Yesterday Australian Labour Prime Minister Julia Gillard addressed the US Congress in Washington. In her speech to the Senators and Representatives Gillard, following in the footsteps of all those other Australian Prime Ministers that had addressed Congress in the past since World War 2, heaped rhetorical praise on our alliance with them. But if the tone of Gillard’s speech is anything to go by, it seems almost as if Australia is doomed to forever remain America’s lapdog in recognition for what America did for Australia during World War 2.
She referred to how Australians fought “side by side, step by bloody step” with Americans in the Pacific war against the Japanese, and how the Battle of the Coral Sea was the battle that “destroyed the fear of an invasion of Australia”. Of course, Korea and Vietnam were mentioned, as was John Howard’s presence in Washington on 11 September 2001 and Australia’s subsequent role in Afghanistan though Iraq, conspicuously, did not get a mention.
Ever since World War 2, successive Australian governments and leaders from both sides of politics have used Australia’s alliance with the US during the Pacific war as an excuse to maintain a relationship with the US that often goes well beyond Australia’s actual strategic and political regional interests and occasionally even runs contrary to Australia’s interests.
Gillard reinforced the notions of commonality between the two countries by invoking ‘shared values’. As Gillard would like to have Australians believe, “Geography and history alone could never explain the strength of the commitment between us”.
Over the years, as Australian leaders have attempted to curry favour with the Americans in case Australia ever needed them to defend Australia against the 'Asiatic hordes to the north' of them, the rhetoric of ‘unique shared values’ and ‘common history’ has grown to legendary proportions. The stories that started life as war-time propaganda have been perpetuated to support the modern rhetoric and have never really been challenged or corrected.
In light of the events of the Twenty-First century, perhaps it’s time to separate the myths from reality so that Australians can get a realistic perspective of where it is heading if it continues to blindly follow the US in a world that is far different today to that of the mid-twentieth century. Australia, regardless of how the US and Europe have evolved in the post war years, has morphed from being an outpost of Britain and Europe to being a part of South East Asia where geographically it has always been, and, as far as its future in terms of trade and commerce is concerned, needs to be in order to prosper in the future.
So what are these myths and what are the realities of Australia's relationship with the US?
The biggest myth is that America saved Australia from being ‘invaded by Japan’.
The reality is that Japan never had any intention of invading Australia. Australians were constantly being told that Japan planned to invade Australia but this simply was never the case. The threat of invasion was purely a propaganda ploy to keep the Australian people on side and on edge for war against Japan.
The reason Japan never planned to invade Australia was one of simple expediency. Japan’s biggest problem, the further it took its war south away from Japan, was maintaining lines of supply. Japan was already hard stretched to invade and occupy New Guinea let alone invade and occupy a nation the size of Australia. Japan would have much preferred to have had Australia withdraw from the war and its air raids on Darwin in the north of Australia were an attempt to intimidate Australia and deter it from continuing the war.
Then there was, and indeed, still is, the question of why war with Japan anyway?
Contrary to popular myth, Japans strike against the US at Pearl Harbor came as no surprise to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was anxious to get into the war against Germany, which could only be done by being at war with Japan, in order to both help his new-found friend, the British wartime leader Winston Churchill, and to distract from the failures of the New Deal at home. For sure, Britain was at war with Germany, as was Australia, and desperately needed America’s help, but for the US to deliberately provoke a fight with yet another foe simply to get into the war against Germany was not at all in Australia’s interest. The war against Japan simply brought the war, which Australia was then only fighting in Europe and North Africa, much closer to Australia’s shores.
Since WW2, Australia has gone to war against America’s enemies in places where it has in no way served Australia’s interests other than to allow Australia to remain an ally of the US. Australia had no reason at all to be in Vietnam with the US. It had no reason at all to be in Afghanistan in 2001 with the US. It especially had no reason at all to be in Iraq 2003 with the US. Not one of these wars was at all in Australia’s interest yet there we were.
Now, Australia’s Prime Minister again is promising support for America’s continuing war in Afghanistan; a war that clearly the allies are not going to be able to win and which serves only to slaughter young fighters from all sides, Western and Islamic, as well as thousands of innocent civilians. And, as a result of her latest visit to the US and talks with President Obama, Gillard has promised that Australia will send troops and heavy-lift aircraft to support the rebels in Libya if called upon by the ‘international community’, i.e. the UN under the auspices of the US. (Or should that be the other way around?)
While there is no need for Australia to turn its back entirely America, there is no need either to remain slavishly subservient to America’s every whim when, at times, it’s clearly not in Australia’s interest. America is no longer a relevant power and Australia certainly has no business fawning to every US whim. Australia needs to disengage from America’s desires and become engaged far more in South Asian regional aspirations.
If Australia wants to be at all useful in the world it should use its friendships and skills to promote peace and negotiate peaceful settlements but step aside from wars that are of no concern to Australia any more than they are to, say, New Zealand or Iceland.
The more Australia says ‘yes’ to everything America expects of it, the harder it will be to say ‘no’ when the time comes for Australia to stand up for itself and for the sake of its own regional interests which one day may well conflict with America’s.