For a country relatively remote from the world’s trouble spots, Australia throughout its short history since European settlement in the late 18th century has shown a remarkable capacity to involve itself in other people’s wars. With the possible exception of Japan in World War 2 none of these wars have posed a threat to Australia’s national security.
Australia provided troops on behalf of the British in the Crimean war at a time when few Australians would have been able to locate Crimea on a map. Ironically, Tony Abbott as Prime Minister was willing to commit troops to Ukraine, again over Crimea. Australian knowledge of historical and geopolitical realities in Crimea appeared no greater in 2014 than it did in the 1850s. The major difference was the infinitely greater threat to Australia’s national security if such a foolhardy plan had eventuated and Australian troops found themselves confronting Russian forces.
Australian troops were also committed to the Boer War in South Africa, World Wars 1 and 2, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, to name just the major conflicts. All of these involvements had two major characteristics in common: at no point (with the possible exception of Japan 1942-45) were Australia’s borders or national security threatened; and each involvement was at the behest of a foreign imperial power, often on entirely spurious grounds. The last four named conflicts above had the added dimension of being contrary to international law.
Adherence to international law has increasingly become a flexible concept. Our treatment of refugees, to cite but one topical example, violates at least four major Conventions, in all of which Australia played a prominent part during their initial formulation.
A common justification advanced in support of these foreign military adventures is that they constitute a form of insurance policy, with the deaths of tens of thousands of Australian servicemen and women being the premium that has to be paid.
If we do not pay these premiums, the argument runs, the ‘policy’ expires and our ‘great and powerful friends’ the United Kingdom and more latterly the United States will not come to our aid if and when we are in turn attacked.
It has never been clear just who these aggressors might be, despite endless manufactured potential foes, nor why Australia feels the need to base its foreign policy thus when scores of countries do not feel similarly threatened nor feel the need to pay such a price for their ‘security’.
The capacity to have an intelligent debate about whether or not there are other, and better, options, is severely hampered by a number of factors. One of the major factors is the concentration of ownership of the mainstream print media. The Murdoch empire controls 70 percent of the nation’s newspapers and is run by an American citizen who does not even reside in Australia. The bulk of the balance is controlled by the Fairfax family who at least reside in Australia.
This concentration of ownership results in a degree of uniformity of opinion that Stalin would have recognised and appreciated. There is a greater diversity of media ownership and opinion in modern Russia than there is in Australia, yet the relentless message in the Australian media is that Russia is an authoritarian state where dissent from an all powerful Vladimir Putin is discouraged or worse.
Such a view would be laughable if it were not so dangerous.
For a more balanced view one has to look primarily to foreign sources, for example Professor Stephen Cohen’s weekly discussions on the John Batchelor Show, or the regular articles by Gilbert Doctorow on excellent sites such as eastwestaccord.com or Robert Parry’s Consortium News.
Academia is little better. The universities and the so-called ‘think tanks’ rely heavily on subsidies from their American equivalents, or from Australian government departments committed to the government’s policies. There is an obvious reluctance to criticise, for example, American foreign policy when such criticism endangers funding sources, promotions, and comfortable sabbaticals in the US.
A recent example of the intellectual drivel that this can lead to was found in the recent publication of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute entitled ‘Why Russia is a Threat to the International Order’. It’s author, Paul Dibb, is a former spymaster. It was an ill-informed discussion all too typical of what passes for foreign policy analysis. Not only did it demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of Russian strategic policy, it wholly accepted an American centred view of the world.
In Dibb’s world, the Americans only act from the best of intentions and for the benefit of the people unfortunate enough to to be the object of their attentions. Any analysis of the way US foreign policy is actually practised is air brushed from the reader’s attention. The treatment of Ukraine is instructive in this regard.
Dibb completely ignores the February 2014 American organised and financed coup that removed the legitimate Yanukovich government from power. He ignores the military agreement that provided for the stationing of Russian troops in Crimea; that Crimea had for centuries been part of Russia until Khrushchev ‘gifted’ Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 (without consulting the Crimeans); the overwhelming support in two referenda to secede from Ukraine and apply to rejoin the Russian Federation; the discriminatory treatment of the largely Russian speaking population of the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine; and the Kiev regime’s systematic violation of the Minsk Accords designed to find a peaceable solution to the Ukrainian conflict.
Instead, he writes that Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and its attempt through military means to detach the Donbass region in the eastern part of Ukraine have to be seen as a fundamental challenge to the post-war sanctity of Europe’s borders.”
