American fecklessness has produced this state of affairs. As the recent twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall reminds us, the breakup of the Soviet Union created a different world. It was a world bursting with opportunity, as was first described by President George H. W. Bush in a speech to Congress after the first Gulf War. Bush was then talking about a new world, one in which there would be much greater cooperation between nations large and small. It was the kind of speech that many people worldwide wanted to hear from an American president. However, the purposes and commitment expressed in that speech were to be cut short. The presidents that followed — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — may have differed in tone but not in substance. They have all adhered to the illusion of American omnipotence.
It is time for Australia to end its strategic dependence on the United States. The relationship with America, which has long been regarded as beneficial, has now become dangerous to Australia’s future. We have effectively ceded to America the ability to decide when Australia goes to war. Even if America were the most perfect and benign power, this posture would still be incompatible with the integrity of Australia as a sovereign nation. It entails not simply deference but submission to Washington, an intolerable state of affairs for a country whose power and prosperity are increasing and whose national interests dictate that it enjoy amicable, not hostile, relations with its neighbors, including China.
As painful as a reassessment of relations may be for intellectual and policy elites, there are four principal reasons why one is long overdue.
First, despite much blather about a supposed unanimity of national purpose, the truth is that the United States and Australia have substantially different values systems. The idea of American exceptionalism is contrary to Australia’s sense of egalitarianism.
Second, we have seen the United States act in an arbitrary, imprudent and capricious fashion. It has made a number of ill-advised and ill-informed decisions concerning Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
Third, at the moment, because of US military installations in Australia, if America goes to war in the Pacific, it will take us to war as well—without an independent decision by Australia.
Finally, under current circumstances, in any major contest in the Pacific, our relationship with America would make us a strategic target for America’s enemies. It is not in Australia’s interest to be in that position.
It was Morton Abramowitz of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a former U.S. ambassador and one of the prime movers in establishing the International Crisis Group, who wrote in 2012 that “American exceptionalism dooms US foreign policy.” Nothing has altered since then. Even President Obama has embraced the idea of exceptionalism, telling the UN General Assembly in 2013, “I believe America is exceptional.” A nation better than any other, innately motivated to do good; what America does is right because America does it. The idea of American exceptionalism, which has always been present in the United States, has gone far beyond all comprehension in the years of America’s absolute supremacy. It has created a different nation, a different society. Such ideas influence American foreign policy in ways that make it much more difficult to achieve a secure and safe path in the future. Our task is not to embrace America, but to preserve ourselves from its reckless overreach.
This is not a message that the Australian government appears to endorse. The 2014 Australian Defence Issues Paper, for example, suggests we have shared values with the United States. This is nonsense. America’s views of itself have no part in Australia’s values system. They represent an important point of difference between the United States and Australia. They affect the United States’ strategic thinking and policies and drive America in directions that at times have not been in Australia’s interest.
No doubt our alliance with the United States made sense in the Cold War years. The Soviet Union was regarded as a global Communist threat. The battlegrounds of the Cold War spanned the world, including in our own region. Australia, with limited resources, was quite correct in wanting a close association with a major power in these circumstances.
Ending the Communist threat was only one consequence of the breakup of the Soviet Union. A greater one, perhaps, was the absolute supremacy of the United States as a military and economic power. Before that time, each superpower acted as a restraint on the other. Neither wanted a nuclear war, and both took care to avoid the kind of provocations that would inevitably lead to war. After 1991, the United States was under no such restraint. Russia was down for the count, so far as global influence was concerned.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, it was a time for generosity. Recalling the spirit of the Marshall Plan and the post–World War II enlightenment, it was a moment for magnanimity to prevail; it was not a time to revive the spirit of Versailles and exact vengeance on a fallen foe. Unfortunately, Europe and the United States chose the wrong path. Many ways could have been found at that time to secure the independence of states freed from Soviet domination. NATO and the United States chose what turned out to be the most dangerous and provocative mechanism, and worked to include much of Eastern Europe within the confines of NATO itself. This approach ignored history and past strategic relationships. The results speak for themselves.
There were many who opposed the movement of NATO eastward. Mikhail Gorbachev had been particularly concerned, and he believed he had a deal with Secretary of State James Baker for NATO not to move east. Today, Russia believes that “agreement” was broken. Russia’s acceptance of the reunification of Germany was supposed to be the quid quo pro for NATO not marching eastward. But it did.
The point of all of this for Australia is that the United States — not for the first and surely not for the last time — exhibited a marked lack of historical understanding as well as an inability to exercise effective diplomacy and make choices that would provide for a lasting peace. There should have been more sustained attempts to make sure that Russia would be a collaborative and cooperative partner. As some commentators in the United States have argued, the West bears significant responsibility for more recent developments in Ukraine, based on that one major and tragically mistaken strategic decision to move NATO east. The United States must recognize the impact of its decisions in the difficulties that have ensued.
Throughout this past year we have seen turbulence in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and actions that have soured Western relations with Russia even further. There has been no understanding of the historical circumstances, no attempt to act in ways that might increase trust. This has been a continuation of a Cold War mentality, with dramatic and unfortunate results. President Vladimir Putin and Russia have been roundly condemned for the annexation of Crimea, but if Russia had not done so and if the United States had been successful in getting Ukraine to join NATO, the West would have faced a far larger problem. No Russian president would simply surrender the military facilities in Crimea. If Crimea, as part of Ukraine, became part of NATO, the alliance would have required those facilities to be removed. This is a demand that Russia could never accept. So Russian actions in relation to Crimea, as former West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt has said, should have been understandable and are not deserving of the intemperate obloquy that they have attracted from Western commentators.
Instead of trying to induce Ukraine (and, in earlier times, Georgia) to join NATO, the United States should have been asking itself what is necessary if Ukraine is to become one country, cohesively and sensibly governed. Clearly, both the pro-Western and pro-Russian factions in Ukraine would need to learn the art of compromise, to know that neither can have it all. If they wanted their young country to become a cohesive, peaceful land, then the art of compromise would have had to be practiced by both sides. This could have been possible if the West and Russia had both taken the same view.
It is too early to predict how events in Ukraine may ultimately work out. Events in Eastern Europe centering on Ukraine represent a major strategic problem and have heightened present difficulties between the West and Russia, with potentially very serious consequences. The current situation, then, represents a failure of US diplomacy — a failure to understand historical perspectives and to reach decisions that could have led to a more secure outcome.
Malcolm Fraser is the former prime minister of Australia.
This is a "fair use" excerpt of an article published in the National Interest.