Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2015

Dangerous Allies, by Malcolm Fraser #BookReview

Dangerous AlliesIt was when I was reading Simon Mawer’s Tightrope (see my review) and came across the part about the American betrayal of its allies in the late stages of WW2, that I remembered that I wanted to read Dangerous Allies by Malcolm Fraser in which he argues that Australia should be more independent of the US in its foreign policy.  The notable point about this opinion being that Fraser was a Defence Minister who acquiesced to the Americans, sending men too young to vote to fight and die in the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call the American War).  Fraser was also the Liberal Prime Minister who went to his grave with unanswered questions about any external involvement in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975 (thus disappointing any conspiracy theorists who naïvely thought he might one day ‘fess up).  So this book is not predictable Leftie anti-American stuff; this is a book by a conservative…

(No, I don’t believe that leopards change their spots.)

Well, the book came in from the library (no way I was going to add to the Fraser coffers by buying it!) and I have just finished reading it. It’s a bit repetitive here and there, and a lot of it is clunky.  I admit to skimming over the chapter about the history of Australia’s transition to a fully independent nation as distinct from one which relied on the Brits for defence and foreign policy and which had no ambition to change that.

(I’m not slack, it’s just that I already know all that from doing Constitutional Law at Queensland University, but also because I was paying attention to Gough when he talked about the remnant bits of dependence that lurk in our systems of law and governance.  But if you weren’t paying attention when someone interesting like Gough was talking about it with such eloquence and passion, you’re not very likely to find it interesting at all in this somewhat plodding book. )

Anyway, (leaving aside that there might not be anybody left to care after a nuclear war) Fraser’s message is that Australia’s alliance with the US makes us vulnerable in the event of a stoush between China and the US, probably triggered by Japan and the issue of those islands with a hybrid name (Diaoyu/Senkaku).   (He says) the US would probably lose since they’ve already lost three wars because they don’t have the domestic fortitude to win (Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan).  If the US retreated to the western hemisphere to resume an isolationist position, that would leave us friendless and adrift in Asia… [LH Goodness knows how we would get on if they refused to trade with us, now that we have jettisoned most of our manufacturing industry, including the food processing and car industries].

Fraser also says that our continued hosting of Pine Gap and the Marine Air-Ground Task Force in Darwin and other US bases makes us complicit over assorted dubious US activities (e.g. the use of drones which kill civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia).  And while our alliance makes it hard impossible for us to stay out of any war between China and the US, his analysis is that we ought not expect that they would reciprocate that alliance if we had some dispute with our only conceivable threat, our neighbour Indonesia. (Amongst other examples, he cites US lack of enthusiasm for helping with the Timor peace-keeping force.)  Fortified by American belief in its own exceptionalism and its God-given destiny as Leader of the Free World, the US acts in its own interest, he says, and it’s not in their interest to worry much about Australia.  Especially not since we always go along with what they want, whether it’s in our interests or not.

The chapter on Evatt’s post-war role in the UN was interesting (and surprisingly benign).  So too was the chapter about how, despite a rocky start, South-east Asian nations in the post colonial period have set up their own initiatives for development and peace in the region.  But I had to grit my teeth to read the sections about the Vietnam War, in which blame apparently lies entirely with first, French intransigence and then US duplicity in the service of the prevailing Cold War rhetoric, and for which he, Fraser, as a very junior minister complying with the pattern of Australia’s strategic dependence, takes no responsibility.  Everybody thought communism was monolithic, you see, so everybody believed in the domino effect.  Oh, ok, then…

For Fraser, the end of the Cold War was a game-changer, because American hubris since it achieved sole superpower status makes it a dubious ally.  In amongst all the waffle, Fraser seems to be saying that whereas once we shared their values, now we do not.  This manifests itself in ugly ways such as their pursuit and assassination of terrorists within allied countries; their refusal to allow the International Court of Justice to have jurisdiction over Americans; and their abrogation of human rights in the service of their own security.  He doesn’t mention US use of torture or Guantanamo Bay (unless I missed it) but those are examples that we all know about.

[LH: There are echoes of this attitude to abandoning long held values in Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s latest pronouncements about likely Australian willingness to join the US in the bombing of Syria:

He [Abbott] acknowledged legal differences between carrying out strikes in Iraq compared to Syria, but indicated that would not be a roadblock.

