National identity

Expressions of dissatisfaction with American culture are not rare or new. Yet, since World War II, Australia has been one of the great consumers of American culture, and, through strategic alliances such as the ANZUS pact, one of the great followers of American foreign policy.

Owen Harries’ Benign or Imperial tackles the issue of Australian national identity through an examination of the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower, and Australia’s relationship with it. The text itself is a transcript of the 2003 Boyer Lectures. Harries brings to the debate a formidable pedigree, including stints as director of policy planning in the Department of Foreign Affairs, senior adviser to Prime Minister Fraser, and Australia’s ambassador to UNESCO, as well as numerous publications on the issues of foreign policy and international affairs.

Harries’ analysis essentially operates on the macro level: namely the international relations of the United States and Australia. Though Harries questions the importance of the ‘soft power’ of cultural imperialism, his analysis contributes to the question of Australian national identity by examining Australia’s relationship with its main point of identification and differentiation: the United States. Harries provides an interesting and enlightening historical context, arguing that we are at a unique juncture in world history, in which the US has became the first ever ‘global hegemon’. In Harries view, this is a position that the US attained by default, with the rapid collapse of the USSR leaving it in a position of unprecedented global power. Harries claims that the sheer speed of events meant that the usual historical process of determined opposition did not take place. Nor was the US itself ready, and despite strong economic growth and continued expansion of its military, it failed to capitalise on, or indeed recognise, its new position.

Harries argues that the US did not define or enact a clear vision, and that it wasn’t until September 11 2001 that the US gained a ‘clear purpose, (or) central organising principle’, namely, the ‘war on terrorism’. Forced to act in the interests of national defence, the Bush Presidency initially focused on the protection of the nation and the destruction of terrorist organisations. However, this initial response quickly morphed into something far more expansive. A year after the attacks, ‘The National Security Strategy of the United States of America’ was published, which Harries claims is ‘the most important statement about American foreign policy since the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine in 1947’. In it, the Bush Presidency expressed a determination to use its hegemonic power to reorder relations among states to ensure world peace, and to reorder the internal conditions of countries along the lines of free market liberal democracy.

Towards this end, the strategy expresses a commitment to use the US military pre-emptively and, if necessary, unilaterally. Harries argues that such use of liberal democracy is a precarious business, which is seldom successful and often produces unintended consequences. Here, Harries’ analysis takes on a certain urgency, as the success of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq becomes not just crucial for the future of Iraq, but for the future of America’s newly stated ambitions. If Iraq is seen to be a test case for the strategy, then failure would mean not simply the collapse of liberal democracy in Iraq, but the collapse of US foreign policy as it currently stands. Already, the parallels with Vietnam are striking.

In this context, the Howard government’s policy of ‘unhesitating, unqualified and conspicuous support for the United States in its wars against terrorism and against Iraq’ would seem to be a huge risk, in terms of both foreign relations and electoral success. The government’s support of US foreign policy is not a new phenomenon in Australian history. However, the potential results of a failure in Iraq may leave Australia isolated at a time when the country is attempting to expand its international role and export markets. Harries asserts that the overriding responsibilities of the Australian government are to this country, and that in following the US lead, it is leaving itself open to a cultural, economic, and perhaps even a terrorist backlash.

Harries’ lectures provide a clear and powerful overview of the rise of the US to the position of global hegemon, with its attendant ramifications for Australian foreign policy. His analysis of the National Security Strategy is essential reading in light of current world events. However, underlying the text is the question of just what it means to be Australian, a tension that often expresses itself in a forthright protestation against American imperialism in all its forms. At present, Australian foreign policy is closely identified with that of the US, but it is difficult to see how Australia could enact such a policy without reference to the global hegemon, even if it were a complete repudiation.  

Benign or Imperial? Reflections on American Hegemony, The Boyer Lectures 2003, Owen Harries.
ABC Books, 2004. isbn 0 733 31349 3, rrp $22.95

Ralph Carolan recently completed a Bachelor of Arts at Melbourne University, with honours in English Literature.



submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up