Our US alliance needs a strong Australian voice
19 Oct 2017|

Since the election of Donald Trump, the calls have raged in some quarters of Australia for Australia to abandon the US alliance. It is an alliance of more than 65 years which has withstood personality clashes and policy differences in the past and I believe it can withstand them now.

So those of us who believe this is an alliance that deserves to endure need to speak up in its defence. Australia can have an independent foreign policy and a strong alliance with the United States, as Labor leaders have long proved.

So it was with the late, great Gough Whitlam, who took issue with Richard Nixon over the Christmas bombings of December 1972 on the major population centres of North Vietnam, Hanoi and Haiphong. According to James Curran in The Interpreter, Whitlam wrote to Nixon to express his grave concern at the resumption of the bombing, questioning whether it would achieve the objective of bringing the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table. Clive Cameron declared the White House full of ‘maniacs’. Tom Uren accused Nixon of committing ‘mass murder’ and ‘acting with the mentality of thuggery’. And Jim Cairns lamented ‘the most brutal, indiscriminate slaughter of women and children in living memory’.

The Maritime Union banned American shipping in Australian ports, which was reciprocated by the US International Longshoremen’s Association. Henry Kissinger called our embassy in Washington, complaining to the charge d’affaires, ‘We are not particularly amused at being put by an ally on the same level as our enemy,’ and Australia was put in the freezer for a few months. Nixon only reluctantly agreed to give Whitlam a one-hour meeting in the Oval Office in late July 1973. There were no toasts, no speeches, no state dinner and no welcome on the White House lawn. Over the life of the Whitlam government, the two countries continued to disagree over regional architecture, the idea of a zone of peace in Southeast Asia and Indian Ocean neutrality, and yet the alliance endured.

The recent commentary on the alliance in some quarters has assumed that Australia is always a lapdog in the relationship with America—obsequious, compliant and obedient. But Labor has proved that that doesn’t have to be true. Too often under the coalition we have been ‘all the way with LBJ’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda with you’. But Labor has always known how to preserve the alliance and Australia’s dignity. In the 1980s, Bob Hawke faced down the US over the MX missile crisis. As Gareth Evans notes in Incorrigible Optimist, Hawke said at the time:

we are not an aligned country which had to agree, or did agree, with every single aspect of US policymaking … In the expression of those differences of opinion you do not militate against the alliance. They are a reflection of its basic strength.

Under Hawke and Keating there were other notable disagreements with Washington, including sanctions against South Africa, ratification of the Geneva protocol on the rules of war, the urgency of the comprehensive test ban treaty and the banning of mining and oil drilling in Antarctica.

In fairness, sometimes even the coalition can find Australia’s voice in the alliance. In the late 1990s, I worked on the Middle East desk in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and on the normalisation of our relationship with Iran. The normalisation involved the first ministerial visit in 10 years and a trade delegation of Australian businesses looking to explore opportunities.

The visit attracted a great deal of interest, particularly from the US embassy. I took the records of a number of conversations between the minister for trade, Tim Fischer, and the US ambassador, where it was made very, very plain that the United States was underwhelmed with Australia’s plans to normalise the relationship with Iran, and where Tim Fischer made it very, very plain that it was in Australia’s interests to do so.

Australia has dealt with difficult American presidents before and shown that a true friend speaks truth to power. We need to do that now. As James Curran writes, our foreign policy has a tradition of seeking greater interdependence within, or at times without, the alliance. This is what wins Washington’s respect. America needs a more discerning ally and sometimes an ally that can say no. The alliance is stronger and healthier for its disagreements.