Defender, The National Journal of the Australian Defence Association, Autumn 2004

by Des Moore

Australia is fortunate in having attracted, and then attracted back, a man Teddy Roosevelt would never have accused, as he did a British Ambassador, of possessing an intelligence ‘of about eight guinea-pig power’.

In his recent and much-remarked six Boyer Lectures[i], Owen Harries[ii], the Welsh immigrant not long returned here from making his impress in America, has once again exhibited the penetrating thought, the engaging style, the apposite quotation gleaned from wide reading, which have long distinguished his writings - and at one time the speeches of highly placed others.

The Lectures are a grippingly bold, if highly contentious, wide-sweep tour d’horizon [italics] of contemporary international relations, treating by explanation and criticism such large themes as the place in world politics of culture, civilisation, and globalisation; the implications of promoting, or even imposing, liberal democracy globally; the self-conceived grand purpose of the USA in the world, whether it is achievable, and at what cost; the challenges the USA faces, both within and without, in pursuing its deeply instructed purpose in the world.

All those wide and fundamental issues, of great moment to Australia as to others, are covered in Harries’s first five lectures. Only in the sixth Lecture does he narrow his gaze to Australia.

That Lecture begins with an intriguing and novel identification of three contrasting Australian foreign policy traditions, personalised as the Menzies, Evatt, and Casey-Spender traditions; and goes on into an extended critique, ‘on realist grounds’, of the Howard government’s policy on the wars against terrorism and Iraq.

That policy Harries describes as ‘unhesitating, unqualified and...conspicuous support’ for the USA, justified by others on Menzian grounds of ‘protecting one’s own security and paying one’s insurance premium to a great and powerful friend’ and on the non-Menzian ground of shared values.

Harries, in disagreeing with the policy, criticises all those grounds. In doing so with redoubled scorn, he makes seven points. All are misplaced.

First, Harries unavailingly worries that our sending forces to Afghanistan and Iraq has increased, not decreased, the terrorist threat to Australia; and he draws a false distinction between our combating global terrorism and protecting Australia itself from terrorism.

False, because the proper distinction is between dealing with the terrorist threat in Australia - best dealt with by ASIO and police - and the threat to Australia - best dealt with, if by armed force, at its directing and operational seats however far from Australia. For distance these days is not an important factor in the size and nature of the terrorist threat; terrorism even from afar is changing our laws and how we behave in our everyday lives. Moreover, terrorism is directed at Australia and others for what we are, not what we do; so our retiring into a sort of Saddam-hole of inaction, as Harries favours, will not decrease the threat.

In thus failing to understand that distance does not matter, Harries falls for the thinking underlying the discredited concentric circles theory of defence, better termed the Tyranny of Proximity.

Second, that thinking leads him into drawing another false distinction, between what he calls alliance policy and regional policy. False, because ‘the region’, ‘our backyard’ as many even more misleadingly call it, is not an intimate inglenook but is enormous, covering one third of the Earth; and because even so it is not the only area important to Australia - weight, not assumed nearness, is what matters in international affairs and is what makes Asia, especially North East Asia, of moment not just to Australia but to every


We are part of the world, not an artificial ‘region’, and must meet threats where they arise, and as best suits us, whether inside or outside artificial map lines.

Third, Harries fashionably finds uncompelling the case for war against Iraq. That view conveniently forgets that every member of the `Security Council, and many others besides, had long decided that Saddam’s Iraq was a threat, that sanctions had not worked, that Saddam had not convincingly explained when, where and how he had rid himself, as required by the UN Security Council, of his WMD and that he would be visited with ‘serious consequences’ if he did not forthwith meet his responsibilities. Perhaps his arsenal was not as potent as we had justifiably feared; but it was Saddam’s obstructions and lies, not our political leaders’ deception, which led to our apparent overestimation.

True, making a nation out of an artificial state split by ethnicity, sectarianism, tribalism and clannishness, with the different elements all self-interestedly jockeying for political power and position in the new Iraq, is not proving easy. But that endeavour was not the reason for the war; rather an unavoidable consequence of it.

The war will prove to have been wrongly undertaken not if WMD cannot be turned up, though programs have, but only if the new Iraq, whatever its shape and its governance, determines on policies, internal and external, just as threatening to others, and despairing to its own people, as Saddam’s were.

Fourth and fifth, Harries unnecessarily warns against expecting America to be permanently grateful for our joining it in coalitions of the willing, and warns against expecting that shared values will overcome disparate interests. Underlying both warnings is the charge of US perfidy.

But in joining our efforts with America’s in Afghanistan and Iraq, we were not seeking gratitude or paying another instalment on our supposed insurance premium to American Mutual. What we were seeking was to advance and protect Australia’s interests; and the only way to do that, we not commanding sufficient to do the job by ourselves, was to join in the US effort.

Neither are we so naive as to suppose that shared values trump national interests. But Harries in making his point sidles into characterising America as an unreliable ally, giving Suez and Dutch New Guinea as examples of American failure to support its allies Britain, France, the Netherlands and Australia.

That criticism - based, be it noted, on examples outside the terms of the North Atlantic and ANZUS treaties - supposes that America must support any non-security treaty action taken by an ally, no matter what. But that would be to give each of its allies a blank cheque -which in the last 100 years has been given by a major power only once: by Germany to Austria-Hungary, with the disastrous Great War as the result.

Alliances are not, as some seem to think, examples of reciprocal altruism, where one ally does another a favour in the expectation of the favour’s being returned one day. Rather are they examples of naked self-interest, joined in defined circumstances to treaty obligations arising from others’ threats to the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of the Parties.

