Australia: Aligned and Independent

Last week as American vehicles withdrew troops from Northern Syria they were pelted with potatoes and rocks by outraged and betrayed Kurds.

My best friend is the son of Kurdish migrants who fled Iran in the early 90's.

For two weeks his family have gone through hell watching the coverage of roadside executions and the burials of slaughtered fighters, a tragedy unleashed by an erratic US President, on people who had shed blood for the United States fighting ISIS.

All the sadder that the Australian Prime Minister hasn’t hinted at the slightest dissent with this US policy disaster.

This shouldn’t surprise: the US alliance is now Australia’s only international personality.

A Foreign Minister like Gareth Evans could pursue a Cambodian peace agreement and help design the Chemical Weapons Convention. Kevin Rudd expanded our involvement in the G20 and the East Asia Summit and pursued a Treaty on Small Arms.

In Paul Keating’s words, we strived to find our security in Asia not from Asia but it’s hard to see any diplomatic thrust these days that’s not drafted for us in Washington.

Until Malcolm Turnbull – yes, even under Tony Abbott – we were capable of a national interest-based policy on China, not just rubber-stamping Washington’s every utterance as Prime Minister Morrison appeared to do on his recent visit

He even endorsed US grievances on trade with China when in fact our own country has none. Our wine and beef reach China tariff-free. A population of 1.4 billion is soaking up a third of our exports, with the figures going up, not down.

Of course, with the US we hold shared values in freedom of expression and human rights. Labor’s national platform affirms that “the United States remains our closest security ally.”

Yet diplomat Allan Gyngell warned “fear of abandonment” was a motivating force in Australian behaviour. One result is we’ve forgotten that our reputation for independence makes us a more valuable ally.

As is so often the case, Paul Keating says it best.

“If you’ve been in a strategic partnership of the kind, we have had with the United States for 100 years, do you have to fear every week that they may not like what you say about this or that matter"?

But that’s precisely how Australia now behaves, trembling that at any moment we might be savaged by the strongman in the White House.

In his 2019 Lowy Lecture, Morrison paraphrased John Howard, stating “we will decide our interests and the circumstances in which we seek to pursue them”. But we have to ask: whose ‘interests’ was he referring to? A majority of Australians say global warming is the biggest threat to Australia (Lowy Poll 2019). Trump mocks a 16-year-old girl who dared to talk about climate.

On China, we are more hawkish than other American allies and partners in the region, including Japan, Singapore, India, even Vietnam. Has the strident language, deployed since Malcolm Turnbull’s time served Australia’s interests? Or has it been settled on because we think it impresses Washington? 

We are a generous ally of the United States – hosting vital bases, sending forces to assist in the Middle East, buying its fighter jets. We don’t have to burn a relationship with China crafted by Prime Ministers from Whitlam to Abbott. Letting marines train in Darwin and kicking Huawei surely gives us the leeway to say we don’t have to go the distance with US hawks on every front.

In response to Trump, Gareth Evans calls for “less US, more self-reliance, more Asia, and more global engagement”.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry urged Australia to steer a middle course between the superpowers.

In the spirit of Paul Keating, seeking more self-reliance, I will be moving a motion at the next National ALP Conference supporting Keating’s position opposing the basing of US missiles in Northern Australia.

I will be quoting Keating: “Australia should be putting its interests first and within the context of an alliance which is never going to fade away”.

Paul Keating warned in 2017 about Australia adopting a “quasi-religious, now sacramental view of the American Alliance”. 

It’s time to think of Australia as aligned – yes. But still independent.

Aligned but independent: not a bad axiom for our foreign policy, especially facing Donald Trump.

Paul Mills is the President of NSW Young Labor.