Australian Foreign Policy

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at
Mon Oct 11 01:52:16 MDT 1999

A moral foreign affair?

The debate around Australian foreign policy has been conducted at an unusual
level of intensity. Normally foreign policy is the terrain of bipartisanship;
the arena of taboos;  the arena where Australia’s “national” interests are
supposed to be at stake and so there must be no disagreement.  Once the
conservative parties had the advantage here. Labor were generally on the
defensive and anxious to prove they were loyal Australians and had no
subversive or pro-communist tendencies. However since the absolute dominance of
the New South Wales Right within the Labor Party and the collapse of the Left
not even the most paranoid of Americans could accuse the likes of Hawke,
Keating and now Beasley of being in anyway resistant to Washington’s wishes.
So Labor’s instincts are now not to raise foreign policy issues but to go along
with what the Americans and the Conservatives and the military establishment
want.  However all this seems to have been changed by the East Timor situation
and daily in the media the political parties are fighting it out.

The danger here is that one could be misled by the noise of the debate into
thinking that somehow foreign policy was now being democratised and if you were
to believe John Howard also being placed on a moral basis. Indeed as in his
banning of the guns, Howard has made a bid for the moral high ground.  He
presents himself as an ‘idealist’.  He has been made to look decent by the
‘realists’ - Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam.  Neither of these two have any
claim or pretence to morality over East Timor.  But instead of admitting their
crimes and apologising they have both defended their support for the Indonesian
butchers.  So the media have presented the debate as one between the ‘idealist’
Howard and the ‘realists’ led by Keating.  As usual the media have got it wrong
and it is necessary to look beyond the surface flow of events and speeches to
work out the underlying reality.  Let us try and do just that.

The Debate unfolds

Initially in the debate everything seemed to be going so well for John Howard.
His ‘handling’ of the East Timor situation, the ecstatic farewells to the young
men he is sending into danger, and the meetings where people like the President
of the US actually remembered his name all transported him to a new pinnacle of
rapture. To add to the overflowing cup, Peter Costello chose the same period to
announce his challenge for the leadership.  Howard was able to laugh off his
deputy’s attempt to destabilise him.

The Labor Party sensed they had to do something.  Unfortunately they were
unable to develop an attack from their favoured direction.  They could not
outflank Howard from the Right.  So the Labor Party tried the unusual tactic of
actually mounting a left criticism.  This was like the dog walking on two legs.
It was not well done, but the remarkable thing was that it was done at all. The
ALP dug up from 1985 a quote from Howard saying that the Left’s continual
harping on East Timor was souring relations with Indonesia.  Howard got to his
feet and promptly reminded the members of the ALP that they had participated
fully in a bi-partisanship around East Timor. There had never been any
disagreements between the political parties.  He did not say so explicitly but
the strong inference was that they had all agreed to hand East Timor over to
the Indonesians. That was game set and match to Howard.

However pride comes before a fall, and Howard got carried away with his new
significance.  The Bulletin produced an interview where the ‘Howard Doctrine’
was unveiled.  This nation it seems was now to be the “deputy” for the USA in
this region.  Such ambition! We were now to aspire to be the attack dog for the
Americans. Regional leaders responded with hostility. Professional diplomats
and commentators threw up their hands in horror. A revived Beasley, seizing an
opportunity to move to the Right once more, was able to score on his rival. He
accused Howard of treating foreign policy like tissues  use it and lose it.
Howard ducked and weaved and was forced to resort to that old lie - the last
refuge of scoundrels and politicians.  He was ‘misquoted’.

The enduring basis of Australia’s foreign policy

But what was Howard’s crime?  Had he in fact announced a radically new policy
turn?  The answer is an emphatic  NO.  Australia has been a deputy of the US in
this region since WW2. From Malaysia to Vietnam, it has been “all the way with
LBJ” and whoever else is leading the latest American attempt to dominate the
world.  Beasley himself at a high-level Australia-USA seminar in 1996 had said
that the key imperative for Australia was to keep the USA involved in the
Asia-Pacific region, and that the chief problem was that Australians did not
see the necessity for this. Howard’s mistake was to make the role of the US and
Australia in all this explicit. Everyone knows that the US dominates the world.
Everyone knows that the USA consumes over 70% of the world’s resources.
Everyone knows that the USA believes it has the right to bomb its opponents
into submission, but you must not say this. The official line is still that the
USA is the leader of the '‘Free World”.

What exactly is Australia’s role in this scenario?  What is meant by the word
‘deputy’ here? Well the best expression of this is in T.S. Eliot’s The Love
of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Each Australian Prime Ministers is meant to be

…an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Harold Holt was perhaps the most accomplished player of this role.  But the
other Prime Ministers, from John Gorton to Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, all gave
it their best shot.  However it is part of Howard’s nature that he longs to
play the role of the Prince and to strut upon the world stage as the lead
player. So he over-reached himself and his great triumph ended in an
ignominious back down.

>From anti-communism to ‘humanitarianism’

Yet we should not allow the joy of seeing Howard fall on his face distract us
from grasping the reality underlying his incompetence.  We are moving into an
era where Australia will try and boost its military role in the region.   This
was foreshadowed in the 1997 Defence Policy document leaked by the Bulletin in
1999. Australia will try and become more important to the Americans. What is
new about what is going to happen is that the target is no longer just
Communist regimes or resistance movements.   The targets now include the
corrupt oligarchs who were the former allies of America and Australia

As in East Timor, humanitarian concerns will be used to dampen public criticism
of the cost of this adventurism.  The Australian government now knows that with
the judicious use of the media and Non Government Agencies it can whip the
public up into a frenzy and it can also rely on groups of gullible left
liberals to demand that the government ‘do something’.  The resistance to
Australian militarism, which was the great legacy of the Anti-Vietnam War
movement of the 60s, has been dissipated.  A new phase of Australian
imperialism and military adventurism has arrived.