Such historical revisionism and detachment from reality is unfortunately not confined to Dibb. It is all too common in the Australian media in all its forms.
A selective view of the world, of which Dibb is but one example, extends to a sanitising of the US’s role in post war history. The US has bombed, invaded, undermined, overthrown the governments of, and destroyed more countries and killed more people in the process over the past 70 years than all other countries in the world combined.
It’s disregard for international law, all the while proclaiming the importance of a “rules based system” is well documented.
Closer examination reveals that the “rules” in question are only applicable if written in Washington DC. Even then, consistency of application is not their dominant characteristic.
A particularly egregious but far from unique example, is the war in Syria in which Australia is also involved, even to the comical extent of admitting culpability in the “mistaken” bombing of Syrian government troops at Door Ez Zair.
The word “comical” is applicable here because we know that fighter aircraft that are not part of the Australian military inventory carried out the bombing.
That the bombing was not a mistake but rather, as several commentators have pointed out (although never in the Australian media) was much more likely to have been a deliberate sabotaging by the Ash Carter Pentagon element of the American war machine of the Kerry-Lavrov negotiated partial ceasefire.
Syrian intelligence have reported intercepts of communications between the US military and the jihadist terrorists immediately before the bombing in which their respective actions were coordinated. The bombing was followed by immediate terrorist attacks on Syrian army positions in the area and is highly unlikely to have been a coincidence.
This is of course consistent with American policy in Syria from the outset. They have sought to maintain a ludicrous distinction between “moderate” terrorists and the rest. Before the Russian intervention at the end of September 2015 they managed to avoid actually stopping the ISIS advance through large swathes of Syrian territory, and together with their Saudi and Qatari allies have trained, financed and armed the terrorists from the outset. All of which is part of a pattern of US support for terrorists, as long as they support US strategic goals.
Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker set out the antecedents of this policy in an article in 2007. Reading that article helps one appreciate, for example, why wounded jihadi fighters are treated in Israeli military hospitals in the occupied Golan Heights.
No such analysis appears in the Australian mainstream media which maintains an unswerving allegiance to only one form of analysis. This dangerous group think and intolerance of dissent is exemplified in a recent article by Peter Hartcher, the senior political correspondent of the Fairfax media.
Hartcher described what he called “rats, flies, mosquitoes and sparrows” by which he meant opponents in Australia of a war with China. The “rats” we’re politicians “compromised by China’s embrace”. The “flies” are the “unwitting mouthpieces for the interests of the Chinese regime”. The mosquitoes were Australian business people “so captivated by their financial interests that hey demand Australia assume a kowtow position”. The “sparrows” were Chinese students and Australia-Chinese associations that exist “specifically to spread China’s influence”.
In Hartcher’s view all four groups were “pests” that needed to be eradicated. To call this reversion to the worst elements of 1950s McCarthyism is probably to do the late junior Senator from Wisconsin a disservice.
Were it simply a case of ignorance it might be simply consigned to the scrap heap where it richly belongs. But it is representative of the same mindset that has led Australia into so many disastrous foreign policy misadventures that it cannot be ignored. Another reason it cannot be ignored is that it represents and reflects a widely held view among Australian politicians.
The demonisation of Russia in general and Mr Putin in particular is clearly evident in the reporting of the situation in Ukraine and Syria. The ignoring of history and the inversion of reality is the default position. Everything that Russia does is a manifestation of its “aggression”. Putin is commonly described as a “dictator” and the appalling Hillary Clinton even compared him with Hitler. That there is not a shred of evidence to support the many wild allegations against Mr Putin does not prevent their regular repetition in the western media.
Similar blindness is evident with regard to the reporting on Syria. Australia is manifestly in breach of he United Nations Charter in its participation in the attacks upon the Syrian government and its forces. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s laughable defence of the presence of the Australian military in Syria the central plank of which was specifically denied by the Iraqi government was nonetheless accepted without question by the Australian mainstream media.
The day after my article critical of Australian policy in Syria was published in New Matilda, the foreign Minister Ms Bishop told ABC Radio National that Australian forces were in Syria pursuant to the collective self-defence provisions of Article 51 of the UN Charter.
A FOI request for the legal advice on which the policy was allegedly based was refused. It had been provided 12 months before the government said the advice would be sought! It is a safe assumption that the legal advice does not support the government’s policy position.
