Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 12:47 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 12:47 | SYDNEY

For Australia, dependence is a choice


Raoul Heinrichs

28 September 2011 11:24

My colleague Andrew Carr disputes the idea that Australia had a choice in the lead–up to World War II. Canberra's innately British identity, he argues, meant there was no alternative to supporting British operations much further afield, despite the risks to Australian security. I disagree.

With hindsight, of course, everything has the appearance of inevitability. And while Australia's cultural identity no doubt obscured the choice and suggested an intuitive course of action, it's important not to mistake a decision made instinctively for the absence of choice itself.

After all only a few years later, by 1942, Australia had made a choice. Canberra, apparently no longer feeling all that British, did turn away from Britain, as then Prime Minister John Curtin wrote, 'without any inhibitions' and 'free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship …'

If anything, then, Andrew's post reinforces the fact that culture and tradition do not always play a beneficial role in the making of strategy, and in many cases may be at odds with the optimal calculation of policy.

The problem is not unique to Australia. In his 'Farewell Address' to the American people, George Washington, attuned to his nation's idealistic disposition, warned about the dangers of permanent alliances. 'A passionate attachment of one nation for another', he argued, 'facilitates the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists and … betrays the former into … the quarrels and wars of the latter.'

The US long ago discarded that wisdom, of course, while Australia never adhered to it. As a former Director of the Lowy Institute once said, 'We love foreign entanglements.' Indeed, the loneliness and anxiety that pervades Australia's world view has historically led Canberra to conflate, and in many cases subordinate, its own interests to those of its major power allies  — whether out of cultural allegiance, as Andrew suggests, out of apprehension about the futility of an independent defence effort, or most likely some combination of both.

Australia's involvement in World War I illustrates the point. In purely strategic terms, there was no compelling justification for deploying a massive land force to the shores of Gallipoli and the fields of Western Europe. Having federated over a decade earlier in recognition of the need for a national defence effort, Australia would have been far better served by defining its interests narrowly and building a powerful navy to defend them against the still distant threat posed by Japan. Instead, Australia unnecessarily sacrificed a generation of young men out of sentimental affection for the Empire and an unwillingness to reckon with own defensive requirements.

Worst of all, Australia didn't learn its lesson. More than two decades later, when the threat was finally materialising, Canberra still hadn't adequately provided for its own defence. Once again, Canberra deployed land forces at Britain's behest in the forlorn hope the favour would be returned — and avoided catastrophic consequences only by its deliverance at the hands of the US.

Remarkably, having been entrapped in World War I and abandoned in World War II, Australia has remained deeply committed to its strategy of dependence, which has necessitated participation in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the mindset lives on, and without a major enhancement of Australia's independent strategic weight — which would entail a diminution of the alliance in Australia's long-term military planning, as well as a much-needed overhaul of the administrative foundations of Australian defence policy — Canberra risks making the same mistakes again.

Photo, of Australia's WWII War Council, courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.