(Image via alliance.ussc.edu.au)

John Menadue discusses Australia's loss of autonomy over its own foreign policy, which is mired in our alliance to the U.S. and dictated by the military establishment.

THE MILITARY and defence establishment and lobbies, both in Australia and the U.S. are determining Australia’s foreign policy.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and her Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) are being sidelined in foreign policy.

The Minister is content to project herself as our chief protocol officer fronting the media when Australians overseas are in trouble. And travel as invited. Only a few days ago, she was off to attend a ministerial meeting of NATO in Warsaw. Why does Australia attend NATO meetings? The last time I looked at an atlas, Australia was not in the North Atlantic. But we do live in South East Asia where Julie Bishop could more fruitfully spend time.

Richard Woolcott, a former senior diplomat, has bluntly drawn attention to concern about military/security supremacy over foreign policy.

In this blog on 25 June (‘Foreign policy issues during and after the July 2 election‘) he said:

To what extent does the (US) State Department acknowledge or support what the U.S. military is advocating?… To what extent does DFAT acknowledge and support what the Australian military establishment is advocating? The two military establishments work closely together and regard China as a threat.

He added:

The most important and strategic issue that the new (Australian) government will face is the need to determine a more appropriate and updated balance in our relations with the U.S. and China. … The ANZUS Treaty is somewhat out of date and should not be regarded as a guarantee of American military support, which it is not, nor as a sacred cow. … We need to focus on the Asia and South West Pacific region which means logically that Australia should withdraw its involvement in the highly complex situation in the Middle East.

(Richard Woolcott has had 60 years experience in Australian foreign policy. He was head of DFAT and President of the UN Security Council. Almost every senior and retired official of DFAT that I know, would agree with Richard Woolcott’s assessment.)

As I outlined in a blog on 6 July, foreign policy was scarcely discussed at all in the last election. Perhaps that is not really so surprising as we do not have a Australian foreign policy to speak of — or to be proud of. Our "foreign policy" has been taken over by the defence, security and military clique led by the Department of Defence, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) which is financed by the defence department and defence contractors, ASIO, Border Protection and the Office of National Assessments (ONA). Even when he was foreign affaire minister, Alexander Downer often preferred to consult ONA rather than his own department.

Our military and defence clique in Australia is in turn heavily dependent on the U.S. departments of Defense, State, CIA and FBI for advice.

ASIO and ASIS are very generously funded but not DFAT. Further, Julie Bishop has agreed to an unprecedented slashing of the overseas development aid (ODA) budget. She has little influence.

Along with the effective takeover of our foreign policy by a military/defence establishment, or the "industrial military complex" that President Eisenhower warned us about, the role of DFAT has also been curtailed by the expanding role of the prime minister’s office. This started some time ago under John Howard after 9/11, weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war, when policy interests and resources swung heavily towards terrorism and were of great domestic political interest for him.

In his China visit, Tony Abbott excluded the Secretary of DFAT from important meetings. It was another sign of DFAT being pushed aside by the PM and his Office.

The most recent and most concerning development was the Defence White Paper (DWP), which identified China as a major threat. Professor Hugh White has argued, convincingly in my view, that the DWP makes two fundamentally invalid assumptions. The first is that the post-Cold War U.S. led international order would be maintained indefinitely and second, that it must be so.

There is no indication that the minister for foreign affairs contested the defence/military view in the DWP that China was a primary threat and must be confronted.

The acceptance of the view about the primary China threat, of course, has implications for security in our region and our approach to relations with other countries in the region. It also has major financial and defence procurement implications. We are to spend $50 billion on 12 large conventional submarines that can operate against China in the South China Sea in the mid 2030s. What a bizarre, costly and dangerous decision.

The "submarine" debate centred on which country might be chosen for the contract and how much and where would Australia become involved in the building program. Practically nothing was discussed in parliament, the public or the media about why we needed those large submarines that could operate at long distance.

