Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Dotage

fraser ancient2Three new books arrived in the Quadrant office last month discussing, in varying degrees, the question of Australian independence. According to Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies (MUP), our lack of independence as a nation and our consequent craving for it remain our deepest psychological flaw. “Almost a century of strategic dependence has left an indelible mark on the Australian psyche,” Fraser claims. “We almost crave a great and powerful friend; it is a part of who we are as a nation.”

He argues that Australia today is a “strategic captive” of the United States. This gives us not only an embarrassing and inferior status within our alliance but also in the eyes of other nations. In the rest of the world we are “regarded as a surrogate voice of America and therefore wield no true influence”. Even worse, Fraser says, we have given away our right to decide when we go to war: “we cannot even contribute usefully to the debate, and we would be drawn into any war that involved the United States”.

Yet the other two newly arrived books provide plenty of evidence to show that Fraser misjudges the historical record of Australia’s defence and foreign policy as much as he does our national psyche.

Anne Henderson’s new book, Menzies at War (UNSW Press) focuses primarily on the period from April 1939, when Robert Menzies became Prime Minister, to August 1941, when he resigned the position. The book, as Hal Colebatch shows in his review on other pages, is an exciting and illuminating new look at this critical period of Australian history, when the onset of the Second World War put theories about national independence to their ultimate test. Henderson’s first chapter starts with a quotation that effectively demolishes Fraser’s case about our psychological craving for “strategic dependence”. In one of the many speeches Menzies gave during his long stay in Britain in 1941, he told the people of Ulster:

The enemy says that British overseas countries just take their orders from London, and that we have been “ordered to fight”. We are not fighting to anybody’s orders except our own. It had never occurred to me that we were not independent in relation to our own affairs. It had never occurred to me that London gave instructions to Canberra.

Another refreshing and astute new book by John Hirst, Australian History in 7 Questions (Black Inc), shows that Menzies was anything but the first to hold such views. They went back to Federation and beyond. Hirst writes:

Loyalty to empire did not mean subordination. In 1900 Alfred Deakin described his countrymen as “independent Australian Britons”. The independence was insisted on. In the early 1900s Britain wanted Australia to give some undertaking that it would join the looming war in Europe; it refused, reserving the right to make a judgement when and if the war came.

And if Fraser had even a cursory familiarity with Australian history, he would have known the attitude of Prime Minister William Morris Hughes during the First World War and its aftermath. He was one of the dominion leaders who insisted they be given their own places on the Imperial War Cabinet in London, and their own representation at the peace conference in Versailles where, to the frequent dismay of the British delegation, Hughes became the most demanding and relentless negotiator.

Nonetheless, the title of Fraser’s book deserves to be taken seriously. He insists our alliance with the United States has become dangerous for Australia because of the rise of China. In the future, he says, “Beijing’s economic influence and trading prowess will be greater than any other nation, precipitating a greater influence worldwide, one that might eventually outmatch that of the United States.” He discusses the prospect of war between China and America and claims that Obama’s policy of a pivot towards Asia is the major cause of recent rising tensions. He says there is no justification for the expansion of US forces in the western Pacific: “The Americans should have maintained the status quo, rather than try to alter the equation.”

In a passage that could have come from a communiqué from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, Fraser assures us the rise of China poses no dangers:

For China to be a danger, China would have to act out of character, contrary to all traditions of its past. If China were to be a danger, it would also signal a total failure of Australian diplomacy. China does not represent a threat to the integrity of an independent Australia. We would earn greater respect as a consequence of such a policy.

Indeed, according to Fraser, the only hazard for us lies in keeping the American alliance:

Whichever way the dice fall, whether a conflict or war occurs between China and the United States or whether peace is maintained, Australia is better off being strategically independent. Certainly, if war occurs, we will then not be part of another American war with potentially disastrous consequences. That perhaps is the strongest reason for us to pursue strategic independence.

Like his earlier Political Memoirs, where left-wing academic Margaret Simons was his co-author, in Dangerous Allies Fraser again employs a collaborator from academe. This is Cain Roberts, a postgraduate student in foreign policy at the University of Melbourne—and it shows. Fraser paints much the same picture of America as the student radicals of the Vietnam War era: the United Sates is purportedly a self-obsessed country run by religious fanatics, mesmerised by the notion of American exceptionalism, and a positive danger to world peace. The following passage from Dangerous Allies could almost have been cut and pasted from a 1968 edition of Melbourne University’s Farrago or Monash’s Lot’s Wife:

the United States has also been infected by a sense of triumphalism, of superiority and of righteous destiny … they were as much a result of the philosophy and attitudes of those who believed in American exceptionalism and manifest destiny; by those who believe, almost fanatically, that the United States is a unique nation, quite literally chosen by God to create the world in its image. Such sentiments have been expressed by American leaders in the past … they believe their own instincts, and that conversations with God give them an absolute right to do what they think best, because what American thinks best is indeed best by definition.

Fraser and his student co-author do not have a clue what they are talking about. “American exceptionalism” is not a notion about God’s chosen people or any righteous destiny. It is an idea about the founding culture of the United States. As the American political scientist Samuel Huntington described it in his book Who Are We? (2005), the central elements of American exceptionalism are Protestant values, morals and work ethic, and British traditions of law, justice and limits of government power. From this founding culture, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the settlers developed the American Creed, with its principles of liberty, equality, individualism, representative government and private property.

