The Sydney Morning Herald

By Tom Switzer

A man is a bad piece of work if he can't be given a redeeming feature. Those of us who consider ourselves to be of a conservative cast of mind have looked sadly over the past three decades at the career of Malcolm Fraser, who has rather emulated the British prime minister Edward Heath in starting off as something of a man on the right and then ending up as anything but.

However, not everything Fraser espouses is wrong; some political questions transcend party and even ideology. So when, in this book, the former Liberal prime minister warns of the dangers of being obedient to America, and too uncritical of the poses that America strikes in the world, he deserves a respectful audience.

This powerful polemic should go a long way towards debunking the consensus that Australia should always support US interventions. Fraser, ably supported by young academic Cain Roberts, writes well, and the early part of the story of Australia's strategic dependency on Britain and America is engrossing. So is his account of the revolutionary nature of US foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

Fraser is surely right that a striking feature of Australian diplomacy is its essential simplicity and consistency. Since 1901, and even before Federation when we were a collection of colonies far removed from the rest of the Western world, our political leaders and the public at large have sought a close association with a great power with which we shared our values and interests.

For the first half of the 20th century, a declining but still formidable Britain filled that role. Since the onset of the Cold War, it has been performed by the US. With some qualifications, such as the Vietnam conflict (which the author supported but has renounced), Fraser believes that our strategic dependence on great powers helped ensure our security and prosperity. Since the departure of the prudent president Bush snr and especially since September 11, however, the US (under presidents Clinton, Bush jnr and even Obama) has become a revolutionary unilateral power, making it less relevant to Australia and a less appropriate ally on which Canberra should rely. In an inherently unequal relationship, warns Fraser, we are becoming so enmeshed in US strategy as to lose our autonomy.

Whether or not one agrees with such views, it is difficult to see how Australia's unconditional and unqualified support for the US-led wars in the 2000s served the national interest. We all know Iraq was executed abysmally, but it was also conceptually unsound: Saddam Hussein had been kept in his box via the tried and tested policy of containment. Besides, what did he do to Australia other than buy our wheat? As for Afghanistan, that war became flawed as its mission evolved from toppling the turbaned tyrants to democratising a tribally divided mediaeval society. All true.

The trouble is - and it is the book's besetting sin - that Fraser's call for an ''independent foreign policy'' is essentially another way of saying the alliance should be abandoned. That stance rightly remains at odds with both major political parties and, as the Lowy Institute's annual polling makes clear, the broad cross-section of the Australian people.

It is one thing to question neo-conservative plans to contain China and export democracy to arbitrarily created states in the Middle East. It is another thing to dismiss, as Fraser does, the real and substantial advantages that accrue from the US alliance. Think of the shared intelligence, military technology, the security guarantee and the deeply embedded psychological need for ''great and powerful friends'', to use Robert Menzies' phrase.

Fraser's thesis would be more convincing if he instead argued that the alliance should change. After all, the rise of China means different things to Canberra and Washington. For Australia, it represents a rewarding trade and financial relationship. For the US, it is the emergence of potential geo-political rival.

That does not mean Canberra is faced with a stark binary choice between Beijing and Washington. It simply means that our leaders, far from embracing old traits of dependability and unconditional loyalty, will need to be more nuanced, qualified and discriminating in their diplomatic outlook. Cultural affinities and shared traditions are not enough to ensure common foreign policy goals. And middle-power allies, however loyal, should not expect inconvenient loyalty from a super power.

It's been said that a gaffe is when a politician inadvertently tells the truth. Alexander Downer's insistence a decade ago that the US alliance would not apply in the event of a Sino-American clash over Taiwan met that definition. Widely condemned by the political and media class, the then-foreign minister's gaffe could nonetheless reflect the reality of Australian diplomacy: a US ally that backs our ''great and powerful'' friend only when it serves the national interest. Tony Abbott would surely agree: he should read this book.

This article originally appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.