The Spectator

By James Curran

Many of Australia’s former prime ministers have been content to spend their political afterlife stoking the embers of their own legacy or feathering their own fiscal nests.

Not Malcolm Fraser. Dangerous Allies is an important contribution to a vital question facing the country. His canvas is broad. Fraser ranges over the history of Australian foreign and defence policy, the tragedy of Vietnam, the trajectory of post-Cold War American foreign policy, the role of ideas and ideologies in international relations, the war on terror, China’s rise and recent dramas in north-east Asian geopolitics.

His conclusions will be unpalatable for many. Fraser advocates nothing less than the end of the American alliance. Only former Labor leader Mark Latham, elements of the militant Labor Left in the 1960s and 1980s and the Greens have publicly gone this far. The pity is that this controversial, extreme remedy for what he sees as a crippling Australian malady — its ‘strategic dependence’ on the great powers — will overshadow some of the more fundamental, indeed pressing questions he raises in the book.

How has it come to this? What explains Fraser’s transformation from Cold War hawk to dove; from defender of the American faith to chief critic of US exceptionalism; from staunch ally to ardent advocate of the virtual abrogation of the Anzus alliance?

Some hail this book as the most ‘radical’ statement on Australian foreign policy by a national leader since the 1930s. But that is to miss its essence. We are witnessing instead the loud and melancholy roar of a once fervent, true believer in the American alliance.

Indeed the book might well represent Fraser’s long goodbye to America. For deep within these pages lies a frustration and hurt about the United States — especially its treatment of junior allies — that has been brewing within Fraser for a very long time.

That process of disillusionment began in July 1969 when Richard Nixon, leading a country bruised and battered by Vietnam, announced his Guam Doctrine. It signalled the need for America’s Asian allies to provide more for their own self-defence. Fraser was greatly alarmed and angered by what he considered to be an American sell-out. Australia, he said then, ‘was likely to be more alone than ever before’.

Then, when Nixon announced in 1971 his intention to visit China, Fraser was among many stalwart conservatives who, according to one American official at the time, were so ‘long accustomed to comfortable reliance on the US–Australian treaty relationship’ that they ‘found the subject of China confusing, hard to get a handle on, and, psychologically, barely digestible’. Mistakes and miscalculations in Vietnam only compounded his cynicism about American motives. True, he was a Cold Warrior par excellence as prime minister, but Fraser never forgot how Australia had been treated, and ignored, by Washington.

In this book Fraser has duly remade Australia’s past to mirror these feelings of betrayal. Remarkably, he offers an uncritical embrace of a radical nationalist vision of Australia and especially its engagement with the world. Make no mistake: this is an old-Left view of Australian history of which Manning Clark and Russel Ward would be proud. From the late 19th century down to the present, Fraser depicts a woeful tale of squandered opportunities, thwarted nationalism and a sense of independence, though fleetingly expressed, never quite fully gained.

His heroes in this account derive from the pantheon of his political enemies: John Curtin, H.V. Evatt and Gough Whitlam. Curtin turned to America in the dark days of war; Evatt pushed for a greater say for smaller to middle powers in the UN; Whitlam broke the ice by going to China in 1971 — a move, recall, for which Fraser denounced him as a ‘disgrace to Australia’ in the month following Whitlam’s historic trip. Menzies — save for his efforts to damp down American bravado during the Taiwan straits crises of the 1950s — is virtually dismissed as a guardian of the old order. Fraser even bemoans the advent of the first world war for disrupting the progressive social policy of the early Commonwealth — a view often expressed by Paul Keating.

This historical setting is paramount. It sustains the entire argument. Fraser’s thesis is simply stated — that Australia’s deeply embedded habit of ‘strategic dependence’ — the phrase appears no less than 18 times in the first six pages — has held Australia back. It has been debilitating to national progress, then and now.

But Fraser is also torn between this history and his own role in it. Throughout much of the book he is quick to pour scorn on the habit of ‘strategic dependence’ — it is ‘insidious’, a ‘disease’ and a policy ‘too blindly followed’. And yet at key moments he concedes, even if through clenched teeth, that it was ‘a necessary evil’; that while it was ‘not perfect’ it was ‘inescapable’; that ‘strategic dependence’ is ‘part of who we are as a nation’. Fears of a resurgent Japan in the wake of the second world war, and the dread of monolithic communism during the Cold War, meant that Australian leaders had little choice but to seek great power protection. His great lament, however, is that Australian leaders on both sides of politics have clung to the United States ever since.

Fraser allows little, if any room for the expression of independent Australian national interests within the British or American orbit. He does not give sufficient credit to the attempts of Australia’s early prime ministers, especially Deakin and Fisher, in pressing the nation’s Pacific-centred interests in the face of British objection. Such efforts might not always have succeeded, but they were still independent Australian policies conceived as a response to the nation’s distinctive geopolitical circumstances.

He even dismisses the policy of greater self-reliance in the American alliance, a policy mooted by Gorton, entrenched by Whitlam and maintained by Fraser himself. He would surely be intrigued to know that in advance of his first visit to Washington as prime minister in 1976, Gerald Ford’s National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft, told the President that ‘Fraser has no intention of returning Australia to the client-patron relationship that earlier Liberal-Country party governments maintained. The more independent attitude of the Whitlam government was popular in Australia, and Fraser will continue it. We thus should not appear to take Australia for granted, or appear to be patronising.’

Fraser has no trouble locating himself in the culture of ‘strategic dependence’. True, the buoyancy of hindsight has made him see the error in underestimating the nationalist element in communist movements, especially in Vietnam. His views here are tinged with a deep regret, but he knows he cannot entirely remake his own past. Is it not also possible, however, to make the case that Australian leaders in the 1960s were successful in making the alliance serve the national interest — that of keeping the US engaged in south-east Asia? At the same time, one can agree that such a policy delayed the emergence of a more independent Australian assessment of developments in Asia.

It is in his analysis of more recent events that Fraser raises the most critical questions. Speaking of America’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, he warns of being seduced by the global paradigm of the day and the delusion a nation suffers when entrapped by its own myths. Fraser, of course, can stand rightly proud as a critic of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when so many on his side of politics were merrily waltzing in tune with Washington’s neoconservatives. In perhaps the single most important statement in the book, he stresses that ‘you do not create a bank of goodwill with great powers on which you can necessarily and inevitably draw at a time of your own choosing’. Australia, he correctly points out, learnt the limits of Anzus in the 1960s over crises involving Indonesia, and then again with troop withdrawals from Vietnam, Nixon’s opening to China and more recently the ‘marginal support’ the US provided during the 1999 East Timor crisis.

Fraser is disturbed by what he sees as the warping of US foreign policy in the post 9/11 era. He depicts an imperial presidency run rampant, defined as much by Obama’s frequent use of drone strikes as by the folly of George W. Bush’s belief that democracy could take root in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as the United States seeks to contain China via a regional military build-up at the same time as the two economies become more enmeshed, Australia faces a choice: it cannot support both American approaches forever.

And so comes the end, which arrives with a certain brutality. In setting out roadmaps for the future, one of Fraser’s options is to ‘cut the ties’ with America, to end some features of the alliance that have the country ‘caught in a vice’. He believes that the increased interoperability of Australian and US forces, and the closer co-ordination of strategic weapons and plans, limits Australia’s freedom of movement. The nation is trapped in the American web. Indeed, he goes so far as to suggest that Anzus might in fact ‘be the biggest threat to our security’.

His recommendations are drastic. Fraser would shut down Pine Gap within five years, ask the US Marine Air-Ground Task Force rotating through Darwin to leave, end the deployment of an Australian frigate group stationed in Japan as part of the US 7th fleet and withdraw the Australian Major-General who is at present second in command of the US Army in the western Pacific.

This, Fraser argues, along with greater efforts towards regional co-operation in south-east Asia and increased visibility in the United Nations, constitutes true ‘strategic independence’. It would allow Australia to ‘agree and disagree with both Washington and Beijing as it suits our interests’. That, in any case, sounds remarkably similar to what John Howard and Julia Gillard have advocated in recent years.

Is Fraser’s call to strip the alliance of any meaningful content a wise and prudent move at the dawn of the Asian century? Many countries in the region are in the throes of rapid modernisation, with all the unpredictable nationalist sentiment that process unleashes. Other Asian allies are clamouring for the US to stay, not leave. And no one really knows how China and its leadership would respond to the test of a serious economic downturn. In this febrile, unsteady yet heady atmosphere, it is hard to see any Australian leader, now or in the near future, taking up Fraser’s cudgels.

This article originally appeared in The Spectator.