see this written a lot, but New Zealand doesn’t have large American bases on its soil. Australia has huge American bases on its soil, which do not merely provide business for prostitutes but also gives the Americans a reason to become very nasty to whomever asks them to leave.

Also, NZ is essentially free-riding off the military protection offered by Australia. Australia needs a reasonably sized army. In turn, it is easier to have a modern well-trained army if one has integrated it with the best-equipped best-trained units of the US army. Going on foreign adventures, however ill-conceived, keeps the army on its toes a bit. Good training.

So no, the NZ option is closed to us. To have no army is not an option and to break with the US would weaken our army and cause a serious political conflict.

One should also not underestimate how popular the alliance with the Americans is amongst the Australian public, just as blindly following the Brits was before ‘we’ switched. Australians like to feel they are part of the winning team and there is a keen interest in being in the Western-block. It gives Australians a sense of belonging in the world. ‘We’ have loved being part of the war against terror and have happily accepted a few bombings as the price to pay. I say that with resignation, not relish. ‘We’ enjoy the role of runt, even more so when it gets some of us killed: Australians truly value obedience. Paying a price for the obedience simply makes it more real and hence more rewarding. You may not like it. I don’t like it. But you ain’t gonna change it in a hurry.

But, I hear you cry, what about the torture, the illegal killings, the bugging, Assange, etc., that comes with handing over basic foreign military policy to the Americans? To be blunt, Australians don’t care about such things and never have. Like the Americans, the Australians prefer not to know and are hence quite happy being lied to. If someone would force us to acknowledge such things you will find Australians would truly just shrug the shoulders, as all NATO partners and their populations have effectively shrugged their shoulders at all the misdeeds of the Americans. This includes the Norwegians and the Dutch, those paragons of virtue.

More broadly, if you are not competing to be in charge, you have to accept what your friends who are in charge do. It does indeed mean we are guilty of everything our American friends do, which is why we don’t want to know. Our hidden shame is the price of cowardice and an easy life.

Isn’t militarisation and the increase in the security state a threat to Australian democracy? Yes it is, but I am afraid that that is home grown and quite independent of the US alliance. Internal dynamics in Australia move us towards a class society with a nasty security establishment. It is not the Americans who fund or encourage the Anzac military marches reminiscent of Germany in the 30s.

What about the Chinese then and our strong economic ties to China: aren’t those at risk from a continued American alliance? Well, maybe. Many NATO member and other allies have stronger economic ties with China than the US, such as South Korea, which has not been a problem. We should surely keep trying to have our cake and eat it as long as possible, refusing to choose by pretending we don’t even see the choice.

How about a war with China though? As I have said in the past, China will become more important than the US and it is part of our task as their friends to help the Americans get used to it. That probably IS the best thing we can do for our long-run security: to stay close to the Americans and whisper in their ear that they can’t truly win against the Chinese and need to keep it cool. If it truly does come to a devastating nuclear war between the US and China, Australia indeed will be a target, but that’s a very remote possibility. Having over a million Chinese on our shores in that sense gives China a reason to go easy on us and try and win us over.

Shouldn’t we then at least invest in our capacity to think for ourselves? Yes, I do think Australia should invest in better education and international awareness for its own population, for all kinds of reasons, but our failure to do so is unrelated to the Americans. And we don’t want an Australian military that has smarter world-wise leaders. They would only make the Americans edgy about us.

Don’t I fear that a low-level US-China conflict, combined with growing inequality in Oz, will involve an internal dynamic where the rich plutocrats will fan resentment against the one million Chinese in Oz in order to keep the masses off their back? Yes, I fear that scenario, particularly if there is a major recession that brings the corruption of the elites to the attention of the population, at which point the plutocrats will need a scapegoat. Yet, that 1930s fascism scenario is essentially not dependent on the American alliance. If it happens, the reasons will be internal, with only the focus of the scapegoating influenced by the alliance.

In short, I do not really see any reason for Australia to become more independent in its military policy. We are aligned with the neighbourhood bully and follow where he goes. Like an Ostrich, we pretend not to see, so as to have the best of everything. That is the smart thing for the neighbourhood runt to do. We can always switch if a bigger bully emerges.

