26/08/2015 10:23 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Australia Locked In Its Anglophile Past

Two diplomats from United States and Australia  extending their hands for a handshake on an agreement between the countries.
Kagenmi via Getty Images
Two diplomats from United States and Australia extending their hands for a handshake on an agreement between the countries.

As they confront the rise of ISIS and the inevitable mass migration caused by climate change, Australia's military and intelligence leaders are in a state of confusion tinged with panic.

In many ways they are the victims of Australia's colonial past which produced a strain of Anglophilia that today finds its most vigorous expression in the Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

One of the more disturbing aspects of this Anglophilia is the 'Five­Eyes' alliance that emerged from an informal agreement for intelligence sharing between Britain and the U.S. early in World War II. It was formalised as the BRUSA agreement in 1946 and later extended secretly to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand. But while it remains focused on intelligence it reflects a much broader relationship based upon what they call 'shared values' that derive initially from the British colonial progenitor.

Whether these values are sufficiently strong to warrant the continuance of an arrangement that has consequences for Australia is but one of the issues successive governments will now be forced to confront.

Australia's geographical perspective and international priorities are very different from Britain's. This became glaringly obvious in WWII when both nations were fighting for survival. Prime Minister John Curtin's plea to America -- as he said -- 'free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom' was a dramatic assertion of the notion that national self-interest trumps 'shared values' in defence of the realm.

Nevertheless, it was to the U.S., another member of the Anglosphere, to whom he turned for rescue. But America's subsequent, ill­-judged military endeavours in Asia and the Middle East (with the single exception of East Timor) have provided the battlegrounds for Australia's forces over the last half century. And it is America's imperial superpower pretensions that have created serious complications in Australia's relations with China and arguably affected the development of open­-hearted, neighbourly relations with the Muslim nations of Indonesia and Malaysia.

This is not America's fault. Australia is a sovereign nation with an untrammelled right to an independent foreign and defence policy. And as Whitlam, Fraser, Keating and successive New Zealand Governments showed, they don't require us to kowtow to them as a condition of the alliance.

But this firm, if unconscious, attachment to an Anglophile past has dominated debate on Australia's defence posture. And it has largely calcified to a choice between Indonesia and China as potential threats to the nation.

Occasionally, there has been a verbal skirmish over 'forward' or 'continental' defence. But the parameters of debate have been as restricted -- and as racist -- as the Anglophile minds that formulated them.

In the last decade of the 20th century, any perceived threat to our homeland became subsumed within the political need to march in step with America, initially into Kuwait and Iraq in the first Gulf War. Unfortunately, this lit the spark of Muslim fanaticism that resulted in Osama bin Laden's al­Qaeda tearing down New York's twin towers on 11 September 2001.

And when America responded in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the invasion of Iraq, the spark became a flame. Then as America killed the firebrand and withdrew from the battle, a new spot fire of ISIS, almost overnight it seemed, became a blaze of insurrection in outbreaks across the globe.

It is now perhaps the most potent insurrectionist force the world has known. Indonesia and China are themselves deeply vulnerable, Indonesia through its 95 percent Muslim population and corrupt governance; China because of its 160 million Muslims and their alienation from an unyielding single-­party government.

And as the ISIS threat matures and is joined by an even greater concern -- massive economic migration across land and sea in the wake of climate change -- this really is the perfect storm for Australia's defence planners.

The ISIS contagion has seen alliances in flux worldwide. But Australia remains locked in its Anglophile past. In such a state the strong temptation for the planners and the politicians is to double down on the apparent safety afforded by past alliances -- in our case with America.

But we really must ask ourselves whether this is a viable strategy for our long­-term security.


Robert Macklin is an Australian author and journalist. His new book is called Warrior Elite, and you can visit his website here.

Robert is appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival, which runs until August 30.