The material benefits of Australia’s alliance with the United States are too many and too great to throw away – even on days when we cannot recall what they are. It is the bedrock of our security. Let’s concede this much to the people who design our foreign policy, and to the people gathered like woodlice in the think tanks, and the media commentators who comment on their thinking – the foreign policy elite. The US alliance is the first premise, the one unchanging thing, the fixed star.
We know that the idea of an alliance or anything of the kind remaining “fixed” runs counter to the example of history, where nothing ever has been. The same goes for what is called in high circles the “current international environment”. The current international environment, much like all international environments preceding this one, is decidedly unfixed – or “fluid”, as they call it. But deeper consideration, far from undoing the logic of the alliance, actually reaffirms its usefulness. For in a fluid environment it is to something fixed, like a gatepost or a telephone pole, that sensible people cling even if the fluid rises and more promising things float by.
This desire to hang on, this condition of stuckness, is doubtless one reason why the US alliance remains almost as much an article of faith with the common people as it does with the best and the brightest. We are all heirs to the same primordial instinct, whether we have connections in Washington or not. So long as it is fixed we are fixed.
Seeing our American cousins down here has always heartened us: not just in the Cold War and the Pacific War but also way back in 1908, when at Alfred Deakin’s invitation the Great White Fleet of the US Navy arrived to proclaim amid the local rapture that we were not the only white people in this part of the world. It turned out that Washington’s imperial interests in the Pacific made a nice match with our anxieties about it, a better one indeed than Britain’s interests did. The logic of the alliance was apparent even then: the Yanks would have our back if ever Whitehall gave up on us. It was a rehearsal for 1942, the big jump imagined. The enthusiastic welcome, Deakin said, was in part due to Australians’ “blood affection for the Americans”, but in larger part to their “distrust of the yellow races”.
As there is with the nation itself, there is a racist gene in the alliance, specifically an anti-Asian one, but it’s so far back in our evolution no one notices anymore – except possibly Asians. And should any Asian country raise the matter, our chaps can readily point to the polyglot composition of our population and migrant flows to demonstrate that the xenophobia of Australia’s formative first 70 or 80 years is well behind us.
Not that anyone in Asia hobnobbing with our foreign policy elite would immediately notice much change in the racial profile; or anyone who deals with our business leaders and defence chiefs; or anyone who watches the national parliament. We might be “in” Asia, as Paul Keating said a quarter of a century ago, but Asia is still not quite in us. The US is “in” us, and will remain so “till the crack of doom”, as Robert Menzies said, and didn’t leave a lot of room for anyone else. No matter: as business is business, diplomacy is diplomacy. Smarts are smarts. We can balance our interests. There is no need to choose. Each relationship can be dealt with on its own terms. We can deal firmly and creatively with a towering and pervasive Chinese presence in the region and yet maintain the alliance with our old friend and partner and cousin, buddy and mate, with whom we share so many values.
One bows before this wisdom in advance. They’re not called elite for nothing. They know their stuff. Dare we suggest, however, that the US alliance looks more and more like their Pascalian wager: should it happen one day that no reasoning or evidence compels us to believe in it, prudence dictates that we continue to do so just in case. But since China is the country of our future, it seems neither particularly logical nor prudent to be always dragging into the room this evidence of our inextinguishable and non-negotiable loyalty to a rival country, thus lending to the Chinese relationship a permanent aspect of ambivalence, a perceptible signal that we are not quite who we say we are. Yet to believe otherwise requires us to think that we can treat one relationship as special and the other, of at least equal importance, as merely necessary; and that it matters not to the necessary party if we present as a country in full possession of its mind and negotiating its own interests in good faith, or as someone else’s deputy or lapdog.
