Australian Financial Review

Politics Malcolm Fraser believes Australia should abandon its decades long, unquestioning alliance with the US.

The former prime minister is right to question the bipartisan complacency about the United States–Australia alliance in his new book Dangerous Allies, but he overstates his case for abandonment. For a long time Australia's alliance with America was one of the most contested issues in Australian political and public life. The debates really began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when a US Navy communication station built at North West Cape drew Australia closer into the global strategy of America's Cold War, while differences over Indonesia and West Papua raised questions about US reliability as a defender of Australia's interests as we saw them. Then came Vietnam, Pine Gap, nuclear warship visits, MX missile tests, and Star Wars.

For 30 years, these issues kept the alliance at the centre of domestic political debates. Then quite suddenly, in the early 1990s, that dropped away. The alliance became uncontested ground.

It is easy to see why: the Cold War was over, America was enjoying unchallenged global leadership, its commitment to Asia was secure and, above all, its leadership in Asia was uncontested. In this world, our alliance with America cost Australia little and delivered a great deal.

Australia showed its worth as an ally by sending small contributions to short and successful US-led operations in and around the Middle East, and in return we felt assured that America would continue to keep Asia stable and Australia safe. What was there to debate?

The emergence of this deep consensus about the alliance was symbolised and reinforced by the establishment in the early 1990s of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. The Dialogue exposed emerging political leaders to a view of the alliance as something that transcended politics and even policy. It encouraged the view that the alliance was rooted in, and was indeed essential to, Australia's national identity. And it encouraged the idea that no one who wanted to be taken seriously in Australian political or policy debates would question the alliance as the immutable foundation of Australia's foreign and strategic policy, or doubt that US policies would always serve Australia's interests.

Malcolm Fraser never signed up to any of this. In the 1990s he moved completely against the trend by starting to argue that the alliance is not in Australia's interests and should be abandoned. He has sustained and developed that position ever since, and now he has written, with Cane Roberts, an important book that sets out his argument at length and in some detail.

The reaction to Dangerous Allies tells us more about the state of debate about the alliance than it does about the quality of Fraser's arguments. Most of his critics dismiss the book because it rejects the alliance orthodoxy without engaging its arguments.

That is a big mistake.

I disagree both with Fraser's basic proposition that we should abandon the alliance, and with many of his specific points. But on one big issue Fraser is surely correct, and his critics are surely wrong.Don't assume too much

Australia cannot assume the alliance will continue to work for us in future as it has in the past. There is a real risk that it will fail one way or another. How this might happen, what we can do to prevent it, and what we would face if it happens anyway are all strategic-policy questions as important as any we have faced in our history. So far our political system, as well as our commentariat and universities, have largely failed to address them, and that poses a real danger to Australia's future.

The first thing Fraser gets right is to place Australia's present choices about the alliance in their historical context. Much of Dangerous Allies is devoted to an interesting exploration of what he calls Australia's "alliance dependency" since Federation. Some of the experts will disagree with parts of his account, but it repays careful reading. Fraser has been thinking deeply about Australian and global strategic questions for a very long time, and many of his observations show real strategic insight. Above all, his historical survey conveys a vital message: Australia's great alliances have never been based on blind faith or pure emotion. They have been underpinned by a sense — more or less clearly grasped — of Australia's unique strategic interests and objectives, and an assessment of how our great and powerful friends could help achieve them. He argues that for much of our history Australia had no choice but to depend on Britain and America if we were to negotiate the formidable strategic challenges of the 20th century. He shows how Australia's alliances have been based ultimately on the contingent alignment of our interests with our allies' — not on some semi-mystical congruence of values and identities.

The second thing Fraser gets right is to identify how, over the past few decades, Australia has become more strategically dependent on the United States than ever, both psychologically and practically. Australian political leaders today, both Labor and Coalition, are more willing than their predecessors in the 1970s and 1980s, or even in the 1950s and 1960s, to assume that Australia's interests and America's will always coincide, and to assume that America will always be there to help us.

They are also less willing to recognise how Australia's interests might differ from America's, and to push America to see things our way. Fraser blames this on a collapse of strategic judgement and moral fibre among our political leaders. This is partly true, but I suspect it also reflects the complacency induced by habit. For 40 years, since Nixon went to China, American primacy in Asia has been uncontested. America has as a result faced no hard choices in Asia, and neither have we. It has become easy to assume that American and Australian interests are identical.