The Debate explained

Of course with all policy changes, there are differences within the ruling
elites. Roughly speaking there are three positions.  Sections of the ALP such
as Paul Keating, Gough Whitlam and Mark Latham want to maintain Australia’s
links with the old-anti-communist regimes.  Thus Keating has described
Indonesia as our ‘largest and nearest neighbour’. It would seem that he still
wants to go to Jakarta and find some filthy butcher to call ‘uncle’. But
anti-communism is passé. Imperialism wears the mask of humanitarianism
nowadays.  America now wants to rule the world in the name of ‘liberal’
democracy and ‘morality’. So Keating has had to climb down and promise Beasley
that he will shut up.

The second approach  is that of Howard, Downer and Moore. It would be difficult
to find a more intellectually challenged group of politicians. They are giving
the new imperialism a distinctly old-fashioned British Imperialist tinge.  It
is as if mad dogs and Englishmen and their Australian imitators still want to
go out in the midday sun.  Howard’s antiquated white colonialism makes him
peculiarly unsuited to deal with modern Asia.  For deep within he is an Anglo
a white colonist who can barely disguise his contempt for Asians.  He longs
above all for a breakthrough to the past.  In his dreaming he is a new Clive or
another Raffles. Of course Britannia no longer rules the waves, but the
Americans are there as a second best White Option. It was Howard’s mistake to
put his favoured white-colonial spin on the new imperialism with his
proclamation of the ‘Howard Doctrine’. For Howard Australia is ‘not part of
Asia’.  That is code for - Australia is a white country surrounded by the
Yellow peril. Still like most Anglos, Howard is more and willing to take up the
‘white man’s burden and teach the ‘wogs’ to behave. Needless to say there has
been a strong reaction to this in Asia and in Jakarta there been calls to hang
Howard. These are deplorable.  Let me try that line again. These are
deplorable.  Still cannot get it right…ah well...

There is another section of the elites who support Australia’s increased
militarism and the return to the notion of ‘forward defence’.  They approve of
the need to send Australian troops into Asian countries.  They have endorsed
the East Timor adventure, which has given Australia a new colony. However they
also fear that the anti-Asian impulse of the ‘Howard Doctrine’ will isolate us
within the region. This is the line taken by The Australian’s Paul Kelly. They
are prepared to support the rhetoric of humanitarianism, of a ‘moral’ foreign
policy.  However morality is a two edged sword. It is capable of getting out of
control. An absolutely moral foreign policy would demand that Australia support
the movements for liberation within our region and that can not be contemplated
by the likes of Kelly.  So Kelly and Sheridan and others now want to temper the
‘idealism’ with a dose of what they term ‘realism’.

The fruits of the East Timor intervention

Howard’s statement that he intends to ‘reverse 25 years of over-accommodation
to Indonesia by governments on both sides of politics in this country’ has
terrified the cautious. There is always the chance that the Americans who are
driving the new ‘humanitarian’ policy will leave Australia in the lurch. We
know for instance that Admiral Blair, the Supreme Commander of American forces
in this region, gave the green light to General Wiranto for militia action at
meetings on the 8th and 18th of April this year.  By contrast this week William
Cohen, US Secretary of Defence, warned the Indonesian military not to use West
Timor as a base for guerrilla attacks against East Timor. So the Indonesians
are getting mixed signals.

Within Indonesia itself the struggle among the elites is over how much they
will have to give into the push from the US to open up their economy to the
multi-nationals. The danger for the elites is that weakening the military’s
grip on the economy could break the military and lead to widespread social
unrest. Habibie seems to want to lead the most compliant section. Wiranto
however would appear to be manoeuvring to take charge of what used to be the
Suharto wing. This is thoroughly anti-communist, and also determined to retain
its corrupt monopoly grip on the economy. At heart however Wiranto,
Sukarnoputri and Habibie have no intention of defying the Americans.  They will
do what their Americans bosses tell them to.  But they will throw the
Australians to the outraged Indonesian nationalists as a sop.  Thus the
Indonesian press has been saying that America supports Indonesia and that the
problem is only Australia.  As a consequence there have been anti-Australian
demonstrations and now talk of a total break in diplomatic relations. Keating
has gone as far as to say that Indonesia is now ‘at our throats’.


So the situation is very fluid.  We here in Australia will certainly have to
fight the upsurge in Australian militarism.  That is undoubtedly the bad news.
The good news is twofold. Firstly the notion of a moral foreign policy has been
advanced.  We on the Left should take this up and demand that international
relations should be on the basis of morality.  We should also say that this
means we support the struggles for freedom of people everywhere.  For example
in East Timor we should be arming the freedom fighters of Falantil, not
threatening to disarm them.

The second aspect of the good news is that International Relations is far from
an exact science and there is no guarantee that reforming the dictatorial
oligarchs in Indonesia will not leave a space for social unrest to assume a
political and even insurrectional character. Let us hope so for the coming to
power in Indonesia of a revolutionary government would be the spark that would
revive the struggle for emancipation in this region and elsewhere throughout
the world.

More information about the Marxism mailing list