All the Way with Don­ald J

All the way with Don­ald J

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Com­ment by Don Wat­son

The ma­te­rial ben­e­fits of Aus­tralia’s al­liance with the United States are too many and too great to throw away – even on days when we can­not re­call what they are. It is the bedrock of our se­cu­rity. Let’s con­cede this much to the peo­ple who de­sign our for­eign pol­icy, and to the peo­ple gath­ered like woodlice in the think tanks, and the me­dia com­men­ta­tors who com­ment on their think­ing – the for­eign pol­icy elite. The US al­liance is the first premise, the one un­chang­ing thing, the fixed star. We know that the idea of an al­liance or any­thing of the kind re­main­ing “fixed” runs counter to the ex­am­ple of his­tory, where nothing ever has been. The same goes for what is called in high cir­cles the “cur­rent in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­ment”. The cur­rent in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­ment, much like all in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­ments pre­ced­ing this one, is de­cid­edly un­fixed – or “fluid”, as they call it. But deeper con­sid­er­a­tion, far from un­do­ing the logic of the al­liance, ac­tu­ally reaf­firms its use­ful­ness. For in a fluid en­vi­ron­ment it is to some­thing fixed, like a gatepost or a tele­phone pole, that sen­si­ble peo­ple cling even if the fluid rises and more promis­ing things float by. This de­sire to hang on, this con­di­tion of stuck­ness, is doubt­less one rea­son why the US al­liance re­mains al­most as much an ar­ti­cle of faith with the com­mon peo­ple as it does with the best and the bright­est. We are all heirs to the same pri­mor­dial in­stinct, whether we have con­nec­tions in Wash­ing­ton or not. So long as it is fixed we are fixed. See­ing our Amer­i­can cousins down here has al­ways heart­ened us: not just in the Cold War and the Pa­cific War but also way back in 1908, when at Al­fred Deakin’s in­vi­ta­tion the Great White Fleet of the US Navy ar­rived to pro­claim amid the lo­cal rap­ture that we were not the only white peo­ple in this part of the world. It turned out that Wash­ing­ton’s im­pe­rial in­ter­ests in the Pa­cific made a nice match with our anx­i­eties about it, a

