Australia’s ‘Dangerous Allies’

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Australia’s ‘Dangerous Allies’

A new book by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser hopes to send Australia a wake-up call.

Australia’s ‘Dangerous Allies’
Credit: Malcolm Fraser via Wikimedia Commons

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, as we all know, shame on me. But what about the third time? That’s what Malcolm Fraser, who was Prime Minister of Australia from 1975-1983, is worried about, and he has written an impassioned and original book to make his case. Dangerous Allies (Melbourne University Press, 2014) is a trenchant critique of Australia’s strategic dependence on the United States and it deserves robust discussion within Australia.

Fraser shows that Australia has always been strategically dependent on other great powers. From their inception, the Australian colonies relied on Britain for defense, and Australia dutifully followed Britain’s directives all the way to Gallipoli. On December 21, 1941, however, Australia transferred its loyalty from Britain to the U.S., “free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship” as the prime minister put it at the time. Australia broke its historical reliance on Britain because the immediate strategic interests of the two nations had diverged. Britain’s priority during WWII was Germany, while Australia’s was Japan. Happily for Australia, Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the war and Australia transferred its dependence, an arrangement that has survived to this day.

The 1951 ANZUS Treaty formalized Australia’s reliance on the U.S. The agreement did not establish an Asian NATO in which an attack on one was an attack on all; indeed, the treaty does not require U.S. defense of Australia, only “consultation” in case of an attack. But, according to Fraser, this fact is easily elided in Australian public discourse. The consequences are pernicious: just as Australia’s blind faith in the U.K. before WWII left the country unprepared for war, today, dependence on the United States may make Australia more vulnerable. In effect, Fraser is admitting the charge long leveled by American military leaders at U.S. allies: they free ride, or “cheap ride” as MIT Professor Barry Posen calls it in his new book. Why would you invest in your own military when you can have someone else pay the bills and assume the risk? But maybe this isn’t such a good deal if the result is a false sense of security.

Fraser maintains that Australia had little choice but to rely on the United States during the years of the Cold War. Indeed, as Minister for the Army and for Defense during the Vietnam War, he was a key figure in Australia’s hardline defense establishment. Looking back on these years in a way intensely reminiscent of Robert McNamara’s memoirs, Fraser regrets believing the nostrums of the era. This was the first time Australia’s dependence on the United States cost the country dearly (521 lives) and Fraser sees it as a warning to Australia of “the repercussions of intertwining our foreign policy with that of a major power.”

After the end of the Cold War Australia had – for the first time in its history – the opportunity to pursue its own interests and to seek in Fraser’s words, “peace, cooperation, and trust” in its region. Instead it chose to accompany the U.S. into violent fiascos in the Middle East. America’s dearth of strategic competitors allowed exceptionalism to become the dominant driver of U.S. foreign policy, and Australia followed where the U.S. led. To this day Australians remain uncertain just what it was they were fighting for.

In Fraser’s view, the story will not end with fiascos in the Middle East. He is rather concerned with Australia being fooled a third time: pulled, as it were, into either a rivalry or an outright conflict between the U.S. and China. Fraser argues that the only strategy America’s leaders seem to understand is that of containment. He agrees with the Chinese that the “pivot” to Asia is about containing China, insisting that actions speak louder than words. Increased military deployments and beefed up regional alliances speak loudly – and of something other than benevolence.

Containing China, or doing something that looks like containing China, is likely to exacerbate regional tensions. And here’s the rub: if Japan or the Philippines pulls the U.S. into a conflict with China over some islet or atoll, Australia will follow by default. This is not just because of the nation’s tradition of dependence: it’s also because America’s Pine Gap intelligence facility, located in the center of Australia, is essential to U.S. signals intelligence (and drone strike coordination), and U.S. Marines are stationed in Darwin. The U.S., in other words, makes Australia a target of great importance (and likely a de facto belligerent).

Consequently, Australia’s relationship with the U.S. is paradoxical: it needs the U.S. for its defense, but it only needs defense because of the U.S. Indeed, Fraser finds arguments that Australia should seek to enforce (against China) “the core principles of a rule-based order” unconvincing. China, he contends, has just as much interest in the freedom of the seas as anyone else. Furthermore, the territorial disputes in the South and East China seas have so far been charged by nationalism and aversion to compromise by all sides. How could inserting itself in such disputes benefit Australia’s security? To the contrary, as the risks of a U.S.-China conflict increase, Fraser professes that free riding just isn’t worth it anymore. Instead, he wants Australia to “grow up” – to assert its independence for the first time in the history of the nation. Such an independent Australia would work as a neutral party to maintain peace and promote regional stability, choosing neither the U.S. nor China.

There are some problems with Dangerous Allies. The book is often redundant and sometimes appears simplistic and one-sided in its historical interpretations. Nonetheless, Fraser has done Australians a great service and it would be a shame if his arguments were unable to incite the sort of grand strategy debate Rand Paul has championed in the U.S.

Provoking a debate is a best-case scenario for Fraser, for it seems certain that strategic dependence will remain a cornerstone of Australian strategy for the near future. Indeed, on June 12 Tony Abbot and Barack Obama published a joint op-ed that declared, “Australia welcomes and fully supports the U.S. effort to rebalance its foreign relations with a greater focus on Asia and the Pacific.” Nonetheless, Dangerous Allies may plant a seed that – perhaps – will re-enter public discourse if Australia ever seems on the verge of being fooled a third time.

Jared McKinney is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He received his M.S. in Defense and Strategic Studies (with distinction) from Missouri State University (Fairfax, VA), where he was a Donald Rumsfeld Graduate Fellow.