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.