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The perils of a US alliance blind to our position in the eyes of the world

By Scott Burchill - posted Friday, 4 July 2003

According to the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, "the policies that have recently prevailed in Washington seem to all outsiders so mad that it is difficult to understand what is really intended".

Not so, at least in Australia.

Governments in continental Europe led by Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac may be examining the consequences of the Iraq war for future trans-Atlantic ties. German and French philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida might be calling for a counterweight to US strategic preponderance. However, nosuch debate or reflection on the war has erupted in this country. Why not?


One explanation is that according to ideological vigilantes on the political right, it is not possible to criticise the policies of the Bush Administration without being "anti-American." For commissars who make no distinction between the American state and American society - an old Stalinist convention - it isn't possible to love Americans and despise the foreign policy that is enacted in their names. This is a replay of the racist slur that one could not criticise Jakarta's behaviour in East Timor without being "anti-Indonesian".

However, there is another more compelling reason why US foreign policy has not evoked the same concerns in Australia that are being expressed elsewhere in the West. The current state of the relationship between Canberra and Washington has produced a very different intellectual and policy climate to the one which prevails in much of Europe.

For dependent allies of the United States such as Australia, a misguided belief that "everything has changed" after 9/11 has led to a steady departure from strategic self-reliance, diplomatic independence and regional engagement. Instead, the closest possible partnership with Washington has been sought by Canberra in the belief that only trans-Pacific ties can provide a modicum of security in volatile and uncertain times. Prime Minister Howard argued that Australia's participation in the war against Iraq was, in part, out of a duty to our alliance partner.

Little thought appears to have been given to the consequences of such an approach. And yet the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) fiasco is an early demonstration of the dangers of an increasingly vicarious foreign policy. Australian diplomacy is now firmly tied to a stridently unilateralist US Administration which, despite multilateral pretences, does not believe in an alliance system that involves genuine consultation.

Current Australian attitudes towards the United Nations, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, strategic pre-emption and even France, to take only five recent examples, are indistinguishable from their American source. It may be good for alliance solidarity, but there are a number of dangers in this approach for Australia.

The first is Australia's moral complicity in actions it can do little to influence, but for which there are significant consequences. The ethical value of Australia's behaviour in Afghanistan and Iraq will be measured by the anticipated and predictable consequences of our actions. This extends well beyond the removal of two repressive and unpopular regimes, to include protecting individuals from avoidable harm and the welfare of people we have deprived of government, law and order, as well as basic services such as public health. Seemingly ambivalent about our role as an occupying power in Iraq, Australia has not fully discharged either its moral or legal responsibilities for nation re-building.


A second risk is guilt by association. As Australia's foreign policy becomes indistinguishable from America's, we should expect Washington's enemies, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, to see matters in a similar light. But is it in our national interest to hitch our wagon so closely to the US if it means getting caught up in Washington's blowback?

It is still unclear whether Australians were specifically targeted in Bali, whether they were mistaken for Americans or victims of a generic anti-Western attack. Policy convergence will ensure that in the future such distinctions will become superfluous. A more independent stance may not buy us immunity from anti-Western terrorist assaults, but we don't need to consciously increase our vulnerability either.

A third problem arising from such a pro-US position is that we will be taken for granted in Washington. Countries which regularly express their fidelity to the United States lose leverage because concurrence can be assumed. Allies which play a little harder to get often win significant concessions, as Pakistan and a number of Central Asian states did after September 11. Canada, Turkey and Japan have remained close allies with the US even though they refused to join the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq.

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Article edited by Darian Clark.
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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 30 June 2003.

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About the Author

Scott Burchill is a lecturer in international relations at Deakin University in Victoria.

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