Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2020

Australian Foreign Affairs #8 (2020): Can We Trust America? A Superpower in Transition, edited by Jonathan Pearlman

It seems only a short while ago that I read Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies in which he questioned whether the US alliance was still a useful foreign policy option for Australia, but it was actually six years ago.  That book was published back in 2014, when the world was a very different place.  That was before the Brexit referendum and it was when President Obama was in the White House.  We had our own troubles here with Tony Abbott as our embarrassing Prime Minister, but back then we could not have imagined that before long there would be clowns like him in power elsewhere, nor could we have guessed how much damage they could do to a fairly stable world order.

So this issue of Australian Foreign Affairs is timely.  The blurb tells you its contents:

The eighth issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines the changing status of the United States as its dominance in the Asia-Pacific faces challenge from China and its “America First” foreign policy marks a shift away from global engagement.  Can We Trust America? looks at the uncertainties for Australia as questions arise about the commitment of its closest ally. Michael Wesley calls for an alliance makeover as China’s ambition puts US–Australian ties under strain. Felicity Ruby delves into the uses and consequences of America’s intelligence and surveillance facilities in Australia. Brendan Taylor explores how the United States can strengthen its position in a contested Asia. Kelly Magsamen reports from America on how it can preserve and enhance its role as a great power. John Blaxland proposes a compact with our Pacific island neighbours.

There are book reviews too, in which Helen Clark reflects on the role of foreign policy advisers, and Jacinta Carroll probes the making of Australia’s security state.

Michael Wesley’s article covers recent shifts in Australia’s thinking about the American alliance, but it concludes with the surprising advice that America needs us more now than it has in the past, and that we should stop invoking loyalty and sacrifice to give the alliance a marriage-like status.  What has happened, he says, is that since 9/11, both sides of politics in Australia have shaped a narrative about US/Australian shared values, and these have been invoked to create a slick marketing campaign about fighting shoulder-to-shoulder from one end of Eurasia to the other. This narrative…

…occludes the true history of the partnership, ignoring the complementarities and disagreements, the strategic calculations and limited liability commitments, in favour of a chronical of mutual loyalty, ideological solidarity and undying fealty. (p.21)

But the reality is that America wants to deny supremacy to any other power, and that means they want to return to their traditional strategy in Asia to counter China.  They need to disperse their military bases and that means that our geography is important to them.  But from our point of view…

Primarily, we should seek to make it less about fighting a seemingly inevitable war and more about preventing an entirely avoidable one.  As Sino-American rivalry deepens, the weight of our attention is on our alliance obligations in the event of war.  We forget that the primary reason for alliances is to prevent wars.  In the fervid dread about China, the challenge of Asia has dragged Australia and the United States into a military mindset, to the detriment of the diplomatic and developmental arms of their statecraft.

No doubt a clever military strategy will be necessary to prevent China from dominating the region, but it will not be sufficient.  We must deploy the other arms of our statecraft to build a set of institutions and norms to stabilise a contested power order, or the region will become increasingly prone to conflict.  (p.27)

Felicity Ruby’s essay ‘Silent Partners’ begins with the shocking image of Trump and Morrison having dinner in the White House, while only hours before Pine Gap had almost certainly helped aim the drone that mistook Afghan pine-nut farmers for Islamic State fighters.  Thirty civilians were killed, and forty were injured.  In the same week, she tells us, the memoir of the whistleblower Edward Snowden was published, a reminder that what is in the public domain about the Five Eyes signals intelligence-gathering alliance, is known only because of him.  Her point is that:

At a time when faith in the rules-based international order and trust in the United States’ willingness and capacity to exercise global leadership is decreasing, Australians need to understand the functions of Pine Gap and similar facilities and to evaluate the role they play in the nation’s defences, foreign policy and international standing. (p. 31)

It’s rather creepy to read that successive Australian Prime Ministers from Gorton to Whitlam did not know some really basic information about Pine Gap, since revealed by Snowden and by Wikileaks.  There is a legitimate case for some operational secrecy  but that ought surely not to apply to the highest levels of our government!

Malcolm Fraser makes an appearance in this essay: during the trial of six people who entered Pine Gap territory during the 2016 protests, the judge allowed him to be a surprise witness when he…

…allowed a seven-minute ABC Radio interview with former prime minister Malcolm Fraser to be played to the jury.  All in the court heard his distinctive voice echoing the concerns shared by the defendants about the role of Pine Gap in nuclear and conventional wars and drone strikes, and in the undermining of Australia’s potential for an independent foreign policy.

Fraser’s reversal of opinion on Pine Gap carried weight because of his roles as defence minister and prime minister, as well as his attempt during the Whitlam dismissal to amplify the controversy over the lease renewal on Pine Gap, which had recently been revealed to have significant CIA connections. (p.46)

Exactly.  As I said in my review the view that the expanded role of Pine Gap was actually dangerous to Australia carries a different kind of freight when it’s expressed by an old Conservative.  Ruby contrasts that with academic Hugh White’s  How to Defend Australia which, she says, fails to acknowledge the risk to Australia from nuclear weapons that facilities such as Pine Gap represent.  

