In Foreign Policy Australia Proves to be a Slow Learner

Quod deus vult perdere prius dementat. (Whom the Gods wish to destroy they first make mad).

One of the more enduring mysteries of Australian foreign policy is its continued adherence to the American way of war. One has only to look at the history of the post-World War II period to be presented with a host of examples of where Australia has followed the United States into one war after another where a compelling Australian national interest is impossible to identify.

This history of adherence began in Korea in the war that raged in that country between 1950 and 1953. It will be recalled that for years following World War II both the North and the South of Korea waged a guerrilla campaign against each other. The war commenced when the North invaded the South and made major moves on the Southern capital of Seoul and were on the verge of capturing it.

The United States, already alarmed at the Communists taking over China the previous year, reacted to the North’s invasion of the South.  Taking advantage of the temporary non-presence of the Russians in the Security Council, and with China’s seat still held by the defeated Nationalists (a disgrace that lasted a further 22 years) the United States pushed through a resolution in the Security Council authorising military intervention.

Australia was one of the countries that willingly joined this ostensible United Nations action to restore the status quo in Korea. An expeditionary force was rapidly gathered and succeeded in expelling the North from the South of Korea. The United States commander Douglas MacArthur was not content with restoring the status quo. He invaded the North and moved all the way to the Chinese border. We now know that his intention was to invade China and endeavour to restore the Nationalist government. That, of course, was never mentioned at the time.

The United States presence on their border brought the Chinese into the war and they rapidly succeeded in pushing the United States and its allies, including Australia, back south of the border. Stalemate then ensued for the next two years until an uneasy peace deal was reached. This has never been ratified and the North and South of Korea are still technically at war.

Australia’s next involvement in United States aggression was to take part in the war on Vietnam which was precipitated by the South of the country refusing to allow a national election that would undoubtedly have been won by the North’s Ho Chi Minh.

Australia’s involvement in that fiasco lasted more than a decade before the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972 saw that government withdrawing Australian troops. That action earned the animosity of the Americans, who together with their agent, the Governor General John Kerr,worked tirelessly for the defeat of the Whitlam government which they achieved in November 1975. Since that time no Labor government has dared to cross the United States. Australia’s foreign policy is an unbroken chain of adherence to United States aggression ever since.

This manifested itself in 2001 when Australia joined the attack on Afghanistan. That commitment ended only two weeks ago when Australian troops were unilaterally and suddenly withdrawn from Afghanistan. The fate of the hundreds of Afghanis who worked with Australian troops during that 20 years is still undecided. They appear to have been abandoned, although public pressure may force a change of heart by the government.

One of the least mentioned features of that conflict was that the Labor Party, although opposing the initial engagement, did nothing to withdraw Australian troops during the six years they were in government during that 20 year involvement.

Similarly, Australia was among the first of the western nations to join the entirely illegal invasion of Iraq. Again, the Labor Party retained that commitment when they were in power, although they initially opposed it. The Australian troops still occupy that country despite a unanimous resolution of the Iraqi parliament demanding that they leave. The Australian government does not bother to justify its position to the Australian parliament and in that they are unchallenged by the Labor opposition. That commitment is also rapidly approaching the 20th anniversary.

Australia’s most recent show of support for United States aggression has been to join the so-called “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea. It is in Australia’s willingness to join in blatantly anti China exercises that the gap between self-interest and adherence to United States aggression is most marked. China is Australia’s largest trading partner by a considerable margin, although the future of that relationship is now seriously in doubt. There can be no clearer example of a country pursuing a foreign policy that is manifestly at odds with its national interest than the Australian government conflict vis-à-vis China.

The United States alliance goes beyond joining a succession of wars of minimal national interest to Australia. The United States has a number of military bases in Australia, of which arguably the most important is the electronic spying facility at Pine Gap in the Northern Territory. This base had also been targeted by the Whitlam Labor government. It is absolutely no coincidence that the sacking of the Whitlam government by the attorney general John Kerr occurred the day before Whitlam was to announce to the Australian parliament his government’s intention of closing the Pine Gap facility.

That also is a policy that has been abandoned by the Labor opposition. Their foreign policy is not indistinguishable from that of the Liberal government. The fate of the Whitlam government, the last to demonstrate even an inkling of foreign policy independence, is a lesson has been well absorbed by the president Labor leadership.

Even the ignominious United States withdrawal from Afghanistan has been insufficient to encourage even a modicum of rethinking Australia’s foreign defence stances. It can only be a matter of time before Australia follows the United States into yet another war of aggression somewhere in the world. There is no reason to believe that the eventual outcome of that conflict will differ in any way from the experience of the past 70 years: vast expense, huge loss of human life and eventual humiliating retreat.

China may eventually demonstrate to the Australians that there is a price to pay for this endless adherence to the violence of a fading empire. It is a price that Australia will not bear lightly.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.