bet­ter one in­deed than Bri­tain’s in­ter­ests did. The logic of the al­liance was ap­par­ent even then: the Yanks would have our back if ever White­hall gave up on us. It was a re­hearsal for 1942, the big jump imag­ined. The en­thu­si­as­tic wel­come, Deakin said, was in part due to Aus­tralians’ “blood af­fec­tion for the Amer­i­cans”, but in larger part to their “dis­trust of the yel­low races”. As there is with the na­tion it­self, there is a racist gene in the al­liance, specif­i­cally an anti-Asian one, but it’s so far back in our evo­lu­tion no one no­tices any­more – ex­cept pos­si­bly Asians. And should any Asian coun­try raise the mat­ter, our chaps can read­ily point to the poly­glot com­po­si­tion of our pop­u­la­tion and mi­grant flows to demon­strate that the xeno­pho­bia of Aus­tralia’s for­ma­tive first 70 or 80 years is well be­hind us. Not that any­one in Asia hob­nob­bing with our for­eign pol­icy elite would im­me­di­ately no­tice much change in the racial pro­file; or any­one who deals with our busi­ness lead­ers and de­fence chiefs; or any­one who watches the na­tional par­lia­ment. We might be “in” Asia, as Paul Keat­ing said a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago, but Asia is still not quite in us. The US is “in” us, and will re­main so “till the crack of doom”, as Robert Men­zies said, and didn’t leave a lot of room for any­one else. No mat­ter: as busi­ness is busi­ness, diplo­macy is diplo­macy. Smarts are smarts. We can bal­ance our in­ter­ests. There is no need to choose. Each re­la­tion­ship can be dealt with on its own terms. We can deal firmly and cre­atively with a tow­er­ing and per­va­sive Chi­nese pres­ence in the re­gion and yet main­tain the al­liance with our old friend and part­ner and cousin, buddy and mate, with whom we share so many val­ues. One bows be­fore this wis­dom in ad­vance. They’re not called elite for nothing. They know their stuff. Dare we sug­gest, how­ever, that the US al­liance looks more and more like their Pas­calian wa­ger: should it hap­pen one day that no rea­son­ing or ev­i­dence com­pels us to be­lieve in it, pru­dence dic­tates that we con­tinue to do so just in case. But since China is the coun­try of our fu­ture, it seems nei­ther par­tic­u­larly log­i­cal nor pru­dent to be al­ways drag­ging into the room this ev­i­dence of our in­ex­tin­guish­able and non-ne­go­tiable loy­alty to a ri­val coun­try, thus lend­ing to the Chi­nese re­la­tion­ship a per­ma­nent as­pect of am­biva­lence, a per­cep­ti­ble sig­nal that we are not quite who we say we are. Yet to be­lieve oth­er­wise re­quires us to think that we can treat one re­la­tion­ship as spe­cial and the other, of at least equal im­por­tance, as merely nec­es­sary; and that it mat­ters not to the nec­es­sary party if we present as a coun­try in full pos­ses­sion of its mind and ne­go­ti­at­ing its own in­ter­ests in good faith, or as some­one else’s deputy or lap­dog. Viewed from another an­gle, just now the al­liance has a lot in com­mon with that mo­ment in 1908 when an old em­pire with one set of in­ter­ests in the re­gion waxed fu­ri­ous that we should, if only mo­men­tar­ily, em­brace a likely new­comer with in­ter­ests bet­ter suited to our own. But that was a choice be­tween one pro­tec­tor and another, and even then it took us sev­eral decades (and a cou­ple of wars) to make the call. Could we now bear to tell the Amer­i­cans, in words akin to John Curtin’s, that “free of any pangs as to our tra­di­tional links” to Wash­ing­ton in fu­ture we would be look­ing to our­selves? Can we ever over­come our fear of aban­don­ment, the na­tional syn­drome ex­haus­tively sur­veyed from dif­fer­ent view­points by Allan Gyn­gell, David Walker and oth­ers, that pro­pels us into the arms of pow­er­ful friends? Maybe not. The fear is pri­mal, the in­fant’s fear: if we’re not over it by this stage, we might never be. Now the coun­try in whose em­brace we have for so long found com­fort is it­self – once more – in the grip of fear: “name­less, un­rea­son­ing, un­jus­ti­fied” fear, as FDR de­scribed it all those years ago. Be­ing the world’s sole su­per­power, the Amer­i­cans have no more pow­er­ful friend to fly to. They are gal­vanised in­stead by ex­cep­tion­al­ist fan­tasies, com­forted by re­gen­er­a­tive fron­tier myths of con­quest and re­venge. They hide their fear in an almighty mil­i­tary and se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus be­yond the reach of demo­cratic con­trol or over­sight. As the Bri­tish did in their full flush of em­pire, they wage nev­erend­ing war in dis­tant places far from pub­lic view. Land, sea and air, space and cy­berspace, only “full spec­trum dom­i­nance” – the whole dang uni­verse – will do. Don­ald Trump is the present spokesman for this de­range­ment, the fear’s in­stru­ment and its pre­pos­ter­ous em­bod­i­ment. Trump is a racist, an ig­no­ra­mus, a huck­ster and a creep. The hu­man face of our US ally is con­temp­tu­ous of hu­man rights, the free press and any demo­cratic norm or diplo­matic pro­to­col that doesn’t suit him, or which he thinks can be trashed to his po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage. In ad­di­tion to the trade war he re­cently started, the US un­der Trump’s “Amer­ica First” ban­ner has handed China un­dreamed of high ground and mo­men­tous strate­gic gifts by re­treat­ing from its role as Asia’s se­cu­rity provider. The Trans Pa­cific Part­ner­ship on which Aus­tralian gov­ern­ments set so much store, Trump knocked on the head. He flirts with au­thor­i­tar­ian thugs while at­tack­ing, mock­ing and un­der­min­ing demo­cratic al­lies and in­sti­tu­tions of the so-called rules-based in­ter­na­tional or­der. He has de­mol­ished truth, or what was left of it. He may even be Vladimir Putin’s stooge. Not ev­ery­thing about him, or even most of what he’s done, de­mands an ally’s re­proach. He has not bombed Hanoi, which brought Gough Whit­lam out against Nixon, or in­vaded Iraq, which got Mark Latham mak­ing rude noises. But he has done enough, surely, to make the si­lence from Can­berra some­thing to won­der at. Some of the com­men­ta­tors are show­ing signs of startle­ment, and tell us Trump is caus­ing alarm, but the prime min­is­ter and his col­leagues are mute. Per­haps we can put it down to sage diplo­macy, to the diplo­mats’ tra­di­tional in­sis­tence that th­ese things are best done be­hind the scenes, or to a more so­phis­ti­cated idea of loy­alty than the rest of us main­tain. Even al­low­ing a role for half-hon­ourable mo­tives or sen­si­ble prag­ma­tism – or a wish to avoid com­par­isons with Mark Latham – we’re en­ti­tled to ask if the re­fusal of the gov­ern­ment and the Op­po­si­tion to ex­press any kind of dis­quiet on the na­tion’s be­half is best ex­plained by the al­liance: not in a lit­eral sense, but a psy­cho­log­i­cal one.

The terms of the al­liance did not oblige us to join the Amer­i­cans in Iraq, but long be­fore that calami­tous ad­ven­ture it had mor­phed into a “whither thou goest …” sense of obli­ga­tion and brotherly co-depen­dence. Fra­ter­nal duty, it seems, meant more than any ra­tio­nal as­sess­ment of US mo­tives, some of which were pe­cu­liar to the toxic ca­bal sur­round­ing Ge­orge W. Bush and had nothing to do with Aus­tralia’s in­ter­ests. The same sen­ti­ment made it much less likely that John Howard or those around him would see through the folly or, if they did, call it for what it was. Now, hav­ing been told all our lives that the US is the guar­an­tor of se­cu­rity in our re­gion, and of free trade, or­der and lib­eral democ­racy ev­ery­where, and hav­ing come to mainly be­lieve it, we see daily un­mis­tak­able signs that Trump is pulling it all apart. And such good al­lies are we – such mates – we dare not speak. Mate­ship can do that. It can stunt your growth and nar­row your aware­ness of pos­si­bil­ity. It can make you a bit stupid; es­pe­cially if you’re the weaker one, it can make you a bit poodly, in­clined to si­lence even when your mate turns out to be a psy­chopath. Mates can de­stroy us. The al­liance mu­tated. It has be­come a sort of opi­ate. Feed­ing on anx­i­ety, prej­u­dice and ap­a­thy, among other hu­man frail­ties, it lives more op­u­lently in our brains than it ever did on pa­per. It has taken pos­ses­sion of us when it’s self-pos­ses­sion that we need.

“Trump Baby”, Lon­don, 2018. © Tolga Ak­men / AFP / Getty Im­ages

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