A relationship born of pragmatism and reasoned judgment

The Canberra Times, 22 October 2003

Those who charge Australia with blind devotion to US foreign policy objectives miss two vital points, argues Des Moore

The visit this week by US President Bush provides an opportunity to assess America’s role as a world power and Australia’s relationship with that country.

America, many Australians assert, is too independent, while Australia is too little independent - by which they mean that America does whatever it wants while Australia does only what America wants.

True, America’s predominant power and place in the world give it the means to choose ends unimaginable for Australia, and ensure that America cannot be made to do what it does not want to do.

But it cannot always - cannot usually - secure by itself what it does want, not even in those affairs requiring military might, of which America disposes of an unequalled abundance and unparalleled sophistication.

That is, far from being a unilateral power in a unipolar world, America usually needs others to act with it; and without their help, America’s felt needs will go unrequited.

One reason for that is America’s geography.

Separated by vast oceans from Eurasia, Africa, the countries of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and South America, America has no military footholds of its own except in North America, with toeholds in the North Pacific.

That entails two requirements if America is to work its will at distance. One is that America be the world’s predominant naval and naval air power, with assured strategic maritime mobility.

The second requirement is the permission and willing help of others, since America - even with that mobility and even with all its logistical supremacy - cannot deploy forces to distant battlefields and sustain them there without local bases, local HQs, and third country over-flight and maritime access rights.

Take Iraq. America valued, but could, if necessary, have done without British and Australian armed assistance in combat operations.

But those operations could not even have begun without the manifold forms of non-combat assistance provided by many other countries, mostly un-remarked, in Europe as well as the Middle East.

Take North Korea as another example.

America, despite its bluster, cannot forcibly effect regime change there because it would not be given the necessary assistance by either South Korea, because it would suffer hugely in the fighting, or by Japan, which would also suffer.

China too would be up in arms - perhaps literally.

So a unilateral America, a rampant America, imposing its wants by itself on whichever country arouses its ire, is an impossibility.

That means America is not, after all, altogether too independent.

Is Australia, by contrast, insufficiently so, because altogether too ready to fall in with America mindlessly. Indeed automatically?

Those who charge Australia with that failing all too often take just the fact of Australia^(1)s siding with America (or, in earlier years, with Britain) as conclusive proof of lack of independence.

That is absurd.

For what matters is the reason behind the fact.

Did we support Britain simply out of blind loyalty in the two world wars, or America likewise in Korea, Vietnam and the two Iraq wars? Or did we instead in each case make a reasoned judgment of where Australia^(1)s national interests lay? True, those interests can be expressed only in broad terms: safeguarding our territorial integrity, protecting our political independence, advancing our economic progress.

Judgment is required in applying those tests to particular circumstances, and judgments can differ. But in no case has our siding with Britain or America been unreasoned before the event or cause for regret after it.

The same cannot be said of the critics’ judgments.

One argument often used by critics is particularly wrongheaded and shameful — that Australia disposes of too little weight, and is too unhandy geographically, to make a difference; that America can do the job without our help, so just leave America to it; that as Australia’s national interests will be served even if we fail to participate, why incur costs in blood and money unnecessarily?

But even if Australia’s contribution, military and political, has never made all the difference, it has always made some difference; the camel’s back is broken both by the final straw and by all the straws that went before it.

Moreover, botting off others is hardly a mark of independence, or morality.

Neither from assumed duty nor blind habit does Australia support America. But when, as so often but not invariably, US and Australian national interests are served in a common cause, our duty - to ourselves, not to America - is to take action appropriate to the circumstances and our position, rejecting the wrong, unworthy, and ultimately self-defeating notion that one of our national interests is to be a free rider on America’s back.