Thus Washington absolutely reasonably saw the Dutch New Guinea business as a colonialist hangover which was not in America’s interest to support. And France, which Harries says decided after Suez never again to depend on the USA, was being naive in the extreme to suppose that it could count on American support for an aggression (mis) conceived in secret and justified by lies.

Does that mean the USA, when its ANZUS obligations are not involved, won’t automatically support any and every Australian policy? Yes.

Does that make the USA an unreliable ally? No - any more than Australia is an unreliable ally for applying the test of national interest when considering support for American actions. Strange for some to think that it is quite all right, indeed necessary, for Australia to show that it has ‘an independent foreign policy’ by not supporting the USA on occasion, but not all right for America to do likewise.

Another Harries charge against the USA is that it gives less weight to the views of those (like Australia, is Harries’s unstated sub-charge) whose support can be taken for granted than those whose support it wishes to gain.

Evidence for - or against - that proposition is inherently unlikely to be found. But it founders in logic.

When faced with a particular security issue, Washington does not ask others what it should do but first arrives at its own preferred course of action. It then usually consults others. Some will offer support, some will suggest modifications, some will oppose. But in every case the weight accorded by Washington to the views expressed will be determined not by the expectedness, or unexpectedness, of the views but by their soundness and by the importance of the view-giver to the USA’s plans.

That importance, measured in military, political, and economic terms, will vary with circumstance. Tiny Qatar, for example, mattered far more to Washington in the run-up to the Iraq war than the views of, say, Pakistan, because the support of the one, but not the other, was crucial to US war plans. But in the run-up to the Afghanistan war, it was the other way round.

So whether another country’s views are ignored by the USA or embraced is not at all influenced by whether that other’s support - or refusal, for that matter - can be taken for granted.

Even so, as Australia has so often fought in coalition with America, does Washington now take Australian support for granted? Again, evidence either way is inherently hard to come by. But it is highly unlikely, for taking us for granted assumes that we will always support the USA because we will always judge that to be in our national interest. That, as the Americans surely recognise, is an assumption too far.

Indeed, even in Treaty-envisaged situations, where Washington would be justified in taking Australia’s support for granted, it is entirely up to Australia what and how much support to give. The ANZUS requirement is that Australia ‘act’ in treaty situations; but the content of our action is for us to decide, as the USA well appreciates.

Which explains why Rich Armitage, now US Deputy Secretary of State, far from taking Australia for granted, so famously felt it necessary to question some years ago what Australia would do if the USA and China were to come to blows in the Taiwan Straits (which are covered by ANZUS).

Some Australians, reckoning that any war there would be started by China, not America, are certain that Australia’s national interest would be to fight alongside the USA; for if China were to prevail, the whole of Asia would fall under China’s sway as America disappeared over the horizon. But plenty of other Australians have made plain that they would turn themselves inside out to find a way of ‘finessing’ Australia to the sidelines. Not much comfort there for those who think Australia can be taken for granted.

Sixth, says Harries, Australia by joining in military action not specifically authorised by the UN has foolishly weakened its position in the UN just at the time it is becoming more important as a means of restraining the USA. That criticism might hold water if Australia wanted to be a restrainer. But we have no reason to want that: America, despite Harries^(1)s forebodings, is not on a crusading rampage. Indeed, if anything we should be worried by

Washington’s restraining itself, notably by getting out of Iraq too soon, before Iraq is properly back on its political, economic and security feet.

Seventh, says Harries, Australia is acting dangerously and irresponsibly by fighting beyond ‘its region’ when our army is so small and when Australia is not ‘directly threatened’. But this is simply a re-run of the foolish concentric circles concept, which would have had us stay at home in 1914 and 1939, and which foolishly supposes that the only threat to be attended to is one of imminent invasion. Moreover, Harries' criticism ignores the responsible fact that our limited military contibution - involving not just the army, as he states, but all three Services - was well within our limited military and economic means. So we passed, not failed, his recommended Walter Lippmann test of relating commitments to resources. And we should be ready to do so again when our national interest calls.

Des Moore is Director of the Institute for Private Enterprise in Melbourne and is a member of the Council of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. In the last five of his 28 years in the Commonwealth Treasury he was a Deputy Secretary and in the early 1970s he spent a year at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. After resigning from Treasury in 1987, he joined the Melbourne-based think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, where he was responsible for establishing the Pacific Security Research Institute under the Presidency of Owen Harries. In the early 1990s he lectured at the Queenscliff Staff College and in 1996 provided advice to the Defence Efficiency Review.


[i] The annual Boyer Lectures on ABC Radio have been delivered by prominent Australians, selected by the ABC Board, for over 40 years. The ABC describes them as having "stimulated thought discussion and debate in Australia on a wide range of subjects. The lectures showcase great minds examining key issues and values". Recent previous lectures were delivered by Professor Geoffrey Blainey and The Hon Murray Gleeson, AC.

[ii] Owen Harries is a Senior Fellow at the Centre of Independent Studies, Sydney. He was, until July 2001, the founding Editor-in-Chief of the Washington DC based foreign policy journal, The National Interest. After holding academic positions at both the Universities of Sydney and New South Wales, he became Senior Adviser to Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock. He then successively became the head of policy planning in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister. During his time in government he chaired a committee that produced a report on Australia’s Relations with the Third World. In 1982 he was appointed Australian Ambassador to UNESCO and subsequently Visiting Fellow at the US think-tank, The Heritage Foundation, where he exerted a significant influence in the framing of US and British policy on UNESCO.