ANU Asia Pacific Week Gala Dinner

Old Parliament House, Canberra, Thursday 14 July 2011

You have had an intense week of discussions on global and strategic issues. I just wanted to mention a few thoughts which may put some things into a different perspective.

Australians are often not good at understanding how other people see us. We have our own view of ourselves and as an island continent we too often seem to believe that we can do as we want to do without much concern for the views of other countries. That might not have mattered in the days of the British Empire but it certainly matters in today’s increasingly global world.

We will not be able to conduct effective and sensible policies unless we learn to understand how our actions impact on other countries.

We forget that Australians are used to speaking bluntly, often too bluntly, whereas in many countries of our own region and indeed further afield, leaders will be gentle and polite and not critical of our policies. It is sometimes difficult for Australian Governments really to know what people in the wider world think of us.

After the Tampa incident I had communications from the Kennedy School, from Cyprus, from Latvia, from Finland, as far as, what were we doing? Why? Did we have no concerns or compassion? Recent debates between major parties have reinvigorated the concern and the suspicion that people have of Australia. The credit we had gained through 40 years of large-scale post war migration culminating in the largest ever migration from one region in the late seventies and eighties has been thrown into doubt.

We might think our actions have no consequences beyond our shores. That is dangerous self deception.

Many examples can be given. Opponents of climate change legislation say Australia produces so little that it does not matter what we do. Many others, indeed most others, look at emissions per capita and then we come out if not worst, second worst.

These are but two quite different examples of the way in which actions that too many believe are purely domestic in their consequences resonate unfavourably for Australia around the world.

In Australia the press seems quite hostile to China in ways that I believe are misleading and damaging.

We question China’s military buildup without paying regard to China’s own circumstances. Their nuclear armoury for example is not much larger than Israel’s, probably on a par with Britain and France. So far it has been a deterrent force only and a deterrent force in fixed silos. With the weight of missiles available from Russia and the United States that does not constitute an adequate deterrent.  A deterrent force needs to be in submarines whose location cannot be easily found.

China is criticised for wanting to build a navy but why should it not? It is a great power and if its nuclear arsenal of about 300 missiles is to be an effective deterrent, it needs nuclear armed submarines rather than land based silos. I often wonder why it did not build such submarines 20 years ago.

In addition, China has on its borders some of the most unsettled and dangerous countries in the entire world.

North Korea is unpredictable. The outcome in Iraq is problematic. The west will claim success for its mission but we will not know whether it is success or a ghastly failure until some time after the last American troops have been withdrawn.

In Afghanistan there is little sign of real military progress. There is little sign that there are sufficient leaders in Afghanistan dedicated to building a cohesive centralised state. Warlords still dominate their own regions. The Taliban does not have to hold territory. It only has to demonstrate that NATO and Afghanistan forces cannot provide adequate protection.

It seems to be doing that quite effectively. While the topography is totally different  and while comparisons can be dangerous, the central thesis of building up Afghani forces until they can defend themselves, allowing NATO to withdraw, was the central thesis that enabled America to withdraw from Vietnam, claiming victory but knowing it was defeat.

The days may well have passed when a western army can impose a government on a people whose culture and traditions and history are not only extraordinarily independent but also totally different from the culture and history of the west.

The lessons from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan give at the very least some credibility to that thesis.

And then there is Pakistan where overwhelmingly Pakistanis believe the United States has required Pakistan in the name of the war against terror to do things contrary to Pakistan’s own interests. Too many civilians have been killed by cross border missions or by predators.

It would be naive to believe that this feeling has not infected significant parts of Pakistan’s ruling establishment and of Pakistan’s military whose unity and cohesion is central to holding the country together.

Of one thing we can be sure. There will be no military solution in Afghanistan. The most military force can do is to provide negotiating coin that will enable a negotiated settlement of some kind to be put in place. That would depend on sufficient numbers of the Taliban being prepared to participate in Government, being prepared to put aside the extreme elements of their fundamentalism as a price of NATO’s withdrawal.

Apparently some discussions have taken place but it does not look as though great progress has been made.

The United States and other NATO forces are now setting withdrawal timetables. Our Government and Opposition both say Australians will stay until the job is done. What job and is their view sustainable?

In addition, India and Pakistan still dangerous rivals are capable of causing a nuclear war, are on China’s borders.

These unsettled borders give China an external rationale for reinvigorating her own armed forces and when we look at what she has done it is miniscule compared to the 60% of world expenditure on arms which derives from the United States alone.

Even Japan’s military forces are far more formidable and far more effective than many believe.

There are strong moves against the post war demilitarisation of Japan. The addition of long range ships and aircraft would give them a fully rounded military force and their missile systems and technology would be comparable to any in the world.

