Some comments on Latham’s speech of 7 April 2004

John Kilcullen

(1) The American alliance.

“The alliance relationship between Australia and the United States was first forged under John Curtin and Labor. It continued to grow and expand under later Labor Governments – and under US Administrations as politically different as those of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. . . . We see ourselves as an equal partner….

“The Alliance with the United States is a Labor legacy of which we are very proud. It has been strong in the past. And it will be strong in the future. It is always most productive when each partner is contributing ideas and sharing problems, when it takes the form of an equal partnership.”

It’s time Australian politicians started to speak the truth about our relationship with the United States:

*         There is not now and never has been a US-Australian alliance. 

*        The relationship has never been, and never could be, an equal partnership.

*        Neither Australia, nor Britain, nor any other “ally”, has any “special relationship” with the United States.

The term “alliance” implies that each party will do things to support the other that it would not do if there were no alliance. The fact is that the United States government never does anything for Australia that it would not do anyway for the United States. This does not mean that we cannot benefit from their actions, but we should be clear that our benefit is never the motive of their actions.

In Curtin’s time the basis of the defence relationship between Australia and the US was shared interest. The interest of the US was to defeat Japan, which had attacked the US, and in particular to retake the Philippines, which had been a possession of the US since the US-Spanish war of 1898—MacArthur  had been the commander in chief of the Army of the Philippines. In pursuing their objectives the US found it necessary or convenient—given the military technology and the logistics of the time—to use Australia as a base. They were therefore willing to defend Australia and its sea routes. No doubt, if they had not needed Australia, they would still have cared about our fate as a fellow English-speaking nation etc., but almost certainly not enough to give our needs priority over their interests.

Times have changed. Military technology and logistics have changed and will change further. The US does not seem now to have any interest in our part of the world comparable with the Philippines in the 1940s. Realistic thinking about the relationship means analyzing our interests and theirs and considering whether there is a basis for common action. We must get out of the habit of thinking that if we act as they want it will “strengthen the alliance”. The attitude Latham rightly criticizes of thinking of the alliance “as some sort of insurance policy, the premium for which is paid through Australian military commitments” is not peculiar to conservatives.

Australia should not adopt an attitude of hostility to the US (or to any other country). We should cooperate with them from time to time in any way that is to our mutual advantage, but we should give up thinking we have a special relationship.

Perhaps Latham’s “three pillars” could be modified by replacing “our alliance with the United States” with “our relationship with countries of similar cultural and political traditions”, which would include the United States, but also New Zealand, Canada, Britain and Europe. We should actively cultivate relations with these other countries, which have a similar interest in balancing and limiting the hegemony of the United States. (We should especially strengthen cultural ties with Germany, and the ALP should have more to do with the German Social Democrats and Greens.)

(2) Defence policy

“This means directing our military capabilities primarily to the Defence of Australia, its territories and national interests, rather than to expeditionary forces overseas.”

This is a false contrast.

*         Any Australian military force capable of defending the remote parts of Australia will also be capable of expeditionary deployment overseas.

*        Such deployment might on occasion be a way of defending Australian national interests.

Australian over-readiness to cooperate in imperial adventures is a problem that goes back a long way. It needs a political solution; it cannot be solved by an equipment policy or by an abstract defence doctrine. The political solution is for the ALP to undertake to legislate to require that future overseas deployment of Australian forces must have the prior approval of both houses of Parliament. A constitutional amendment is not needed; simple legislation is enough to restrict the “royal prerogative” (which is at present the basis on which Australian forces go to war).

The ALP should take up and make its own the Democrats' draft bill,

(3) Terrorism

Policy on this matter needs to cover several points: (1) Terrorist actions must be prevented, (2) terrorists must be arrested and dealt with by the ordinary processes of the law (the phrase “war on terrorism” should not be used), (3) the circumstances that lead some people to become terrorists or to support terrorists must be changed, and (4) the moral, religious (theological) and other cultural barriers to terrorism must be strengthened.

Latham mentions 1 and 2, but the other points must not be neglected.

On point (4), there is already a certain amount of “interfaith” dialogue in this country, and it should be encouraged by governments. Bob Carr’s efforts to establish dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims (Christians, Jews and non-religious people) in Australia should be supported and carried much further. There should be more general discussion—critical discussion—of the intellectual basis of religious toleration and freedom of thought and speech, of ethical prohibitions on hostage taking and the killing of innocents, on the relationship between religious belief and reason, and other issues behind contemporary conflict. Dialogue modifies the groups engaged in it; it gives a leadership role to members of the group who can make sense to outsiders and meet their concerns.

On point (3), the main thing necessary is for the ALP and Australians generally to support resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Jews in Palestine/Israel. The conflict goes back to the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations Mandate British policy in the 1920s and later was motivated by the interests of the British Empire, and its legacy is that, long after the end of the Empire, two communities are locked in apparently unending misery. We are all being drawn in. Australia’s next neighbour is the country with the largest Muslim population in the world—not Arab, but very likely to sympathise with fellow Muslims.

A “two state” solution might not be durable and it may no longer be attainable: perhaps there is no solution short of a single multicultural secular state for the whole former Mandated territory, with equal citizenship rights for everyone born in the territory. [I no longer think a single state would work:,] But this is not at present on the table. The ALP should throw its weight behind efforts to see whether a two-state solution is still possible. For example, the ALP leadership could invite a visit by the authors of the “Geneva Accord” (, said to be former justice minister in the last Israeli "Labor" government, Yossi Beilin, and the former Palestinian information minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. Australia should urge its “ally”, the United States, to get serious about resolving the Israel/Palestine problem, and to recognize that this means bringing pressure to bear on Israel [I no longer think that pressure should be brought on Israel].