For any biographer of former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser, there is a fundamental question regarding his political career that has to be answered: how did a scion of the Victorian squattocracy who, as minister for the army and minister for defence in the late 1960s, championed Australia’s support for America’s war in Vietnam and who, as prime minister (1975-1983), assuaged US concerns that Gough Whitlam’s Australia was anti-American by vigorously reinforcing the US alliance, come, at the age of 83, to write a tract on Australian foreign policy that argued we should break free from our “strategic dependence” on the US and become the Switzerland of the South Pacific?
Of all Australia’s prime ministers of the postwar era, Fraser’s political afterlife has proved to be the most iconoclastic. Unlike Menzies, Whitlam, Hawke, Keating and Howard, he did not graduate to become the revered elder statesman of his party (he resigned from the Liberal Party after Tony Abbott’s ascendancy to the leadership in 2009), nor has he been busy defending his political legacy. Since losing the 1983 election, he has continued to re-examine his position on any number of issues from the republic to media ownership and foreign policy. His political stance has always been shaped by an astute and humane appraisal of the shifting geopolitical contexts in which government policy is determined. Born to rule, Fraser will die a maverick.
Although it was clear by the 1990s that Fraser had moved well to the left of the Liberal Party, with the publication of Dangerous Allies he has positioned himself to the left of both major parties. In his opening remarks to the book, former Labor foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans agrees that Australia should have been a “more independent and less subservient alliance partner” to the US in recent decades, but he baulks at the suggestion that we should “go it alone”. Bipartisan support for the US alliance is now an accepted norm of Australian politics. The most gushing declaration of our allegiance in recent times was made by prime minister Julia Gillard, when she told the US Congress in 2011 that in Australia, America had an ally “for the 60 years past” and “for all the years to come”.
Fraser’s current political bedfellows reveal just how far he has moved from the verities of mainstream Australian foreign policy. Defence spending aside (he argues for substantial increases in the defence budget), his proposal for “strategic independence” – close Pine Gap (“it is clear that Australian personnel are involved in drone attacks, in assassination”), send the 1150 US marines currently “rotating through” Darwin home, and refrain from giving the US carte blanche support in future wars – closely resembles the foreign policy of the Greens. Yet his role as one of the left’s most eminent spokespersons has been determined as much by the conservative and regressive political consensus that has characterised Australia’s foreign and immigration policies since September 11 as it has by his own shifting views. His politics have appeared more radical as Australia has become a more conservative, insular and self-satisfied society.
Dangerous Allies is a sorely needed contribution to debate on Australia’s foreign policy and its future independence. Extremely well researched, with all the force of a tightly argued academic treatise, Fraser’s arguments are built on the conventional interpretation of our strategic dependence, first on Britain, then the US. Yet the real strengths of this book lie in its final chapters, in which he puts his case for nothing less than a revolution in the way Australia views its role in the world. Our search for a “great and powerful friend”, he claims, made sense until the end of the Cold War, when the shattering of old political polarities
created a genuine opportunity to create a more secure global order, an opportunity tragically missed by both nations. After September 11 and the war on terror, “the rise of neo-conservatism and the growing influence of American exceptionalism … changed America as a nation and more importantly, Australia as an ally”.
Fraser’s contention is that our traditional policy of strategic dependence needs to end in order for us to adapt to the radically different geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. He insists that “we are now more heavily aligned with the United States than at any time in our history” and that the alliance has actually become a threat to our national security. The paradox of this relationship is that “we need the United States for defence, but we only need defence because of the United States”. While this is debatable (climate change and the mass movement of peoples may see us needing different kinds of “defence” in the future) it also contains elements of truth.
Fraser fears that we could be drawn into a conflict between China and Japan (backed by the US), which would prove disastrous for Australia’s self-interest. Rather than playing America’s “sheriff” (George W. Bush’s tactless albeit accurate assessment of our foreign policy under Howard), Fraser wants Australia “to persuade America to seek a new agreement in Asia” and “to share power rather than seek to assert its own supremacy”. Here, many foreign policy analysts would agree, yet equally they would reject Fraser’s argument that the best way to influence American policy is to withdraw completely from our current intelligence and military “co-operation” with the US.
While Fraser can sometimes overplay America’s power (as “no longer balanced by any other superpower”) and underestimate terrorism (“there is no worldwide global threat”), and is perhaps too rosy-eyed regarding China’s future foreign policy ambitions, Dangerous Allies is a bold and provocative call for Australia to completely rethink its strategic priorities in the 21st century. It reminds us that we have never imagined ourselves as a truly independent nation. WW
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 10, 2014 as "Malcolm Fraser, Dangerous Allies". Subscribe here.