And it’s ironic that we can’t ourselves comply with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — an Australian initiative that won the Novel Peace Prize —  unless the United States shuts down the relay ground station at Pine Gap that supports nuclear warfighting systems.

Brendan Taylor’s ‘Message to Washington’ builds on Michael Wesley’s point that we can and should keep out of US-China hostilities, and he invokes the situation at the start of the Cold War as a guide, when strategist and diplomat Dean Acheson recommended countering Moscow’s strength, aggression and expansionist plans with what were called ‘situations of strength’, areas around the Soviet perihery where America was so strong that Moscow wouldn’t even contemplate aggression there.  Taylor acknowledges that implementation of this strategy was muddled but America needs to get its current directionless act together because they face challenges in their relationships with Taiwan, the issues in the South China Sea, and the fact that geography favours China too strongly in these growing situations of weakness.  

But of course Trump is the problem here.  The US has never liked balance-of-power politics anyway, and it likes to see itself as exceptional, and now they have a president with an overt disdain for alliances and a dysfunctional administration. Taylor seems to think that Australia has a role to play in counselling America. I would like to think he’s right, but the Morrison government doesn’t exactly inspire confidence…

Kelly Magsamen writes about the longer view, beyond the next presidential election. He says that the strategy of ensuring US dominance in all areas is outdated and expensive to pursue.

A more realistic approach than chasing primacy or pulling back would be for the United States to aim to ensure that all countries in the region can make their own security and economic choices, free from coercion. (p.78)

I suspect that’s an approach that a lot of countries in our region would prefer too. But intriguingly, Magsamen says that the US can only achieve a competitive political and economic model in this contested arena if it invests in its own people because they are its competitive strength.  The problem is that:

The basic economic and social compact with the American middle class that propelled the United States into the role of global superpower and ensure this position for decades is increasingly at risk. (p.79)

It would be interesting to know more about what she means by this, other than the need to solve domestic problems like gun violence and governance issues, and dealing with the growing distrust of American democracy and its institutions.

One of the things I like about this journal is that its contributors don’t always share the same opinions.  Magsamen, for example, contests Taylor’s suggestions about using the Acheson model, basically because the US and Chinese economies are  as co-dependent as they are rivalrous which was not the case with the US and the USSR.

John Blaxland’s ‘The Fix’ shifts the focus onto the micro states of the Pacific, suggesting that we develop mutually beneficial compacts with our smaller neighbours.  Obviously there would be sensitivities about this, and it will only work if Australia avoids a patronising, domineering and selfish approach, and agrees to safeguards that ensure the dignity of the states involved.  It would be interesting to learn more about this, perhaps in another AFF journal.

I really like these long form essays which take the place of what I used to be able to read in the quality press.

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  Can We Trust America? A Superpower in Transition
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 8, February 2020
ISBN: 9781760641771
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library





  1. No, I don’t think we can trust America, basically. And so interesting what you say about long-form journalism. It’s pretty dead here too, apart from in specialist publications like the TLS or LRB. Our media is broken…


    • Well, I am finding my subscriptions to this one and to Quarterly Essay a good substitute. The problem is that because they involve a paid subscription, although it’s not expensive and it’s very good value, not everyone will read them, in the way that long form journalism was read by a very wide audience. And that’s not good for the kind of informed public opinion that these writers say we need to have.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Lisa, for reminding me of this excellent journal. I’ve now placed a standing reservation at the library.


    • That’s interesting, what is a standing reservation?


  3. I read a lot of politics but a collection of long form essays would be beyond me, so well done, and thank you for the concise summaries. But can we trust America? No. Not with this ‘president’ and not with any president – except Carter? – in my lifetime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suppose the thing is, who can we trust? The world is messy, and all countries legitimately look to their own self-interest. Alliances at best are only compromised expressions of intent, based on perceived assessments of similar interests…


  4. Right – don’t trust Trump – or the US actually, not now . We’ve lost ground since the 1950s when we were great and we’re been stagnant since the 1970s and there are folks here who are just plain stomping mad about that. . They want the old days back – that’s how they think.

    Trump has no one’s interests at heart except those of his immediate family.. Sad, sad, sad – it’s breaking the hearts of many of us. The election will not. end it, because if Trump doesn’t win he’ll just take everyone to court about it all. (Imo, the current mess was kind of unavoidable because Trump thought he would lose and then take Hillary to court to impeach her.) He’s changed so much … I so miss Obama.


    • It’s a real mess, isn’t it. And the worst of it is, that China can with some authority say to its people, look at what happens when you have democracy, is that what you really want? The standard of living in China has gone ahead in leaps and bounds at all levels of society, and in the democracies, the people at the bottom are worse off than they’ve ever been.


  5. […] Can We Trust America? A Superpower in Transition (2020) edited by Jonathan Pearlman […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: