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Australia and the Wars of the Alliance: History and Politics

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Australia’s alliance wars – their respective causes, conduct, and consequences – are overdetermined by the politics and strategies of the United States. In general, though they consist of few battlefield successes, the overall record is one of failed campaigns informed by repeatedly failed – indeed, ‘dead’ – ideas that for various reasons maintain their currency.  The purpose of this and the subsequent posts – Parts 2, 3, and 4 – is to conduct a coronial inquiry – that is, to establish where, when and how the death occurred. 

To be closely allied to the United States, as is Australia, should be to understand that it is partnered to a country habituated to war. At least that understanding should be expected of Australia’s policy-elite.  For the record the US has been at war for 93 percent of its existence.  Strangely, I have never seen a reference to this in any official foreign policy or defence policy document.

These wars, moreover, are marked by four indelible political-strategic characteristics: first, they are unconstitutional; second, they are annihilationist in character; third, though some qualify as transient successes, they are strategic failures; fourth, the state of perpetual war has been normalised.

Official Australian pronouncements are silent on all of these as well.  Reason: Australia’s general disposition presents as a dependent personality disorder and resulting reflex for encouraging the use of US force and following it into whatever strategic enterprise has been decided upon in Washington. Specifically, it is a crime against political and ethical sense when, by serial pronouncements as to the nature of these conflicts by the  US itself – “the war against terror” – what is envisaged is permanent war. More precisely, to date, and as should be expected, it is a state of permanent, failed war in Clausewitzian terms: the enemy has not been compelled, to fulfil the will of the United States and its allies.

At the same time US strategy, and by extension Australia’s, are residents of totally different imaginaries.  The former’s affirms both Faulkner and Marx: the legacy of past deaths and destructions – central among them the debacle of the Vietnam War, and an apocalyptic perception of 9/11 – insistently returns and weighs like an alp on the mind of its present. The latter finds selective memory and organised forgetting preferable to a rigorous historical accounting. In doing so it is spared the hauntings of alliance failure but is incapable of engaging with war’s inevitabilities – defeat, decline, tragedy, moral ambiguity and needless death. Both, however, are united in the civil-religious faith that future campaigns will bring victory, that the future will bring expiation for the past.

A Coronial Inquiry is essential, albeit limited to establishing where and how the death occurred.  Four morbid interrelated states are identifiable: the historical, political, strategic, and the military.  Part I concerns the first two.

The Historical

A central ingredient is the national conceit known as American Exceptionalism, the belief expropriated from Isaiah that the United States has not only been chosen by Providence to be the guiding light unto the Gentiles, but also the power who chooses.  Regardless of conviction among political leaders, it resonates as a force for mobilisation and indulgence.  How else, short of clinically certifiable delusion, could a Secretary of State make this profession: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.” Crypto-racism, condescension, a reluctance to negotiate and a hostility to compromise easily and logically follow.

The history of others is another immediate casualty.  In the conviction that the United States is the teleological terminus of politics and society – à la Fukuyama’s bastardised reading of Hegel, the history recording that, for 2,300 years, Afghanistan has, in famous phrase, been the place “where empires go to die” –  cannot be the subject of critical reflection.

Given the strategic advantage enjoyed by the US in terms of its objective capabilities, ideological hubris in the form of that espoused by the neoconservatives is but a short traverse.  Where Washington has decided its interests are at stake, and where the adversary fails to be persuaded to concede, the clash of arms is unashamedly embraced as the ultimate arbiter.

From afar, the allies have acted irresponsibly, especially when dissenting from the proposed action to be taken, being either sotto voce in their disquiet, or, more frequently, supporting the US in sufficient numbers for it to claim international support and concern.

The Political

In the matter of America’s commitment to strategies which guarantee perpetual war, the citizenry has, in one form or another, adopted a passivity inconsistent with democratic practice.  Since the early-mid 1970s, which saw the end of the military draft, then end of the Vietnam War and the establishment of the All-Volunteer Force, the various states of war that the US has passed through are regarded as normal.  As Andrew Bacevich has noted, relatively low casualty rates, the ever-present promotion of the threat of terrorism by successive administrations and the overall evasion by government of a true accounting of the costs have all made significant contributions to this state of affairs.  Where dissent raises its voice it is quickly and effectively dismissed by the countervailing clamour to “support out troops”  regardless of their mission.

The role of Congress as facilitator must also be factored in: successive Presidents have committed US forces to war notwithstanding the constitutional requirement that, while the President has the power to repel attacks against the United States, only Congress has the power to raise and support the armed forces, control war funding and the “power to declare war.” Unsurprisingly, leading constitutional law specialists in the US – among them, Michael J. Glennon, Louis Henkin, and Stuart S. Malawer – have concluded that, in the post-1945 era, US wars meet neither the standards of US constitutionality nor international law.

At the core of the perpetual alliance wars to which Australia has committed itself are four pathologies. First, it obediently waits upon decisions taken in isolation and which will be enacted unilaterally if necessary by a foreign government exercising what are effectively feudal powers in the matters of war and peace.  Second, Australia mirrors the US as though its interests are essentially identical. Third, in both countries the elected representatives are ignored, the governed being treated with contempt and not thought capable of deciding whether the fundamental question of any nation state – namely, whether its citizens should be sent abroad to fight, die and kill.  Thus, and finally, democracy by engaged citizens is a sham.

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Michael McKinley taught international relations and strategy in the Department of Politics, UWA.  From 1988 to 2014 he taught international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU. 

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