Fraser is very clear that this assumption is wrong, and he blames America for that. He argues that US and Australian interests have diverged sharply in the years since the end of the Cold War because America itself has taken a new path. "The United States since the early 1990s has become a different country," he writes. "It is no longer the same America from which Australia sought protection and friendship during World War II and throughout the Cold War." He blames this on "the influence of the sense of American exceptionalism and of the neo-conservatives and their current domination of American policy". He believes this has opened up a huge gulf between Australia and America.

I do not agree with Fraser about this. His strident condemnation is perhaps a reaction to the prevailing rose-tinted orthodoxy that sees nothing but goodness and power from America. But it is an overreaction. He attributes to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and to America as a whole, the mistakes of George W Bush at his worst, which is hardly fair. American ideas about its place in the world are much more complex, contested and uncertain, and not nearly as dark, as Fraser suggests.

Neo-conservatism remains an important strand in American strategic thinking, but it contends today with a lot of other ideas and impulses, many of them quite contrary to Fraser's image. Far from being set on a neo-conservative drive to remake the world in its own image, America today is fumbling to understand what kind of global role it can and should play. The key reason for that is the decline in America's relative power. Fraser gives relatively little attention to this, but I think it is the key factor here.

After the Cold War, almost everyone assumed that America's economic and military strength would be simply irresistible, empowering America to lead the world. Sensible people seriously talked of a New Rome. America today is struggling to come to terms with the collapse of this illusion. That is not because America itself is in decline, which it plainly is not. It is because America's power was never as great as people imagined, and because new powers are emerging much faster than anyone expected to challenge US pre-eminence. This leaves Americans caught between the dwindling but tenacious illusion of US omnipotence and the dawning recognition that the kind of global leadership they aspire to is beyond their reach.

The resulting muddle was poignantly evident in President Obama's major speech at West Point in May 2014, where he declared that "the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation", while setting severe limits on its willingness to intervene beyond its shores. We can see this muddle in US responses to events in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. Above all, we can see it in Asia, where America faces its most serious challenge, from China. American primacy in Asia today is no longer uncontested.

Just as Fraser is too hard on America, he is too soft on China. He blames America for the growing strategic rivalry between them, and seems content to assume that China has no desire to use its growing power in ways that would hurt Australia.

Again, Fraser may be reacting here to the widespread view of China as a ruthless and determined aspiring regional hegemon, but he goes too far in suggesting that we can simply trust China not to misuse its growing power. China is no more immune to the temptation to throw its weight around than any other great power. The prime diplomatic question of the age for Asia, and for Australia, is how to define and uphold acceptable limits on China's power without provoking strategic confrontation.

This is where Fraser's prescription for our US alliance differs from mine. He proposes that we should abandon the alliance and strike out on our own. He thinks that US policies will inevitably lead to confrontation with China, our alliance with America means we would inevitably be drawn in, and without the alliance we would have nothing to fear.

Fraser is right that the trajectory of US–China relations today is very worrying. And it is true that America carries some of the blame for this, because the prime US objective in Asia remains the preservation of US regional primacy and it refuses, so far, to contemplate any significant accommodation of China's ambitions to play a wider role. And he is right to worry that in these circumstances our US alliance could easily draw us into a war with China.

But Fraser's dark view of America leads him to overlook the chance that America might be brought to accept the need for accommodation with China as the basis for a long-term stable relationship. And his rosy view of China leads him to overlook the value to Australia of keeping the United States engaged in Asia to balance and limit China's power. The best outcome for us would be an Asia in which America concedes to China enough strategic space to satisfy China's legitimate ambitions, and at the same time imposes firm enough limits to deter China from pushing for more. In that Asia, Australia could happily remain a US ally, to our great benefit.

Even if China agrees, creating and sustaining this kind of regional order would be immensely complex, but the only alternatives are very bad. Unless the United States can find a way to share power with China in this way, it will either withdraw from Asia, leaving Australia and others to face China's power, or it will find itself drawn into escalating rivalry with China — a rivalry that it would not lose but cannot ultimately win.

This is why it is so important that Australia do whatever it can to help the United States and China to build a new order in Asia that maximises America's role while avoiding unconstrained strategic rivalry.

That is why a serious debate about the alliance, America's role in Asia, and the future regional order is so important. And that is why Fraser's book deserves to be read — as a spirited assault on our dangerous, and largely bipartisan, complacency.

This article was published in the Australian Financial Review