Malcolm Fraser was the Prime Minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983. He has recently written Dangerous Allies with Cain Roberts, in which he analyzes Australia’s grand strategy from the 19th century to the present. At its core, his argument is that Australia has always adopted a policy of “strategic dependency,” first with Britain and then with the United States. Given Australia’s economic and military weakness in the nineteenth century, he believes that this was an inevitable choice. At the same time, this approach has consistently led Australia into disaster. Fraser clearly has no love for Churchill. He describes the losses and perils that Australia faced from Gallipoli during World War One, to North Africa in World War Two. By 1941 Australian forces were far from the home front, which was left vulnerable by the British debacle in Singapore. Overall, Fraser’s depiction of Australia’s relationship with Great Britain is one in which the nation made great sacrifices for little reward.
During World War Two Australia turned from Britain to the United States as its key ally, because the United States had emerged as a great power in the Pacific region . Again, Fraser suggests that the nation had little choice but to do so. But from his perspective, this alliance again drew the nation into one disaster after another. Australia fought in Vietnam, although that nation was not a domino in a global Communist struggle, as the United States suggested. And Australian support for U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, he believes, was disastrous. In these cases, he suggests, the United States acted with neither a sound legal basis nor a viable strategic plan. The result has been that Australia has lost both troops and its reputation. But Fraser is less concerned about the past than what he views as an ominous future.
President Obama has announced a pivot to Asia. In Fraser’s view, this is clearly an effort to contain China; this American policy threatens to draw Australia into yet another conflict in which it does not have any vital interests. Fraser suggests that the rise of China is best dealt with through quiet diplomacy, and regional actors such as ASEAN, an alliance of Southeast Asian states. The current situation is too much like that in 1914, where a local dispute (in the current case over some barren islands in the Pacific) could quickly escalate into a global conflict. He describes how the U.S. has been visiting Australia as part of an effort to draw together an alliance based on a shared fear of China.
Fraser’s argument is that Australia has to act based on its national interests, and without subordinating itself to any power outside the region. Australia should not allow U.S. troops to “rotate through” Australian bases (a means to create a U.S. military base, without the public appearance of doing so), and should stop allowing the U.S. to use its intelligence facilities, which he argues supports drone strikes of questionable legality. He repeatedly refers to Canada as a nation that has opposed bad U.S. decisions yet still has maintained a close relationship with its southern neighbor. Several times Fraser draws on his own experience as Prime Minister to bolster his argument, such as by pointing out the limitations of military intelligence in strategic decision making.
While Fraser’s argument is persuasive, it also suffers from a number of weaknesses. In his depiction, U.S. foreign policy is dominated by neo-conservatives, a fact that has not substantially changed since Obama’s presidency. This depiction of the United States is too monolithic, and fails to understand the diversity of actors at play. It also underplays the significant policy changes that have taken place since the end of George Bush’s presidency (the son) and President Obama’s administration. Fraser is right to point out the commonalities and the weaknesses in current U.S. policy. But in describing U.S. policy as only being characterized by continuity, Fraser has over-simplified a complex dynamic. Likewise, his critical vision of Japan -which he views as nationalist- at times is too simplistic. He is correct on some points, such as the Japanese government’s unwillingness to address the legacies of WWII, such as the Rape of Nanjing, or the sexual abuse of “comfort woman.” But, again, Japan is also not a monolith.
Similarly, his depiction of China lacks nuance. He may be correct that China is fundamentally different from Britain and the U.S. in that it has not been an imperial power. It may also be true that diplomacy is the best way to deal with border disputes, whether in the South China sea or on the border with India. But as events in Ukraine have recently illustrated, great powers can suddenly act in ways that are unpredictable. As realists note, its difficult to judge intentions, but easier to weigh capabilities. He is also somewhat dismissive of Tibet’s claims to nationhood, and the concerns of South Asia’s neighbors. In an earlier blog posting a I reviewed Robert Kaplan’s recent work. While this book had weaknesses, it also clearly described why China’s neighbors are concerned about its power and China’s perceived aggressiveness. Recent events in Hong Kong also raise questions about a one nation, many systems approach to the Taiwan issue. On August 31 China ruled out democratic elections in Hong Kong in 2017. As I write this post, there are massive street protests in Hong Kong.
Despite these caveats, Fraser’s work is a thoughtful historical and political study, which raises serious issues about current Australian alliances and strategy. Australia has recently announced that it will work with the United States to fight ISIS in Iraq. In August Australia also announced a deal to bring thousands of U.S. troops to Northern Australia under the same “rotating through” program that Fraser critiques. At its core, Fraser argues that these decisions need to be made mindfully, if they are not to undermine Australian security.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University