The United States’ attempts under the Bush administration to persuade Japan, Australia and India  to participate in an anti-ballistic missile shield could only be regarded as inimical to China’s interests.

It was foolish of Australia and of Japan in particular to consider participating in such activities.

In recent years however successive governments seem to have regarded that they best serve Australia’s interests by doing whatever the United States wants. Such attitudes in fact do not strengthen the alliance but weaken it because most Australians believe that we have interests which are Australian which do not always coincide with those of the United States. Participation in the war on Iraq was a classic example. ANZUS was invoked but ANZUS is a treaty strictly limited by geography. Iraq and Afghanistan are far beyond its bounds.

Before the Iraq war began the majority of Australians were clearly against it but the truth seemed not to matter to the leaders of Britain of the United States and of Australia.

I had at the time a senior American saying to me you know Australia is coming to be known as one of our worst allies. My response was I think I know what is in your mind but tell me. We expect a good ally to have a mind of its own and not just blindly to follow or to support or to encourage irrational actions by a President who did so much to damage America’s interests.

It was not only a question of going to war at America’s behest. We also accepted unlike the United Kingdom that the United States had the right to imprison Australians in Guantanamo Bay and subject them to torture. There was no protest from the Australian Government. There was indeed connivance in a trial that would have been regarded as quite illegal in Australia or in Britain.

America now moves in a different direction but the legacy of debt, of over extended commitments created in the Bush era have left President Obama with intractable and extraordinary difficult problems.

What happens at the end of President Obama’s first term is enormously important not only to America but to the world, because whatever my criticisms might be from time to time of the United States, the best of America has done so much for the world and American leadership remains the best hope for a peaceful and co-operative world.

We could do much more to support the United States where President Obama has taken courageous actions over Israel, over moves to reduce dependence on nuclear weapons. Over the first we have been weak and silent and over the second we started with enthusiasm which soon was pushed aside.

Apart from these thoughts we need to understand that Australia has always had a sense of dependence. That might be contrary to mythology but it is factually correct. We had no defence or foreign policy up to the time of the second war, we relied on Britain. When British help proved unavailable we immediately turned, transferred our sense of dependence to the United States where for too many people it has remained ever since. That has infected the relationship, especially in recent years.

Too few people know that when the Chinese were shelling Quemoy and Matsu offshore islands in the Taiwan Straits in the middle 1950s, at a time when President Eisenhower moved the Pacific Fleet in or close to those Straits, Prime Minister Menzies quietly told the President that if there were a war with China over Taiwan that was their affair and not ours. Contrast that attitude with attitudes expressed by recent administrations.

It is not only in political terms that we have been too compliant. The close relationship between the United States and the Australian military has the potential to create obligations quite contrary to Australia’s long term interests. The extent of those relationships are not always and not necessarily disclosed to Ministers.

The last Defence White Paper was the worst White Paper published in over 40 years. It was the most damaging, the most destructive, most extravagant and arguably the most foolish.

The US alliance is important but it does not mean we do that which America wants. We have a mind of our own. We should exercise it and make careful judgments of Australia’s own interests. We have not done that in recent times.

This attitude of subservience has been well noticed in countries of our own region, to our north in China. Other policies are also noticed. The racism evident from the time of Pauline Hanson onwards has been noted in countries around the world. Australia’s behaviour over the Tampa incident where fully armed troops were placed on a vessel that had rescued refugees at sea and the demeaning arguments over refugee policy in the years since have done much to damage Australia’s international reputation. Some are even asking despite the great migration made possible by bipartisanship between the major political parties, over 40 post war years, has Australia really changed heart. In my view it has but there are some overseas who ask whether those in government long for the old Australia, narrow inward looking, introspective and racist. The way some of our political leaders speak reinforces that attitude. In 1938 in Evian France, an international conference was called and attended by over 30 nations. Its purpose was to seek some solution to the problem of Jews fleeing or seeking to flee from Nazi Germany. The Australian representative a Minister in the Government of the day regretted that we could not do more to help because we had no racism in Australia and did not intend to import it.

The post war record has given the lie to that statement but there are still people whose views are clearly influenced by race, in a divisive and destructive fashion. We have not all fully accepted that we are part of one world and being one world does not just simply imply financial deregulation and freedom of trade. It implies in all respects policies that are free of racism, of discrimination on any grounds whatsoever.

The debates that continue in our Federal Parliament do us great damage and demean Australia and in my view do not represent by any means, the best of Australia which would support quite different policies if they were given the lead.

These may be sobering thoughts but they are ones that Australians need to consider if we wish, as we should, to play a constructive role in world affairs, a role open to us, almost beckoning us, with other middle ranking powers. We should not however think these challenges are unique to Australia or that they cannot be overcome. We have done good things in the post war years. We need to build on those and put aside the negatives of the last 20 years. With other middle ranking powers we could do much to create a more secure world.