“While there is a little difference between the legalities of air strikes on either side of the border, there’s no difference in the morality,” he said.

“Whether it’s operating in Iraq or Syria it [ISIS] is an absolutely evil movement and in the end, when they don’t respect the border, the question is why should we?” (Source: ABC News)

Indeed.]

Anyway … Fraser’s position is that strategic dependence was a foreign policy that served us well.  We needed Britain till WW2, and there were benefits in the alliance with the US until the end of the Cold War.   But now it’s time for an independent foreign policy for Australia, and if Canada and New Zealand can have an independent foreign policy, why can’t we?

And so on.

In other words, there’s nothing really new in what Fraser says in Dangerous Allies, what’s new is that he’s the one that’s saying it.  (Or was, he died earlier this year).

What’s a bit depressing about Dangerous Allies is that whether you agree with any or all of what Fraser says, the difficulties in extricating ourselves from the US alliance seem insurmountable.  I don’t like the idea that our leaders over time seem to have put us into a position where we no longer have any choice about it.

Is Dangerous Allies likely to have any influence?  Not according to Mark Beeson, reviewing it at The Conversation.  But he has a higher opinion of its worth than I do:

Nevertheless, this is one of the most original and timely contributions to a debate that, with a few honourable exceptions, tends to be sterile, predictable and unchanged since the end of World War Two.

As Fraser points out, the world has changed profoundly in the interim. It’s about time some of our thinking began to reflect the new realities, too, he suggests. An independent Australia could actually play a useful role in doing precisely that.

Don’t hold your breath…

PS Hats off to the designer of that clever bookcover! It’s by Design by Committee.

Author: Malcolm Fraser, with Cain Roberts
Title: Dangerous Allies
Publisher: Melbourne University Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780522862652
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. Lisa, I enjoyed your review for your hostility toward Fraser! Like many, I’d come to see him very positively in recent years, but you’ve reminded us of some important history. An apology about Vietnam would have been an appropriate parting gesture from him, perhaps?

    • LOL Nathan I was maintaining my rage long before November 11th 1975. I find it outrageous that so many politicians left and right acquiesce in sending soldiers off to dubious wars – but when they conscripted young men who had no vote it was unforgiveable. At the time of my first vote (I was too young to vote in 1972) I decided that I would never ever vote for any party that had any of That Lot among them, and the higher up the food chain they were, the more I despised them. And no road-to-Damascus political conversion or belated Care penance could change that any more than it could bring back the dead.
      It wasn’t just that I had a son and knew that none of them were ever to be trusted, it was also that those decisions created rifts in families and communities that persist to this day.

  2. Your reading pace is a little scary. I feel like such a slowpoke.

    Enjoyed reading your reviews as always. Even though I don’t think this book is for me.

    • LOL, I don’t really think this book was for me either. I only read it because I’d vaguely heard about it, and remembered that Fraser had written something about the US not being an ally to be relied on, when I read in the Mawer novel about the American betrayal during WW2. In Mawer’s book that refers to the US not sharing their nuclear progress and plans with their allies i.e. the Brits not the Russians. (And keeping us in the dark too, of course, but I don’t imagine anyone would have thought Australia should be kept in the loop, not even us.)

      I was curious about this attitude because I hadn’t come across it before. Although I don’t approve of anyone making and using weapons of mass destruction, It made sense to me that the US wouldn’t tell anyone for strategic reasons, especially not the Russians who were also their allies at the time, about their bomb. But (unless Mawer has made it up) in Britain, the US keeping secret their progress with nuclear armaments from their *British* allies during WW2 must still rankle, at least in some places. Many people around the world were and are still angry about the US using the atomic bomb at all, but until I read Mawer’s book, I had no idea that there was resentment that they’d kept so quiet about it.

      Fraser’s book came to mind because it wasn’t just the usual Leftie anti-American stuff that’s everywhere… but truth be told, unless you’re a foreign policy wonk it’s probably more than you need or want to know. Perhaps we should all take more notice of what is done in our name in terms of foreign policy but I suspect that it’s not on the agenda of many people…

  3. Love your work, Lisa! My attitude to Fraser could only ever be described as ‘anti’ and ‘virulent’, I never accepted that the Minister for War (Army and then Defence) had changed his spots. Thankyou for summarising this book, that’s one less I have to read.

    • Pleased to be of service:)


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