There is more preposterous posturing over the South China Sea. The much-vaunted “freedom of navigation” demanded for shipping in the South China Sea (although no-one can point to a single instance of civilian maritime traffic being hindered in any way) is also a concept selectively applied. Just ask a Cuban, Palestinian or Yemeni if freedom of navigation is their recent or current experience of American policy.
Australia partakes annually in a US led naval exercise, Operation Talisman Sabre that rehearses the blockading of the Malacca Straits, a vital seaway for China, that along with dozens of military bases (including in Australia), missile systems surrounding China, “free trade” agreements that pointedly exclude the world’s largest trading nation, and many other aspects designed to ‘contain’ China, are not the activities of a peacefully oriented nation.
The TPP now appears dead in the water. Its most likely replacement for Australia is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which involves the ten ASEAN nations and six other States, including Australia, that have existing free trade agreements with ASEAN. China is its main driving force.
The RCEP in turn has links with BRICS, the EEU and above all the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Together with parallel financial developments, including the AIIB, and the world’s greatest infrastructure project, the One Belt, One Road policy (aka the New Silk Roads) a major transformation is taking place in the Eurasian geopolitical landscape.
Australia joined the AIIB against US wishes in a rare show of independence, and is now actively involved in the RCEP. This highlights the ambivalence that is at the heart of the Australian foreign policy debate. As Hugh White has pointed out, for the first time in its history, Australia’s major trading partners are not also its allies.
This creates an inevitable tension that is unresolved. The tension is compounded when traditional allies are themselves undergoing significant changes as recent developments in the UK and US attest.
One has only to note the visceral reaction to Penny Wong’s recent (SMH 16/11/16) modest call for a “careful and dispassionate” consideration of Australia’s foreign policy assumptions in the face of a world that is changing whether we like it or not.
Australia not only participates in clearly provocative actions of the kind referred to above. The 2015 Defence White Paper is clearly predicated on planning a war with China. Public statements by senior defence personnel, both civilian and military, reflect a militaristic mindset viz a viz China that can only be described as magical thinking given the military capacity of the PRC to obliterate Australia within 30 minutes of hostilities actually breaking out is only part of the problem.
That such thinking takes place in a context where China, the perceived enemy, is also the country’s largest trading partner by a significant margin and the source of much of Australia’s prosperity over the past 40 years reveals a strategic conundrum that the politicians have singularly failed to come to grips with. Worse, it is not even considered a matter worthy of sustained serious discussion.
By its attempted intervention in Ukraine and its conduct both in Syria and the South China Sea, Australia runs the risk of becoming involved in a full-scale shooting war with both Russia and China. Viewed objectively, here is little doubt that in any such conflagration Russia and China enjoy significant military advantages. Even that superiority is not to be recognised. Instead, Australia pursues the purchase of hugely expensive submarines and F35 fighter planes the strategic and military value of which is at best dubious and more probably, useless.
What then is the benefit to Australia of constantly putting itself in a position where the best it could hope for would be collateral damage? Reliance upon the US in such a situation where their position would be even worse is not a sound policy basis. No rational human being would advance on a course of action where the detriments so significantly outweigh the benefits, so why should a nation be any different?
With its crumbling infrastructure, endless wars that it regularly loses, a corrupt money dominated political culture, technologically inferior weaponry and enormous burgeoning debt, the US is hardly a model protector. To believe otherwise is simply delusional.
As the US based Russian blogger Dimitry Orlov has recently pointed out, Russia’s international conduct is governed by three basic principles: using military force as a reactive security measure; scrupulous adherence to international law; and seeing military action as being in the service of diplomacy.
That clearly does not accord with the relentless misinformation Australians are constantly fed but to confuse propaganda with reality is a dangerous basis upon which to formulate foreign policy.
China is also choosing a radically different path in its international relations. The One Belt, One Road, or New Silk Road initiatives, associated as they are with a range of other developments, the significance of which most Australians barely grasp, has the capacity to transform the world’s financial, economic and geopolitical structures in a remarkably short time.
The choice for Australia is stark. Does it persist in aligning itself with what the late Malcolm Fraser accurately called a ‘dangerous ally’? Or does it recognise that the world upon which its comfortable and dangerous illusions are based is rapidly changing and adjust its alliances and policies accordingly.
At the moment Australia has the luxury of choice, but it is an opportunity that will vanish very quickly. Unfortunately, the lesson of history is that Australia will again make the wrong choice.