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21 Responses to Australia should remain in alliance with the bully

  1. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    They are a bully but they are a bully for our values ( most of the time) not other values as would be the case with say China

    • paul frijters says:

      What values would those be, I hear the skeptic say? But you quite right: as I said in the post, we really don’t want to know.

  2. Christoph Donges says:

    Australia can’t have sent “1,000 marines or so” as Australia has 0 marines.

  3. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    But, I hear you cry, what about the torture, the illegal killings, the bugging

    That’s not a problem for Australians whether they do it or their allies do it. It’s not clear that it’s a problem when their enemies do it, even to them (Balibo Five?).

    There’s also the Dismissal, where allegedly the US did help Australia decide that it would have a government the US approved of.

    New Zealand partly free rides, partly it’s just not in a position to have a “good sized army” let alone pretend to have an offensive air force or navy… their best best is to buy gear matching the useful parts of what Australia has and try to benefit from economies of scale/hand-me-downs. Australia is big enough and rich enough that it can afford to drop a few billion in the pot when Uncle Sam comes calling, and not care whether what that buys is useful or relevant.

    Australia is not, though, big enough to exert military force against any but the smallest, weakest nations without the US helping. And they’ve burned their ability to play nice, so diplomatic influence is basically “do what we want or the bully will get ya”.

  4. Kien Choong says:

    I am surprised to read an argument in support of bullying. I would distinguish between “self-interest” and “legitimacy”. Perhaps support for US bullying could be defended on self-interest (even so, I think this is wrong), but could support for US bullying be defended as legitimate? Do clarify!

    • paul frijters says:

      “support for US bullying could be defended on self-interest”

      indeed, that is the whole point of the post though I would not say ‘support for’ but rather ‘teeth gnashingly go along with’, at least in private. That is what the weak have to do if they want to survive.

      • Kien Choong says:

        How pragmatic. Reminds me about what Mahatir has been saying about China’s actions in the South China Sea.

        If our “self interest” goes beyond merely our own wellbeing, and includes (say) the freedoms and wellbeing of people in other countries, I would argue that it is in our own self-interest to encourage multilateral cooperation vs unilateral bullying. Perhaps there is something here that Australia could learn from Singapore.

        The premise that the US has the power to act unilaterally (i.e., be a bully) might be true today, but seems likely to be less true for future generations. We ought to look ahead and consider what kind of future world we should seek to strive for. I hope it would be a world in which everyone has equal opportunity to live lives and pursue goals that they each have reason to value, regardless of their nationality, gender, religion, sexual preference, but taking into account human variety (e.g., physical and mental disabilities).

        • paul frijters says:

          I see you profess the ideals of the enlightenment. As do I.

          Yet, I do wonder if the international relations we have seen the last 30 years are as good as it gets for humanity. It’s certainly the best we’ve ever had in recorded history. Yes, there’s a bully, but perhaps there is always a bully. Perhaps two or three bullies is better than one, but that’s not clear at all.

          • Kien Choong says:

            Ha ha, I like to think that I owe my ideals to the Hebrew prophets of old, who despite looking out into a world in which powerful nations bully weak nations, believed in a God who defends the orphans, the widows and the weak from the bullies of the world.

            I also think that the world has become progressively better since the days of the Hebrew prophets (but acknowledging that progress has not always been linear). The “bullies” today are nothing like the bullies of the past. I think we owe this, in part, to widespread literacy, better health, lower morbidity, international trade and greater freedoms to migrate and pursue economic opportunities.

            If there is “always a bully”, perhaps it is because bullies have been able to count on followers prepared to lend their support uncritically. Australia has good reason to seek a world in which all nations cooperate to address climate change, the refugee crisis and combat “secular stagnation”. But this requires critical reflection vs unreflective support for America.

            I think that many Americans (likely a plurality of Americans) are themselves opposed to bullying by their own country, and they would be disappointed to have “allies” that provide uncritical support for American bullying.

            So, do not be discouraged! We have good reason to join the Hebrew prophets of old and look for a world to come that is just and free of bullying.

            • paul frijters says:

              “a world in which everyone has equal opportunity to live lives and pursue goals that they each have reason to value, regardless of their nationality, gender, religion, sexual preference, but taking into account human variety (e.g., physical and mental disabilities).”

              I must have missed the Hebrew prophets who advocated such things. The ones I was taught about were not into such humanism and tolerance. Methinks you are much more a creature of today than of 2,500 years ago. Thank the Hebrew gods for that.

