Easy relations

 

John Howard and Alexander Downer do Australia no favours in suggesting that to place Australia’s interests ahead of those of the United States, is proof of anti-Americanism or unsound policy. They help the nation, even less when inviting interjections from an ever-obliging US Ambassador to Australia, or from the US State Department, when questions of the Australian-American alliance arise. This emphasises the crude politics with which Howard plays national security issues, and makes it harder to have a gentlemen’s agreement to disagree when our interests conflict. And disagreements happen, even under Liberal administrations.

The whole 53-year history of the ANZUS treaty, and the 61-year history of general alliance, is littered with such disagreements. Only three years after the Anzus Treaty was signed, Eisenhower made Menzies look foolish over Suez. Menzies, got no warning that the US was about to torpedo old European imperialistic pretensions. Six years later, Kennedy coldly abandoned Australia, the Netherlands and the people of Irian Jaya in the interests of appeasing President Sukarno of Indonesia. Australian troops were soon engaged against Indonesian soldiers in Borneo as an emboldened Sukarno tried to destabilise the new Malaysian federation.

Australia promoted American escalation in Vietnam, committing its own troops even as a dispirited and diplomatically isolated US was losing appetite for the conflict. This had little to do with the US line about fighting communism: it was about encouraging a continuing American military presence in Asia, because of Australian fears that China would fill any subsequent vacuum. President Nixon did not bother to tell Billy McMahon about his secret negotiations with China, nor of his plans for his Guam doctrine, through which the US largely abandoned its commitment to the region, claiming countries had to do more to help themselves.

Malcolm Fraser shared US panic about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but received little insight into American thinking. American attitudes to its relations with India, Pakistan and China bore little relation to our short or long-term interests. Bob Hawke, who under domestic pressure, refused to participate in US missile trials, seemed not to disturb the relationship. More recently, President Clinton had to be strongly cajoled by John Howard to support Australia over East Timor.

Indeed, it is unfair to think that the US assumes that we shall passively acquiesce with their plans, placing their interests first, uncritically supporting their diplomatic or military adventures. They assume that we can define and defend our own interests. The Administration appreciates our support, though this is invariably more important in diplomatic than military terms. Such support secures few rewards; certainly not in very tough, and essentially unproductive, negotiations over the ‘free’ trade agreement.

John Howard is stuck with his decision to join the coalition that invaded and occupied Iraq. While the decision had its advantages, the negatives are obvious. His decision was contrary to strong local opinion, even if it won him some credit for sticking to his guns, and even as an instinct to be supportive  saw active opposition subside. He factored vulnerability to attack for ‘me-tooism’ with the US, against his hope that Australia’s support of America’s position might win rewards in Washington.

He hedged his bets by limiting his commitment and by (alone among coalition members) having an exit strategy. He rebuffed British appeals for an Australian brigade among the occupying forces, and limited our post-war contribution to people who generally ought to have been well out of the line of fire. He


retained the right to take his troops home at any time.

Wittingly or otherwise, Mark Latham outflanked John Howard by promising to have the troops home by Christmas. Howard had to accuse him of making policy on the run; of wanting to cut and run, and inviting anger from the US for defecting while their role is under heavy fire. The counter argument is that Iraq has become a quagmire, the US has mismanaged its goals, and in the face of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan there is increasing hostility towards moderate Muslim opinion in the region.

Howard’s problem is that the argument in the US is moving against him. The Democrats are prepared to attack George W. Bush over his conduct of the war against terror, not to mention his unilateralism, pre-emption policies and capacity to alienate traditional friends and allies. Bush, moreover, is simply unable to deliver much to Howard while he is under re-election pressure.

Bush’s foreign policy, with or without the war on terror, is contrary to Australia’s own interests. It undermines an international rules-based system (which we need), dismantles international cooperation on environmental and social problems, and ignores the crises in our region. Moreover, our supine cheerleading reduces any power we might have to influence an active internal American debate about the best options. Had we been harder to woo, the US might have listened, so desperate were they for international support.

An Australian official tells of working on exchange in the US defence establishment, and of asking, once, what his colleagues thought of Australia. His colleague spoke of common language, interest, old common struggles—all puffery. Yes, but what do you really think? One of the Americans grinned, pretended to look about for witnesses, and said, ‘We think you’re an easy lay’. Perhaps not a joke for polite company, but, actually, not a joke at all. 
   
Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.

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