2014 / Sunday

Dangerous liaisons: Australia and the US

Brett Peterson

Malcolm Fraser

Malcolm Fraser

Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser said in a talk, entitled Australia and the World, at Sydney Theatre on Saturday that the alliance with the United States leaves Australia with little independence should conflict break out in Asia. It’s a subject he covered in his latest book Dangerous Allies. In a conversation facilitated by Guardian Australia political editor Lenore Taylor, the Mr Fraser spoke with former NSW premier and foreign minister Bob Carr about Australia’s place in the world. Mr Carr’s latest book is Diary of a Foreign Minister, his intimate account of his time as federal Labor’s man in the world.

Mr Fraser said that America’s pre-eminence as a military power in the post-Cold War world has caused a fundamental shift in the relationship between it and the world. “America is at the top of the greasy pole completely by itself, and that is one of the things that has created a different, more assertive and, in many ways, more unilateral nation,” he said.

Mr Fraser argues that Australia’s alliance with America made strategic sense during the Cold War, but changed circumstances mean it is no longer in the nation’s interest to be as closely tied militarily to the US. “If you cling to an outmoded philosophy, long past its use-by date, you can put yourself in danger,” he said.

Mr Fraser was particularly critical of Australia’s involvement in US naval patrols of the contentious maritime region of the East China Sea, between China and Japan, as well as the proposed US military station in the Northern Territory. “It [the military station] is not a ‘getting to know you’ exercise: it is a powerful, hard-hitting task force that could hit anywhere in the Western Pacific very hard and very fast.”

If Australia were to abandon the US alliance, it would require a fundamental shift in the outlook on foreign affairs and defence policy in this country. Speaking of our traditional policy of reliance on an alliance with a great foreign power, Mr Carr said many Australians view our alliance with the US as a “security policy” through which Australia can protect itself. “There is something deep-seated in the Australian character that has us wanting an alliance with a great power,” he said.

Ms Taylor asked Mr Fraser about any potential fallout from abandoning the American alliance. He downplayed the diplomatic, intelligence and economic losses that would occur from such a decision and cited the example of New Zealand – which left the ANZUS Treaty in the 1980s after refusing to allow US nuclear-armed vessels to enter its ports – as a country that still enjoyed close ties with America despite not being formally allied.

However, he said military spending would “have to double” to around 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product in order for defence capabilities to remain at their present level.

“We have been freeloading for far too long. One and a half per cent [of GDP] is comparable to what most European countries spend on defence,” Mr Fraser said.

The wide-ranging discussion also touched on other contemporary issues, such as Australia’s foreign aid budget, moving Australia towards a republic and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

While Mr Fraser and Mr Carr were often in broad agreement about the nature of Australia’s foreign policy, the role of the US was an area of significant difference, in particular the foreign policy philosophy underpinning its role in the world. Speaking of his time as foreign minister, Mr Carr says that he found the US government to be “pretty bloody obliging” in their foreign policy outlook.

“If I had set out to pick a big argument with Hilary Clinton or John Kerry, I would have been hard pressed to have done so,” he said. “They were exerting a new restraint on foreign policy: leading from behind on Libya, ignoring State Department advice and not going in and backing one side in Syria, and very calculatedly not bombing Tehran and seizing an opportunity with a change of government to begin negotiations.”

Mr Carr said that this was in contrast to the “swivel-eyed neo-cons and ultra-nationalists like [Dick] Cheney and [Donald] Rumsfeld” who drove foreign policy during the administration of George W. Bush.

Mr Fraser agreed President Obama has been more restrained in foreign policy than the preceding Bush administration, yet he said the same idea of American exceptionalism that underpinned Bush’s foreign policy is still largely present in the Obama presidency. In particular, Mr Fraser was critical of comments by President Obama regarding gas attacks on children in Syria, which, he argued, appealed to the notion that the US was unique in wanting to stop such acts of violence occurring.

“He was saying that no other nation would have wanted to do something about children being gassed. I think that puts Obama up there with all the others,” he said.