By Heath Pickering
Malcolm Fraser occupies a unique place in Australian politics. A former conservative Prime Minister turned Greens sympathiser. A former Defence Minister during Australia’s involvement in Vietnam and now chief critic of the Australia-US alliance. This transformation is articulated in his new book, Dangerous Allies, where he argues that Australia’s close relationship with the United States is highly questionable in the post Cold War era. Contrary to popular belief, Fraser argues that forming alliances with “great and powerful friends” has led to “strategic dependence” and actually puts Australia in a more insecure position. Instead, he advocates for a more independent Australian foreign policy.
The book begins with an historical account of how Australia’s pre-war strategic dependence with Britain was justified. Fraser writes, “When one looks at the Australia of those days, with its small population and lack of industrial resources, the grand bargain suited Australia well”. However, with Australia’s current relative power, the great wars over and the Cold War long gone, Fraser argues now is the opportune moment to follow a more independent foreign policy path. By remaining in the alliance, Australia gets caught in America’s web of foreign military adventures that have little to do with Australia’s national interests. Instead, the current Asia-Pacific region that Australia once feared is transforming into a mature group of independent nations where peaceful progress can be achieved without American leadership. In any case, Fraser thinks American leadership is questionable. He says America shoulders “much of the blame” for “derailing” the new international order, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seems “to leave behind continuing chaos”. In short, his ultimate policy aim is this: To ensure America cannot force Australia into a war unrelated to our interests.
One of Fraser’s main frustrations is that bipartisan support for the alliance remains virtually unchecked. He lambasts Howard for strengthening ties with Britain and America at the expense of damaging ties with South East Asia and especially Indonesia. He criticises Labor’s decision to base US marines in Darwin as this now makes Australia an even greater target for future hostilities. However, not all politicians receive a scathing. He praises H. V. Evatt for stepping “outside the policy of strategic deterrence” and attempting to advance a more independent Australian foreign policy model through the post war years. Australian politicians like Evatt, Fraser argues, are the exception rather than the norm. It is unlikely that bipartisan support for the alliance will deteriorate any time soon. Both the major parties recognise the value of having a great and powerful friend by their side. At the United States Studies Centre’s Alliance21 conference in June, the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop and the Shadow Minister,Tanya Plibersek both spoke unwaveringly about how vital the alliance is to Australia’s national interests.
For a book centred on “strategic dependence”, there is little discussion on Fraser’s proposed new strategy. Instead, readers will be disappointed to discover that a more independent foreign policy creates many questions that Fraser struggles to answer.
For instance, Fraser claims that in the Post Cold War era, the expansion of alliances makes strategic dependence less desirable. Contrary to Fraser’s core aims, current trends in international relations seem to indicate further alliance building. Sweden and Finland, unnerved by Russia’s action in Ukraine, have recently started to debate entering NATO.1 Likewise Japan and the Philippines have looked to secure ties with America over China’s recent actions in the South China and East China seas.2
Furthermore, a more independent Australian foreign policy would require a significant boost to the defence budget, currently around 1.7% of GDP. Fraser predicts that defence expenditure may have to be doubled to “2.5% or 3% of GDP”. While achievable, this would have serious political and economic consequences that are only lightly discussed.
There is also little discussion about the benefits of the alliance. For instance, the status quo gives Australia favourable access to American intelligence networks, advanced military hardware and diplomatic clout on Capitol Hill. Without the alliance or with a more independent foreign policy path, Australia faces being ignored or neglected by the superpower of this era.
Fraser is also critical of the alliance as it requires Australia to commit troops to US-led conflicts relatively unrelated to Australian interests. However, our modern commitments have been modest. Around 2,000 troops were deployed to Iraq, without a single combat fatality and most were posted to the south of the country and the Persian Gulf itself, both considered relatively safe regions. In Afghanistan, Australia deployed around 1,500 troops and suffered 40 casualties. In contrast, Canada deployed around 2,500 troops and suffered 158 casualties. Australia’s loses were comparatively small, suggesting that the costs associated with our commitments have been in Australia’s favour.
Despite a number of unresolved questions, Fraser’s contribution to the foreign policy debate is significant. His celebrity-like status has provided well needed publicity that other academics can only dream of. Most notably, he has boldly added further discourse to a side of a debate that is seldom given prime coverage.
Heath Pickering is a Master of International Relations graduate from the University of Melbourne. His thesis examined how parliamentary authorisation would affect future Australian Defence Force deployments.
Dangerous Allies is published by Melbourne University Press.
1 ‘Russia Warns Sweden and Finland Against NATO Membership’ on Defense News 12/06/2014 http://www.defensenews.com/article/20140612/DEFREG01/306120040/Russia-Warns-Sweden-Finland-Against-NATO- Membership Accessed on 12/07/2014.
2 Glasser, B. ‘Armed Clash in the South China Sea’ Contingency Planning Memorandum No.14, Council on Foreign Relations, April 2014 http://www. cfr.org/world/armed-clash-south-china-sea/p27883 Accessed on 12/07/2014.