Our autonomy and independence is also at great risk because our defence/security elite in Canberra have as their holy grail the concept of "interoperability" with the U.S.. This is mirrored in all U.S. official and think-tank commentary on the role they see for us in our region with their "pivot" to the Pacific. This factor plays heavily in any policies emanating from the elite in Canberra.

The concept of interoperability does not only mean equipment. It also means personnel where increasingly large numbers of Australian military personnel are embedded in the U.S. military and defence establishments – especially in the Pacific Command in Hawaii where recent visitors have noted a significant increase in Australian uniforms around the U.S. headquarters. Prominent among the latter, is Major General Burr who occupies the position of Deputy Commander, U.S. Army Pacific, wearing his Australian uniform. His placement was never announced by the usually hyperactive Defence Department media machine.

It is also clear that the domestic political pressures – terrorism in particular – drown out good advice on trade and foreign policy alike. It has been many years since there has been a serious comment or outline or ministerial statement that suggests that foreign policy has been raised in Cabinet or is in any way important. Defence, security and terrorism is given priority which is very useful in domestic politics.

The only comprehensive foreign policy report to have emanated from either side in recent years was the much vaunted Asian White Paper commissioned by Julia Gillard but which Julie Bishop was determined to ignore and worse still, actually to have any record of it expunged from the DFAT website.

The side-lining of DFAT in foreign policy under John Howard also extended to trade policy. The key moment was when John Howard pursued a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S. as a political policy statement and signing it when it was half negotiated because he was worried that George W. Bush might not be re-elected. Political factors in Australia and the U.S. drove the signing of the FTA with the U.S.. That very unsatisfactory deal then became the benchmark for even more unsatisfactory arrangements with Japan and China, pursued by Abbott as an exercise in domestic Australian politics. Domestic political pressure drowned out good advice on trade policy. And it still does. Most of the FTAs, except possibly with Korea, have been hyped almost beyond recognition for domestic political purposes.

The late Malcolm Fraser told us that the U.S. is a "dangerous ally". He was right! Bob Hawke and Paul Keating have also expressed similar concerns. The U.S. is invariably at war or preparing for the next one. And we have allowed ourselves to be dragged in time and time again into U.S. military folly.

The U.S. military and industrial complex has a vested interest in America being at war and our defence establishment — Department of Defence, ADF, ASPI and others are locked in loyalists. Peter Jennings, executive director of ASPI, told us only a few days ago that Chilcot was naïve about how countries go to war. What an extraordinary thing to say in light of the overwhelming evidence that Chilcot carefully reviewed.

After our folly in following the U.S. in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, one would hope that the Australian government would be much more cautious about following the U.S. in its approach towards China. But there is no sign that we have an independent or separate view on China.

And it is not just Coalition policies that have got us into this mess. Julia Gillard’s decision on U.S. Marine basing in Darwin has given the U.S. a significant opening, which U.S. defence officials, together with their "independent" think tanks will lock Australia in as a dependable ally especially against China.

For her domestic political purposes, Julia Gillard was anxious to get President Obama to visit Australia. The U.S. had been knocking on the door for some time to secure access to Darwin. It therefore suited the U.S. for Barack Obama to oblige Julia Gillard with a visit. But marines staging in Darwin is only a door opener. The U.S. shopping list includes long range bombers transiting Darwin into the Indian Ocean, possible use of Cocos Island for U.S. drones into the Middle East and even home porting of U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers in Stirling, WA.

An Australian foreign policy must include helping to build an architecture to manage the rivalry between U.S. and China and building ever closer relationships in our region.

That is being impeded by allowing ourselves to be locked in by the military-industrial complexes in both the U.S. and Australian together with the help of the PMO and so called "independent" think tanks.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and her department are sidelined.

This article was originally published on John Menadue's blog 'Pearls and Irritations' on 18 July 2016. You can follow John on Twitter @johnmenadue.

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