              • Kien Choong says:

                Hi, it’s certainly true that human societies have changed a lot since the days of the Hebrews. I think there is a kind of compounding effect going on; minute seeds sown over 2,000 years ago take a long time to bear fruit and flourish, and similarly I like to think that that each generation (including our own) can make investments that change the world for the better for future generations.

                One thing I admire about the Hebrew prophets was their willingness to speak up for the weak, and even the foreigner. That said, there is admittedly a lot of xenophobia in the Old Testament too. I think with patience, each generation can do a lot to make the world a better place.

                The key challenges for our generation seems to be to address climate change, end the refugee crisis, and ensure the world does not fall back into secular stagnation (that characterised much of human history).

                So, don’t give in to bullies, nor lend bullies our reluctant support. Instead, speak up for the weak! Hold on to the dream that one day, each of us will be equally free to live lives and pursue goals that we each have reason to value.

                • paul frijters says:

                  the grand arc of history is not that we resist bullies, but that the winning bullies gradually get coopted and transform. Nation states in particular are outgrowths of royal courts that essentially were the apparatus of brutal warlords. They let the population have a say because they needed the population in their competition with other brutal warlords.
                  Humans are not fluffy bunnies.

                  • Kien Choong says:

                    Hi, interesting perspective! I often feel that way about the evolution of governance institutions in China. I am hopeful that as China develops, its governance and institutions will also become more democratic over time.

                    As for the US, I like to think that the craziness in US politics is temporal and will one day fade away.

              • Kien Choong says:

                Hi, there seems to be a certain negativity about religions among those of us who are secular. It’s true that there is a lot of wrong in religion, and it’s likely that people’s loyalty to religion has often been manipulated for wrong ends.

                On the positive side, religion has also been a force to overcome narrowly based ethnic identities, and some of the religious traditions pioneered a form of social security which “governments” of the day did not provide.

                I understand from historians that early Christians were called “atheists” by the Romans! It strikes me that the spread of Christianity in the Roman world was a kind of “enlightenment”, and was likely seen as such even as late as the fifth century. Today we think that “enlightenment” happened only in the 18th century. I wonder (just speculating) whether this 18th century enlightenment will one day (say 1,000 years later) ossify into some kind of conservative tradition, just as the early Christianity has ossified into a conservative religious tradition. Already, secularism is starting to show a certain intolerance for non-secular traditions! But this is not to argue in favour of tolerating everything; there are some things (like bullying!) that we ought not tolerate!

                (Just speculating … do let me know if you have any thoughts!)

  5. Oliver says:

    That was one witty title, I think the “less powerful” country should at least find it’s bigger ally, or else they’ll be bullied too. the useless web

  6. KT2 says:

    paul frijters please enlighten us as to how will a bully protect us from;

    – runaway global warming,
    – independent robots,
    – Ebola + smallpox via crisper,
    – nanotech devices,
    – miniature nuclear bombs?

    And… were you a bully at school, a victim or both please?

    • paul frijters says:

      what a wonderful example of cognitive dissonance. Let me do likewise.
      You are so right. A bully will also not protect us from:

      – influenza
      – mothers in law
      – runny noses
      – wild kangaroos

      and, most important of all

      – angry commentators.

      although, to be fair, the bully might shoot some of those for us.

      The point of being in an alliance with a bully is not that he will protect you against every conceivable problem on the planet. The main point is that you are protected from him.

      • Kien Choong says:

        We ought to be careful that the world does not end up in rival alliances, and return us to a state similar to that prior to each of the world wars.

        “In the nightmare of the dark, all the dogs of Europe bark;
        And the living nations wait, each sequestered in its hate;
        Intellectual disgrace, stares from each human face;
        And the seas of pity lie, locked and frozen in each eye”
        (Auden’s memorial to Yeats)

        At the risk of being overly dramatic, the world today seems to be at a cross road; one path leads to global cooperation to fight climate change, the refugee crisis and secular stagnation. The other path leads to a world divided into rival alliances.

        May the choice we make be one that stands up to reasoned scrutiny.

  7. I guess you’re right. Australia should stick on the relationship they have with US. It’s a powerful country and you don’t want to be treated ‘as “somebody that they used to know.” If you want to be known and be powerful (of course for the benefit of all), you’ll do everything to keep them as allies.

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