Listening to Australian pundits talk about the relationship of their country with the US – at least from a strategic perspective – can be a trying exercise. It is filled with angst, Freudian fears of abandonment, the strident megalomania of Australian self-importance. Critics of this complex are shouted down as Sinophiles or in the pay of some foreign power.
This unequal and distinctly unhealthy relationship has been marked by a certain outsourcing tendency. Australian foreign policy is a model example of expectation: that other powers will carry its weight: processing refugees; aiding Australians stranded or persecuted overseas; reliance on that fiction known as the extended nuclear deterrent. Self-reliance is discouraged in favour of what Barry Posen calls a “cheap ride”.
In recent years, the Australian security-military apparatus has been more than ingratiating regarding its alliance with Washington, despite such sombre warnings as those from the late Malcom Fraser. In 2014, the former prime minister argued that Australia, at the end of the Cold War, was presented with an opportunity to pursue a policy of “peace, cooperation, and trust” in the region. Instead, Canberra opted to cling on to a foreign war machine that found itself bloodied and bruised in the Middle East. Now, Australia risked needlessly going to war against China on the side of the US. Best to, he suggested, shut down US training bases in the Northern Territory and close the Pine Gap signals centre as soon as feasible.
During the Trump administration, a more than usually cringe worthy effort was made to be Washington’s stalking horse in the Asia-Pacific region. Poking China on such matters as COVID-19 was seen as very sensible fare, as it might invite a more solid commitment of the United States to the region. But the momentum for an easing of some US global commitments was impossible to reverse. The country was looking inward (the ravages of the COVID contagion, a country riven by protest and the toxic and intoxicating drug of identity politics). Those in Canberra were left worried.
This state of affairs has prompted the glum lament from the veteran strategist Hugh White that Australia’s politicians lack imagination in the face of the most significant change in its foreign relations since British settlement. They refuse to accept that China is there, not to be contained but to be accommodated in some form. The Pacific pond will have to accept two hegemons rather than one, a point the Washington-hugging types in Canberra find, not only impermissible but terrifying.
The fall of Kabul offered further stimulus for panic. The Western war adventurers had been defeated and instead of asking why Australians were ever in Afghanistan, the focus shifted to the umbilical cord with Washington. In conducting interviews with four former Australian Prime Ministers, Paul Kelly of The Australian, being more woolly-headed than usual, saw Biden’s withdrawal as “so devoid of judgment and courage that it raises a fog of doubt about Biden himself and about America’s democratic sustenance as a reliable great power.”
Of the former prime ministers interviewed, the undying pugilist Tony Abbott wondered what “fight” was left in “Biden’s America”. There might well be some in the reserves, he speculated, but US allies had to adjust. Australia had to show “more spine” in the alliance.
Kevin Rudd, himself an old China hand, wanted to impress upon the Australian public and body politic that “we are in the midst of a profound paradigm shift in global and regional geopolitics.” The US continued to question itself about what strategic role it would play in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of China’s inexorable rise. Australia had to plan for the “best” and the “worst”: the former entailing “a robust regionally and globally engaged America”; the latter, “an America that begins to retreat.” On August 14, Rudd had urged the Biden administration to “reverse the course of its final military withdrawal”.
Malcolm Turnbull opted for the small troop thesis: “America should have retained a garrison force in Afghanistan.” Doing so might have provided sufficient assurance for Afghan national forces and prevented a Taliban victory. “It was not palatable to have kept forces there, but what we have seen now is even less palatable.” The US, he noted, had retained forces across European states, Japan and South Korea “for decades”. (Turnbull misses a beat here on such shaky comparisons, given that the Taliban would have never tolerated the presence of such a garrison.)
Trump comes in for a lecturing: “The [US-Taliban] talks should never have occurred in the absence of the Afghan government and their effect was to delegitimise that government.” In all fairness to the Trump administration, there was little by way of legitimacy in the Afghan national government to begin with. Negotiating with the Taliban was simply an admission as to where the bullets and bombs were actually coming from, not to mention how untenable the existence of the Kabul regime had become.
As for John Howard, the man who sent Australian forces to Afghanistan to begin with, the garrison thesis held even greater merit. Again, the false analogy of other US imperial footprints was drawn: if Washington can station 30,000 troops in South Korea for seven decades after the end of hostilities, why not Afghanistan? Hopefully, this “bungle” would remain confined to the handling of Afghanistan and not affect the US-Australian alliance. “I believe if it were put to the test, the Americans would honour the ANZUS treaty.”
Such reflections, part moaning, part regret, should provide brickwork for a more independent foreign policy. Alison Broinowski, former diplomat and Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform, offers some level-headed advice. “If Australians ignore the change in the global power balance that is happening before our eyes,” she writes, “we will suffer the consequences. If we can’t defeat the Taliban, how will we prevail in a war against China?” Such a question, given the terrifying answer that follows, is not even worth asking.