Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Dangerous Allies

Dangerous Allies
by Malcolm Fraser, Cain RobertsFraser - Dangerous Allies

This book is the last word on the debate about Australia’s Foreign Policy ‘independence’. The last word because the case is a bust. At heart this book is a ho-hum recitation of the long hymn of ‘independence’ which was sung most prominently and successfully by Fraser’s arch rival Gough Whitlam and generations of lefties ever since. Now however, Fraser has joined them, thanks to a good research assistant and with barely an acknowledgement except to claim some of Robert McNamara’s legacy for himself (the Fog of War admissions not the failing to win Vietnam thing).

If you think Australia is too close to the US, and want to know the historical justification for such a view, this is your book. But you probably wouldn’t want to consult it to know what’s going on in Asia today or where Australia should turn next. Despite the title and 200 pages of build up, the last section which purports to say why Australia must abandon the US alliance is by far the weakest, least persuasive section of the book.

Fraser’s argument essentially has three parts
1) Australia has been abandoned before by a great power protector (Britain in 1941)
2) The US has erred before (Vietnam, then Iraq)
3) Pine Gap & the Marines in Darwin make us a target, make us complicit in things we don’t like (drone strikes)

There’s a good deal of truth to all three. But cumulatively they don’t really amount to much. I read the last section of the book wonder ‘Is this really it?’. After years as a critic, is potential complicity in drone strikes in Yemen really the best counter-argument to the US alliance which Fraser can muster?

Fraser’s thesis is one that has been sung for forty-years, but while he keeps coming back to the terms ‘independence’ and ‘strategic dependence’, these don’t actually seem his concerns. If Australia was more willing to occasionally disagree with the US, and had a bigger defence force of its own, I suspect this book would not have emerged from his pen. And while the term ‘independence’ is found throughout, I suspect you could remove it and not change the book very much.

Fraser wants a liberal, open hearted, activist foreign policy. He sees the US as an impediment to this, but other than a ‘once bitten twice shy’ type rhetoric about Vietnam, there’s hardly any substance to the ‘dangerous allies’ claim.

The best parts of this book are due to his research assistant Cain Roberts. It’s quite clear who writes which sections. Cain seems to have written all the pre-Vietnam section which is clear and logical (largely) and Fraser the 1960’s onwards which rambles and can never quite kick the football that has been faithfully lined up for it.

The story I really want to read (and that didn’t appear in his biography either) was how he came to shift so clearly in views. That’s a fascinating story (indeed if you didn’t know who Fraser was you’d be hard tasked from this book to know that 1) he was prime minister of Australia for 8 years 2) he was a Liberal, hard-right cold war warrior.

Still, this is an important book. We need more of our former leaders writing about issues, not just trying to assert their legacy in history. More of it please, but if you’re anyone but this book serves as a last word, not because of the bang of its argument but its whimper.