Malcolm Fraser, Dangerous Allies, (Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2014).
By Andrew Reynolds, 30 June 2014
Malcolm Fraser is no casual observer of the Australian political system. As a former Australian Prime Minister, Minister for the Army and Minister for Defence amongst other postings, Fraser has been intimately involved in Australian political life for over six decades. In Dangerous Allies Fraser, together with ANU PhD candidate Cain Roberts, brings this to experience to bear on the Australian foreign policy debate, advocating a radical rethink of Australia’s bilateral relationship with the United States. Fraser boldly states the time has come for Australia to cut its ties with the United States and take a more independent approach to foreign policy, one where we are no longer viewed internationally as a “strategic captive” of the United States.
Surveying the evolution of Australia’s foreign and defence policy since federation, Fraser demonstrates how Australia has historically followed a policy of strategic dependence, supporting great powers – first Britain and then the United States – into a series of foreign conflicts in return for an assurance of support should Australia’s security be threatened. This has been a one-sided bargain, Fraser argues, with the cost being borne by Australia in terms of Australian lives, dollars and assets with Britain as a great power unable to deliver on its side of the bargain and come to Australia’s aid in our time of need in World War Two, resulting in Australia shifting allegiance to the United States.
The resultant relationship with the United States, Fraser argues, has drawn Australia into three failed conflicts: Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and threatens to draw Australia into a fourth with China. Moreover, Fraser argues, should a conflict arise with Indonesia, it is quite possible the United States would side with our northern neighbour, given the size of their population, economy and strategic importance to the United States. The lesson, forcefully propounded by Fraser, is that in the final analysis, great powers will always act first in what they see as their own strategic interests, a lesson borne out repeatedly by historical events.
At a time when evolving events in Iraq, Ukraine and the East and South China Seas threaten to draw the United States into conflict, Fraser concludes that the current status of US—Australia relations makes Australian involvement in any action involving the US military virtually certain. Inexorably, Australia would be drawn into conflict in support of US strategic interests. Such an outcome, Fraser argues, would not be in Australia’s best interests, and may increase our insecurity, simultaneously testing our relationship with Indonesia whilst increasing the perception within Southeast Asia that as a strategic captive of the United States, Australia retains little real or genuine independence and is unable to say no to the United States.
In a detailed analysis of Australian foreign and defence policy since federation, Fraser argues that Australia’s strategic dependence on great powers was justified until the end of the Cold War. Fraser’s argument is that this marked the point when Australia’s and the United States’ interests began to diverge, and when there remained little strategic imperative for Australia to remain dependent on a security alliance with a great power, as the existential threat to Australian and world security posed by Soviet communism dissolved with collapse of the USSR. Moreover Australia’s reliance on the US security umbrella has been based on a false assumption, Fraser argues, with no security guarantee being ratified by treaty, the ANZUS treaty amounting to no more than a ‘treaty to consult. Consequently Fraser argues that the cost of this relationship now outweighs the benefits and it is in Australia’s interests to assert her independence by dismantling the architecture of our security relationship with the United States.
This move would include such measures as requesting the United States move its Marine Air-Ground Force (Darwin) from Australian soil; informing America that Australia will no longer automatically follow it into wars; slating the Pine Gap and North West Cape intelligence facilities for a phased closure over five years; and disentangling Australia’s various defence ties with the United States, including future materiel defence acquisitions, such as Virginia—class nuclear powered submarines and, presumably, the Lockheed-Martin Joint Strike Fighter.
Fraser argues that Australia has grown so entangled in America’s intelligence gathering and weapons deployment systems that we are now complicit in foreign offensive actions taken by the United States, whether Australian troops are involved or not. Critically, according to Fraser, the gradual evolution in the purpose and uses of both the Pine Gap and North West Cape intelligence facilities means Australia is now implicated in targeted US drone strikes involving the killing of citizens in countries with which we are not at war. According to Fraser, Australia’s continued permission for the United States to use Australian soil for the operation of its intelligence gathering and targeting facilities implies Australia’s concurrence with the use of these facilities for both defensive and offensive purposes, which now include a range of extra judicial killings, which places Australia in an untenable position. This is a bitter reality that Australia must now face. Fraser argues that wherever US targeted drone strikes occur, be they in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, whenever the Pine Gap facility is involved in the targeting process, Australia is involved too and remains liable.
Fraser’s contribution to this policy debate is timely. Following closely on ANU strategist Hugh White’s The China Choice, where White summarises America’s foreign policy choices in dealing with a rising China, Fraser starkly demonstrates how this policy, which served Australia well until the end of the Cold war, is now endangering Australia’s security regionally. According to Fraser, the reliance of Australia on America’s security umbrella is both false and a paradox.
Fraser addresses the argument that the ANZUS treaty compels America to defend Australia should our security be threatened by stating (repeatedly) that the ANZUS treaty is a treaty to consult only and does not – unlike America’s security treaty with Japan – compel the US to come to our defence. An examination of the ANZUS treaty bears this out, with Article III clearly articulating an obligation on both parties to “consult together”. In describing Australia’s security relationship with the US as a paradox, Fraser counters the argument that we need a strong United States alliance for defensive purposes by reiterating that it is precisely this close alliance with the United States which causes these defensive needs to arise in the first place – that it is in fact our close relationship with the United States which is increasing our insecurity.
Much of Fraser’s argument is broadly compelling. His reiteration of the evolution of Australia’s foreign and defence policy, in particular over the periods where he was directly involved in the events outlined, is both engaging and informative, and would serve as a useful primer for students of international relations and Australian political history. However some of the conclusions he draws are certainly questionable, such as the supposed legal culpability of Australians working at Pine Gap for deaths resulting from US drone strikes. Whilst such claims bear closer examination, they remain speculative and require more detailed legal analysis.
The main strength of Dangerous Allies is the boldness with which Fraser argues his case in the debate, for Fraser is correct: this a debate Australia needs to have. It is vital that at a time when Australia is investing billions of dollars in American military hardware and our defence force posture is becoming increasingly entwined with that of the US, that our defence relationship with the US be re-examined. As tensions between China and the United States develop within Southeast Asia, the likelihood of conflict and potential Australian involvement in such conflict increases. Given the scale of our current and future investments, it is worrying that speculation remains that this relationship is based on false assumptions. We should not wait until a war occurs for these assumptions to be tested.
More worrying is Fraser’s argument of Australia’s complicity in US drone strikes. It appears to be correct that both Pine Gap and North West Cape’s strategic uses have evolved considerably from how they were first conceived. If Australia remains unaware as to the full extent of the use of these facilities by the United States, and if these uses are in conflict with Australian policy, then this needs to be corrected. Whilst much of this for most of us remains speculative, it is important that such discussions be held publicly and initiated by books such as Fraser’s, for in the current political climate, it is unlikely that the government will be the instigator of such debates. Yet as these decisions ultimately involve Australian lives, it is important Australians have a voice in what they see as their own interests.