According to the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, “the policies that have recently prevailed in Washington seem to all outsiders so mad that it is difficult to understand what is really intended”.
Not so, at least in Australia.
Governments in continental Europe led by Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac may be examining the consequences of the Iraq war for future trans-Atlantic ties. German and French philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida might be calling for a counterweight to US strategic preponderance. However, no such debate or reflection on the war has erupted in this country. Why not?
One explanation is that according to ideological vigilantes on the political right, it is not possible to criticise the policies of the Bush Administration without being “anti-American.” For commissars who make no distinction between the American state and American society – an old Stalinist convention – it isn’t possible to love Americans and despise the foreign policy that is enacted in their names. This is a replay of the racist slur that one could not criticise Jakarta’s behaviour in East Timor without being “anti-Indonesian”.
However, there is another more compelling reason why US foreign policy has not evoked the same concerns in Australia that are being expressed elsewhere in the West. The current state of the relationship between Canberra and Washington has produced a very different intellectual and policy climate to the one which prevails in much of Europe.
For dependent allies of the United States such as Australia, a misguided belief that “everything has changed” after 9/11 has led to a steady departure from strategic self-reliance, diplomatic independence and regional engagement. Instead, the closest possible partnership with Washington has been sought by Canberra in the belief that only trans-Pacific ties can provide a modicum of security in volatile and uncertain times. Prime Minister Howard argued that Australia’s participation in the war against Iraq was, in part, out of a duty to our alliance partner.
Little thought appears to have been given to the consequences of such an approach. And yet the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) fiasco is an early demonstration of the dangers of an increasingly vicarious foreign policy. Australian diplomacy is now firmly tied to a stridently unilateralist US Administration which, despite multilateral pretences, does not believe in an alliance system that involves genuine consultation.
Current Australian attitudes towards the United Nations, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, strategic pre-emption and even France, to take only five recent examples, are indistinguishable from their American source. It may be good for alliance solidarity, but there are a number of dangers in this approach for Australia.
The first is Australia’s moral complicity in actions it can do little to influence, but for which there are significant consequences. The ethical value of Australia’s behaviour in Afghanistan and Iraq will be measured by the anticipated and predictable consequences of our actions. This extends well beyond the removal of two repressive and unpopular regimes, to include protecting individuals from avoidable harm and the welfare of people we have deprived of government, law and order, as well as basic services such as public health. Seemingly ambivalent about our role as an occupying power in Iraq, Australia has not fully discharged either its moral or legal responsibilities for nation re-building.
A second risk is guilt by association. As Australia’s foreign policy becomes indistinguishable from America’s, we should expect Washington’s enemies, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, to see matters in a similar light. But is it in our national interest to hitch our wagon so closely to the US if it means getting caught up in Washington’s blowback?
It is still unclear whether Australians were specifically targeted in Bali, whether they were mistaken for Americans or victims of a generic anti-Western attack. Policy convergence will ensure that in the future such distinctions will become superfluous. A more independent stance may not buy us immunity from anti-Western terrorist assaults, but we don’t need to consciously increase our vulnerability either.
A third problem arising from such a pro-US position is that we will be taken for granted in Washington. Countries which regularly express their fidelity to the United States lose leverage because concurrence can be assumed. Allies which play a little harder to get often win significant concessions, as Pakistan and a number of Central Asian states did after September 11. Canada, Turkey and Japan have remained close allies with the US even though they refused to join the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.
Despite Canberra’s assiduous support for Washington over the last two years, the US will not deviate from pursuing its national interests just to reward a junior partner. Even in the current amicable climate there won’t be a free trade agreement between the two countries which requires US farmers to compete on a level playing field with their Australian counterparts.
Australia is earning a reputation as Washington’s stalking horse, even in countries such as Iran where it is far from clear that our interests and Washington’s coincide. It’s not only trade policies which diverge. Australia’s more sensible approach to the North Korea problem is having little if any effect on Pentagon planners. Elsewhere in North Asia Canberra never wants to be forced to choose sides in a dispute between the US and China over Taiwan. But can it avoid the issue?
Do we actually share America’s values, as Prime Minister Howard claims in his explanation of why Australia is targeted by Islamic militants? We are certainly the only ally in East Asia which publicly identifies culturally with the US. However, it is not clear that Australians would generally embrace the neo-conservatism and Christian fundamentalism which permeates the Bush Administration – even if John Howard, Peter Costello and Michael Jeffery do.
Nor are expressions of cultural affinity especially helpful to a policy of regional engagement. Australia’s intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq put us at odds with our closest neighbours in South East Asia (Indonesia and Malaysia) just as it did during the Gulf War in 1991, reinforcing a belief that we default strategically to the US in times of global crises. These days, regional engagement looks skin deep. We habitually notify the region of decisions we have taken after they have been cleared with Washington. We don’t consult them beforehand.
Has Australia’s closer relationship with the US since 2001 actually enhanced our security? At a time when the US itself has never been more militarily powerful, it has never felt less secure. This paradox brings little comfort to Australia.
Recent legislative responses to alleged terrorist threats which peel away long-established legal protections and civil liberties, do not suggest Australians are seeing the benefits of Washington’s security umbrella. Public opinion, particularly after the Bali attack in October 2002, seems divided on the virtues of the US alliance and periodically concerned by Washington’s aggressive behaviour. There are fears that the invasion of Iraq will encourage other ‘rogues’ such as Iran and North Korea to acquire or develop the only military technology likely to deter a US strike – nuclear weapons. Encouraging the proliferation of WMD is hardly in Australia’s interests.
President Clinton’s tardy response to the East Timor crisis in 1999 tapped into subliminal doubts within the Australian psyche that, despite regular down payments on insurance premiums since the 1950s, the US may be reluctant to pay out when we ultimately make a claim under ANZUS.
Washington disregarded institutions of global order and world common good such as the United Nations and international law, once they failed to legitimate an attack on Iraq. This is a regrettable but available option for states which can use their raw military power to achieve foreign policy objectives. Why not-so-powerful states such as Australia, which are disproportionately more dependent on the stabilising features of international society, should emulate such behaviour is not obvious. Small and medium powers have a greater interest in the protections afforded by national sovereignty and international law.
Whether Mr Downer is following the neo-conservative agenda in Washington with his emphasis on “outcomes” rather than “process” and his rejection of a “blind faith in principles of non-intervention, sovereignty and multilateralism,” remains to be seen. The ends rarely justify the means. It is to be hoped, therefore, that he hasn’t sacrificed strategic perceptions for ideological solidarity. The temptations of unipolarity are not for us.
“Sovereignty in our view is not absolute,” claims the foreign minister. “Acting for the benefit of humanity is more important,” unless the country in question is Indonesia and the humans are Acehnese or Papuans. Then there is no reluctance to “hide behind” a sovereignty which is absolutely more important.
Finally, an over-reliance on the personal chemistry between leaders can be intoxicating but is almost always a short-term benefit. As the Keating-Suharto friendship showed, jointly crafted institutional structures have greater longevity than transient political leaders. If President Bush loses in 2004 or Prime Minister Howard retires from political life some time soon, the current level of goodwill between the political elites of both countries may suddenly pass and relationships will need to be made anew.
Scott Burchill is a lecturer in international relations at Deakin University in Victoria