Viewed from another angle, just now the alliance has a lot in common with that moment in 1908 when an old empire with one set of interests in the region waxed furious that we should, if only momentarily, embrace a likely newcomer with interests better suited to our own. But that was a choice between one protector and another, and even then it took us several decades (and a couple of wars) to make the call. Could we now bear to tell the Americans, in words akin to John Curtin’s, that “free of any pangs as to our traditional links” to Washington in future we would be looking to ourselves?
Can we ever overcome our fear of abandonment, the national syndrome exhaustively surveyed from different viewpoints by Allan Gyngell, David Walker and others, that propels us into the arms of powerful friends? Maybe not. The fear is primal, the infant’s fear: if we’re not over it by this stage, we might never be.
Now the country in whose embrace we have for so long found comfort is itself – once more – in the grip of fear: “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified” fear, as FDR described it all those years ago. Being the world’s sole superpower, the Americans have no more powerful friend to fly to. They are galvanised instead by exceptionalist fantasies, comforted by regenerative frontier myths of conquest and revenge. They hide their fear in an almighty military and security apparatus beyond the reach of democratic control or oversight. As the British did in their full flush of empire, they wage never-ending war in distant places far from public view. Land, sea and air, space and cyberspace, only “full spectrum dominance” – the whole dang universe – will do.
Donald Trump is the present spokesman for this derangement, the fear’s instrument and its preposterous embodiment. Trump is a racist, an ignoramus, a huckster and a creep. The human face of our US ally is contemptuous of human rights, the free press and any democratic norm or diplomatic protocol that doesn’t suit him, or which he thinks can be trashed to his political advantage. In addition to the trade war he recently started, the US under Trump’s “America First” banner has handed China undreamed of high ground and momentous strategic gifts by retreating from its role as Asia’s security provider. The Trans Pacific Partnership on which Australian governments set so much store, Trump knocked on the head. He flirts with authoritarian thugs while attacking, mocking and undermining democratic allies and institutions of the so-called rules-based international order. He has demolished truth, or what was left of it. He may even be Vladimir Putin’s stooge.
Not everything about him, or even most of what he’s done, demands an ally’s reproach. He has not bombed Hanoi, which brought Gough Whitlam out against Nixon, or invaded Iraq, which got Mark Latham making rude noises. But he has done enough, surely, to make the silence from Canberra something to wonder at. Some of the commentators are showing signs of startlement, and tell us Trump is causing alarm, but the prime minister and his colleagues are mute. Perhaps we can put it down to sage diplomacy, to the diplomats’ traditional insistence that these things are best done behind the scenes, or to a more sophisticated idea of loyalty than the rest of us maintain. Even allowing a role for half-honourable motives or sensible pragmatism – or a wish to avoid comparisons with Mark Latham – we’re entitled to ask if the refusal of the government and the Opposition to express any kind of disquiet on the nation’s behalf is best explained by the alliance: not in a literal sense, but a psychological one.
The terms of the alliance did not oblige us to join the Americans in Iraq, but long before that calamitous adventure it had morphed into a “whither thou goest …” sense of obligation and brotherly co-dependence. Fraternal duty, it seems, meant more than any rational assessment of US motives, some of which were peculiar to the toxic cabal surrounding George W. Bush and had nothing to do with Australia’s interests. The same sentiment made it much less likely that John Howard or those around him would see through the folly or, if they did, call it for what it was.
Now, having been told all our lives that the US is the guarantor of security in our region, and of free trade, order and liberal democracy everywhere, and having come to mainly believe it, we see daily unmistakable signs that Trump is pulling it all apart. And such good allies are we – such mates – we dare not speak.
Mateship can do that. It can stunt your growth and narrow your awareness of possibility. It can make you a bit stupid; especially if you’re the weaker one, it can make you a bit poodly, inclined to silence even when your mate turns out to be a psychopath. Mates can destroy us. The alliance mutated. It has become a sort of opiate. Feeding on anxiety, prejudice and apathy, among other human frailties, it lives more opulently in our brains than it ever did on paper. It has taken possession of us when it’s self-possession that we need.
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