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US alliance heavyweight bout: Malcolm Fraser versus Bruce Grant

Posted By on April 18, 2017 @ 06:00

Image courtesy of Pixabay user andreas160578.

How does an independent Australia make its way in Asia? And can Australia have an Asian future while holding tight to the alliance with its great and powerful friend?

The ‘great and powerful’ reference speaks the truth that the alliance questions once directed at Britain recur in the relationship with the US.

The aches and arguments about identity, interest and geography have pushed and pulled at Oz since it became a nation in 1901. My understanding of the emotions of the aches and the intensity of the argument owes much to the journalist and public intellectual Bruce Grant (nine of his books are on my shelves).

At the age of 92, Grant has distilled a life devoted to thinking about Australia’s world in a memoir, ‘Subtle Moments: Scenes on a Life’s Journey.’ [1] My review of the book for Inside Story [2] describes it as a coming of age story about a man and his country.

One Grant story that didn’t get into the review makes a perfect yarn for The Strategist. It’s his account of a heavyweight bout with the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, about whether Australia can have a future in Asia while maintaining the US alliance. Grant answered ‘Yes’ while Fraser answered ‘No’.

Start with a form guide for the two champs.

Malcolm Fraser’s final geopolitical gift to Oz before his death was his 2014 book ‘Dangerous Allies’ [3], which made him the first Oz PM to argue for armed neutrality, not alliance. [4] Fraser wasn’t isolationist; he wanted Australia to have a full Asian future. But to have that future, he wrote, would mean escaping our cage as a ‘strategic captive’ of the US. He advocated the end of the US alliance and closure of Pine Gap [5], seeing America and Japan as more of a threat to Australia than China.

The man who ranks behind only Menzies and Howard in his tenure as a Liberal PM had produced a radical iconoclast’s lament, a provoking and passionate attack on the orthodoxies of Australian strategy. For the first time in our history as a nation, Australia had a Prime Minister (granted, an ex-PM) arguing for an end to our addiction to great and powerful protectors.

Bruce Grant came to a different conclusion when arguing over the same ground in his 2004 book, ‘Fatal Attraction – Reflections on the Alliance with the United States’ [6], which Fraser launched. Grant argued that Australia didn’t have to be a subservient alliance spear carrier, and that the alliance shouldn’t define how Australia saw itself and its future. Yet, Grant wrote, the alliance had great value: ‘Australia benefits from the alliance with the US which is why, pragmatically, we should keep it. The practicalities of Australia’s geo-politics argue for it.’

Shortly before Fraser’s death, he had a conversation with Grant about the role that middle-power Oz could play in Asia. Grant’s memoir records how Fraser punched hard at Grant’s view that Australia didn’t have to reject the alliance in order to take independent initiatives in the region. Grant conceded some strong points to the ex-PM as they went the rounds about the rise and fall of great powers, the coming of industrial Asia and how China’s rise threatens the potency of America’s business model. And here’s Grant’s masterful conclusion on the slugfest between two fine heavyweights:

‘A combination of military power, commercial primacy and religious conviction makes American political leadership impatient with the slow processes of multilateral diplomacy. The list of abstinence or resistance by the US on global issues is lengthy. In these circumstances, the most valuable service Australia can provide as a friend of the United States is to persuade it to accept a non-dominant leadership role in our region, urging it to use its currently strong position to help build a security regime, so that when it is no longer as powerful as it is now, its people and territory will still prosper and be safe.

‘I suspect that my differences with Malcolm Eraser were emotional as much as strategic. He had a low opinion of the Australian public, which he believed was trapped in a culture of entitlement and contentment, defying his admonition that “life was not meant to easy.” I believed that Australia, by the fortune of both history and geography, was unique, and its people, neither better nor worse than any other, had no choice except to respond to the existential challenge of where they lived. Responding to the contemporary opportunity would bring out the best in us.

‘It will not be easy (vale Malcolm). Political leaders will need to develop skills that enable them to keep the support of their own people while at the same time collaborating openly with other people and other states.’

Bruce Grant’s ‘Subtle Moments’ has much more of this vintage. As ever, Grant’s words are thoughtful and elegant, offering parallel lives of one man and the journey of a young nation that has much further to go.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/us-alliance-heavyweight-bout-malcolm-fraser-versus-bruce-grant/

URLs in this post:

[1] ‘Subtle Moments: Scenes on a Life’s Journey.’: http://www.publishing.monash.edu/books/sm-9781925495355.html

[2] Inside Story: http://insidestory.org.au/parallel-lives

[3] ‘Dangerous Allies’: https://www.mup.com.au/items/189525

[4] armed neutrality, not alliance.: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/an-anti-alliance-prime-minister/

[5] Pine Gap: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pine_Gap

[6] ‘Fatal Attraction – Reflections on the Alliance with the United States’: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=lJKS4s1F6NMC&pg=PT3&dq=bruce+grant+fatal+attraction&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=bruce%20grant%20fatal%20attraction&f=false

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