Malcolm Fraser is not an author one would, at first sight, expect to find reviewed in a Quaker publication.
Fraser will be remembered as Minister for the Army under Harold Holt in 1966, when he oversaw conscription for the Vietnam War. His human rights advocacy has grown in recent years, however, and I believe that this book contains points of interest for anyone interested in Australia’s relations with the rest of the world.
Fraser’s argument is that Australia ever since Federation has depended on powerful friends for defence, and hence has never been able to develop an independent foreign policy. As a result it has fought in other nations’ wars, often with disastrous results.
From Federation Australia depended on the power of the British Empire. The British government took little notice of the views of the former colonies, and the dependence cost hundreds of thousands of Australian lives in the Boer War, the First World War and the Mediterranean theatres of the Second World War. Then, when Australia was threatened with Japanese invasion, Britain was unable to help, leading to Prime Minister Curtin’s call for assistance from the United States.
Fraser concedes that the alliance with America was vital during the Second World War, and was logical during the succeeding Cold War, when there were two superpowers, and communism was seen as an aggressive monolithic threat. This view of communism led America into the Viet Nam war, ignoring wiser advice that the driving force of the Viet Minh was nationalism rather than international communism. And of course, the alliance meant that Australia was drawn in too.
Since the break up of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Fraser argues, the American alliance has become both unnecessary and dangerous. America, under the influence of “American exceptionalism” – the belief that the United States is not only the world’s most powerful nation, but also a uniquely virtuous country – has invaded several countries, and Australia has followed meekly behind even though the disastrous invasion of Iraq was based on a failure of intelligence (in both senses of the word) coupled with outright duplicity. Similarly, it is difficult to see any direct benefit to Australia flowing from the Afghanistan war.
A perhaps even more dangerous outcome of American exceptionalism is the belief that it is ethical to use drones to extrajudicially murder anyone in any country who may at any time in the future pose a threat to the United States. This is of more than academic interest to Australia – one of the major bases controlling these drone strikes is Pine Creek near Alice Springs. Pine Creek was originally set up in the Cold War period to gather information on missile launches over large areas of the Earth. Fraser says:
I have no concern with such operations continuing as they were originally intended, but as Pine Gap’s facilities have been greatly expanded from the original surveillance operation at its inception, and it now not only gathers intelligence but also is integral to the conduct of modern warfare, I have grave concerns over its continued operation. It can now be used to target drone killings, whether to take out a single person or to destroy some other target. It could be used to provide information essential in the launching of a missile attack . . . Such purposes would make it a prime target if there were ever a significant war involving the United States and China.
He points out another risk for Australians working at Pine Gap. The actions of American employees are “legitimised” by vague piece of legislation entitled “Authorisation for use of United States Armed Forces”, which virtually says that the armed forces can do anything the President wants. Australians at Pine Gap are not covered by this law, or by any Australian law, and as Australia is a signatory to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the killings of civilians may make Australian staff liable for prosecution under the ICC.
And what does Australia get from the United States in return? Proponents of the alliance point to the ANZUS treaty, but all the United States is bound to do under ANZUS, if Australia is threatened, is to consult. Consultation may not be rapid, and would predictably lead to the United States acting in its own interests.
And why do we need the United States in our part of the world? The Americans argue that they are providing stability in the region, but Fraser points out that the South-East Asian nations have managed that pretty well on their own. Through ASEAN and similar forums they have solved the territorial conflicts that have arisen through diplomacy rather than war. And inviting China to join their negotiations may be a much more effective path to peace than an American fleet. In fact an increased American presence in the region may do more harm than good.
But what about the threat of an expansionist China? Fraser points out that since the end of the Korean war, China’s only invasions of foreign territory have been into Tibet (and that depends on your view of “foreign”) and perhaps some border regions of India. Compare that with United States activity.
The ending of dependence on the United States will, however, come at a cost. Fraser admits it will lead to an increase in Australian defence spending. That will doubtless be unpalatable to Quakers. Perhaps, though, in this far from perfect world, we should ask whether it is better to spend more on a defence force that will be Australia’s to control, or to retain the current level of our defence and have it largely controlled by a belligerent foreign nation.
On the other hand, New Zealand ended its involvement in ANZUS in 1984 when it declared itself nuclear-free and prevented nuclear armed or powered ships entering its ports. Fraser says: “Although I might have regretted New Zealand’s position at the time, it was in fact far-sighted and correct.” New Zealand has not substantially increased its defence spending, and the sky has not fallen. During the first George W. Bush presidential term, Colin Powell visited New Zealand and stated “New Zealand is not an ally of the United States, but is a very good friend.” During the second GWB presidential term, Condoleezza Rice visited New Zealand and confirmed “New Zealand is not an ally of the United States, but is a very, very good friend.”
There may well be advantages in being a “very, very good friend” rather than an ally.
David Swain, New South Wales Regional Meeting.
Dangerous Allies by Malcolm Fraser, published by Melbourne University Press, 2014.