My own view about American exceptionalism is that it is not as exceptional as its proponents believe. You find much the same values and traditions throughout the English-speaking countries, especially England itself (where they originated), and in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Rather than a danger to the world, they are the hope of the world. This is why the immigration queues to all the countries that share them are crowded with applicants desperate to breathe their air of freedom from want and tyranny.

Fraser’s proposals about what we should put in their place are just as deluded. He wants Australia to go further down the path of one of his book’s heroes, Herbert Vere Evatt, the ALP leader who became president of the United Nations in 1948–49. Fraser wants the independent Australia he advocates to make the UN a more effective force in the world. Here is his rosy view of what we might become once we jettison the American alliance:

We could play a leading role to see how major international organisations, organs of the United Nations, were fulfilling their tasks in today’s world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is one organisation that needs reinvigorating with a new worldwide commitment to do something about refugees, not just within our own region but also worldwide. There are initiatives waiting to be taken by an Australia that is more independent, more forthright and more co-operative than we have been in the past.

In other words, his vision for his country “to do something” about refugees and other UN favourite issues mirrors his own career since he was defeated as Prime Minister in 1983. Since then he has had several positions with international NGOs, such as Care International, the International Crisis Group and the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, advocating worthy policies, but none that have had much positive impact on the world. Indeed, in his one major role in international affairs as a key player in the British committee that negotiated the independence of Zimbabwe in 1979, he effectively handed the country over to the Marxist, Robert Mugabe, who quickly turned it into a failed state. Fraser’s proposals for an America-free Australia show age has not made him any the wiser.

Nonetheless, the publication of Fraser’s book has had a much better reception than it deserves. It has been treated seriously across a wide spectrum of Australia’s political class. In fact, it may well become the default strategic manual for the Left. It carries an endorsement from former Labor Foreign Minister Gareth Evans; it furthers the pro-China agenda of Labor’s favourite academic strategic analyst Hugh White; and has even scored two favourable reviews from the editor of Spectator Australia, Tom Switzer. In June it topped the best-selling lists of the Left’s most patronised bookshops, Gleebooks in Sydney and Readings in Melbourne.

The most disappointing thing about all this is its revival of an anti-Americanism that was once common in Labor ranks but which for the past two or three decades seemed to have lapsed for want of support. Like those before him, everything Fraser says is based on a misunderstanding of America’s strategic role in the post-Second World War period. Neither he nor his co-author shows much familiarity with the international literature on that topic. So let me outline here a thesis that puts the strategic objectives of the United States in their proper perspective.

As part of its aim of containing the spread of communism since 1945, the United States initiated the Marshall Plan, which by the 1950s had kick-started the war-ravaged economies of Western Europe, especially those of the defeated powers, Germany and Italy. In Asia, the USA did the same with its former enemy Japan. It also provided these new allies with military protection from the expansionist ambitions of Stalinist USSR and Maoist China. This was an extraordinarily prescient policy that suppressed fascism and militarism, contained communism, and produced prosperous liberal democratic regimes in Western Europe and East Asia that have now survived intact for more than sixty years.

At the same time, America set out to create a new liberal economic order throughout the non-communist world. The most illuminating analysis of this subject that I know is In Praise of Empires (2004) by the conservative economic historian Deepak Lal. He argues that in the aftermath of the Second World War, the American political elite accepted they should adopt a far more constructive approach than the United States adopted after the First. After 1918, when it emerged by default as the world’s most economically and militarily powerful country, America adopted the Wilsonian idealism of collective security through international associations. This model soon failed, and the USA retreated into isolationism and protectionism. Arguably, Lal writes, the United States’ reluctance to assume an active role as the world’s superpower contributed to the great political disasters of the last century: two world wars and the emergence of fascism and communism.

Chastened by this experience of international disorder, the US political elite changed tack. Rather than isolationism, they recognised their national interest required a global military presence to uphold the balance of power in Europe. They also needed to maintain an international economic order in the rest of the world and to assume the former maritime surveillance role of the British Empire to keep the world’s oceans safe for international trade. They took up the task of building an American global hegemony to succeed the Pax Britannica of 1815–1914, the era of British peace that created the first great globalisation of trade and investment, but which the British were now unable to support.

Lal laments that, for several postwar decades, Americans did not fully recognise the economic principle that it was in each country’s interest to unilaterally adopt free trade. They instead adopted “fair trade”, and demanded reciprocal trading concessions from each of their trading partners. They nonetheless constructed a new liberal international economic order, generating a second great globalisation that opened world markets to trade in goods and the flow of capital. Initially, a number of Third World countries, under the thrall of the Soviet Union, either stood outside or only half-heartedly joined the new international order. But after the debt crisis of the 1980s and the collapse of European communism in 1989, there was a rush to join. The most notable converts were India and China.

The Pax Americana that has since prevailed has brought hitherto unimagined prosperity to most of the world. The only countries that failed to join this newest phase of globalisation were those of Africa and the Middle East, which thereby excluded themselves from this era of economic progress.

Even though Australia is one of the world’s most trade-dependent countries, and it is clearly our vital national interest that the existing system of international trade be preserved intact, Fraser and his supporters now want us to jettison the system’s principal creator and custodian. Should we ever be foolish enough to take his advice, the outcome is clear: Australia would go down in history as an unforgettable sequel to that other ornament to Malcolm’s brilliant career, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

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