ADELAIDE - It was Lord Palmerston who first said, in a speech to the British House of Commons on 1 March 1848, that Britain had ‘no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.’
This axiom ought to be the guiding principle for Australian diplomacy and, in fact, I think it has been since 14 March 1942, when prime minister John Curtin stated that Australia turned to America for support and advice in confronting the Japanese peril in the Pacific.
Our relationship with the US has endured since that time and, as Phil Fitzpatrick has rightly pointed out, we have usually acted loyally if sometimes unwisely to support our ‘great and powerful friend’.
Successive American administrations have come to regard Australia as their most stalwart ally in a world where suspicion, fickleness and bad faith is more often than not a feature of diplomatic relations between nations.
Critics say that Australian governments have been too servile and supine in their dealings with the US and that this has led us into grievous error, notably nasty and futile small wars.
There is, I suppose, some truth in this.
That the US has behaved badly at times is hardly contestable.
Like all imperial powers its judgement can by skewed by mistakes, misunderstandings, misjudgements and various internal factors.
Despite this, in general it has been a force for good.
Importantly, it is plainly the case that Australia’s voice is heard and carries some weight inside Washington’s ‘beltway’, and this matters even in what seem to be the autumnal days of an uncontested US imperium.
I think this voice and support will continue to matter in a world where events are plainly slipping from the control of political and business elites.
Vladimir Putin’s grave errors in judgement with respect to Ukraine are an especially egregious example of how badly things can go wrong when hubris, ambition and desperately bad analysis inform the political decision-making process.
Smaller but still appalling examples of this may be seen in relation to Ethiopia, Eretria, Syria and Iran.
Now the great and not irrational fear is that China’s president for life, Xi Jinping, will fall victim to the same thinking that has propelled Russia into a crisis for which no good exit is now possible.
The US and Australia, along with many other countries in the Asia Pacific region, may well soon be confronted with an appalling choice between supporting the democratic rights and freedoms of Taiwan or acquiescing to a military takeover by a resurgent imperial China.
This will be yet another ‘wicked’ problem for the world. A problem to which nations will need to elect for what will be the least worst solution.
If that moment comes then Australia will once again have to decide if its national interests align with those of its various partners, including the US.
Once again, as has usually been the case since the end of World War II, all eyes, including Australia’s, will turn to the US for leadership.
There is no escaping the reality that the US, for good or for ill, still exerts leadership of the so-called democratic world.
Critics of the US would do well to remember this truth when casting aspersion upon Australia’s leaders for supposedly failing to correctly assert our own national interests.