Australia’s middle power dreams

Australia-US defence alliance
Australia uses its alliance with the United States to project its interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Photo: Flutie8211 at Pixabay

The US Lobby and Australian Defence Policy
By Vince Scappatura
Monash Univ. Press, 2019
240pp., $39.95

In the light of recent developments regarding China, and Australia’s proposed acquisition of nuclear submarines from it's alliance with Britain and the United States (AUKUS), Vince Scappatura’s book, The US Lobby and Australian Defence Policy, has both imminence and potency.

The average Australian has been enveloped by the inevitability of the US alliance as if it were a natural result of our history and “shared” values.

In 2008, Labor deputy prime minister Julia Gillard declaimed to the Australian American Leadership Dialogue (AALD) that the alliance was “bigger than any person, bigger than any party, bigger than any government, bigger than any period in our history together”. As a result, her suitability as a future prime minister was confirmed by the Australian ruling elite and their American overlords.

Scappatura, who teaches International Relations at Macquarie University and is a defence specialist at the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN), has structured his book in three parts: First, an analysis of the orthodox concept of the alliance since 1945; second, the growth of the middle power Australia doctrine which uses US alliance foundations to project our interests in the Asia-Pacific region; and third, how the alliance orthodoxy is constantly transmitted to Australian foreign policy and security elites by US lobbyists of which the AALD is a prime example.

In part one, Scappatura describes the historical background that led to the alliance, the great myth that the US saved Australia from Japanese invasion in 1942, and that ever since they have been a necessary condition in Australia’s pursuit of its global self interest.

As a result there has been a historical pattern of Australian support since 1945 in diplomatic, economic and military actions to suppress any independent/nationalist movements especially if they showed or tolerated leftist tendencies. The list is long — Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, South Africa, Chile, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria all were places where Australia toed the US line with alacrity and enthusiasm.

In 2001, the emphasis switched from anti-communist to anti-Islamic terrorism and lately the pivot has swung to anti-Chinese expansion but wherever the US Empire led we followed, without the slightest hesitation or any careful analysis.

Scappatura points out that an ingrained cultural xenophobia has coursed through Australia's zeitgeist for generations especially regarding Asia. He notes: “given that since federation Australia has had a benign security environment [six months in 1942 aside] why has Australia’s defence and foreign policy reflected that of an insecure dependent and militaristic nation.”

Compounding this is the Australian ruling elites’ attraction to the opportunities of personal advancement in the US, in business, academe, media, civil service, sport, technology and the arts, the “American dream” always beckons. Attendance at AALD conferences is a very helpful marker when presenting to US corporate elites and their partners in the government.

The second part of the book analyses Australia's “Middle Power Dreams” which accelerated under the John Howard government 1996–2007 and are now entrenched in the two major parties. It has become a shibboleth that to become a ‘player of significance’ in the Asia-Pacific region we must be integrated with the U.S. in both foreign policy and defence infrastructure.

The 2016 defence white paper confirms this in the name of a “rules based global order“, Scappatura comments that the rules were “largely crafted by the US to ensure the benefits of the international system accrue primarily to itself and to a lesser extent to its allies“.

The final section looks at how the US lobby promotes its national interest at the expense of Australia’s. The AALD is the case study chosen — it is not the sole protagonist, but the most revered and influential.

The AALD first met in 1993 in Washington and since has alternated between that site and various Australian cities. Playing a dominant role in the group has been a senior Australian corporate leader named Phillip Scanlan. Scanlan was managing director of Coca-Cola Amatil’s global beverages operation at the time AALD was formed.

Scanlan had been a Liberal Party staffer earlier but had contacts in the Labour Party as well. He is married to an American and was a post-graduate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Scanlan has been the driving force of the AALD since its creation, first as chairman [1993-2009] and after that as a board member, he is credited with having a big influence on the agenda at the Dialogue, who speaks and who listens.

The AALD is bi-partisan regarding the two major political parties, and claims to have no ideological barrows to push other than the sanctity of the US-Australian alliance. Some of those who have attended have softened on the traditional assumptions about the “special relationship”, such as former Labor PM Paul Keating and former New South Wales Labor premier Bob Carr, but the AALD’s first principles are partisan and clearly political in nature.

Scappatura defines the AALD as sitting within the broad definition of “Track Two Diplomacy”, epistemic communities that act as brokers to guide policy and influence elites. The exact extent to which Track Two Diplomacy is directed by the US State Department is murky but the AALD rarely criticises policies and actions of the US empire.

No member of the Australian Greens has ever been invited to attend. Glen Milne, ex-News Corp journalist comments “you’re not there as a critic”. Milne is backed up by centre-right Age writer and long term participant Peter Hartcher, who says “radicals or opponents or critics probably don’t get invited to join. I haven’t noticed any turning up”.

Scappatura suggests that AALD’s influence may be waning, as Scanlan’s drive and control has, and as the US seeks a broader base. However, the US lobby as a whole is still on an upward trajectory. The recently-created American Australian Council is an example.

Scappatura concludes that “for those who adopt a critical approach along the lines I have taken in this book — and are deeply concerned about the many pernicious impacts of the alliance as it has historically functioned — the AALD has not served the interests of Australia well".