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The Frightened Country

The Frightened County is what Alan Renouf, one of Australia’s most prominent public servants, called Australia in his 1979 book of the same title. Renouf’s book is a delicate balance of criticising past Australian alliances and military adventures while also embracing a future that would lead to much of the same. Renouf called for an independent Australia but one that remains close to the United States, “She(Australia) fights for the same values as the US, that she is Western civilisation’s outpost there (Asia), that economically she is important to the West…” Australia culturally and politically as a nation has never felt close to its geographical neighbours, only to its Anglo-American allies. Now it seems to be intimidated by them all.

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating has recently condemned the AUKUS alliance between the US, UK and Australia. It is an alliance that has more than ever made Australia dependent and integrated into the US hegemony. “We have been here before, Australia’s international interests subsumed by those of our Allies. Defence policy substituting for foreign policy.” – Paul Keating, March 2023.

The legacy media and Australian politicians have responded to Keating’s criticism. The usual charge that he is out of line or is irresponsible has been thrown at him. In her piece “It’s good to be mean to war propagandists’ ( Caitlin Johnstone highlights the ‘ghouls’ response in detail.

Australia is an insecure nation. It always has been. Federation in 1901 was as much about defence as it was any other perceived benefit of unifying the colonies into one commonwealth. From the beginning the Australian military helped the British defeat Boers in South Africa along with a constant fear of the “Yellow peril” to the north. In the 19th century the Australian colonies had built numerous forts along it’s coastline in case of Russian invasion. In 1905, the Japanese defeated the Russian empire, to many Australian and Western observers, the defeat of a ‘mostly’ European power at the hands of an Asian one was frightening. Constant fears that the Irish populace may be rife with ‘Fenian’s’ or that migrant anarchists may infect the white christian populace, always concerns about the Chinese and the reduction of the Aboriginal ‘pest’ is at the foundation of Australia.

Modern Australia celebrates multiculturalism and is full of diverse individuals though in terms of policy, especially foreign it acts in singular terms as it had in the past. The instincts remain. Even before the 1901 Federation, Australia had in laws that would lead to the “White Australia Policy”, a fear that Europeanism would be either bred out by the ‘impure’ or that in time a great ‘yellow’ hoard would overrun the continent. Australia retained the ‘white’ policy into the 1940s. The Boxer Rebellion in China, only served to instil these fears of an uncontrollable and violent spirit of ‘Orientals’ defying European mastery. Australia even sent a military contingent to help quell the rebellion.

In August of 1908 the United States’ “Great White Fleet” of mostly obsolete white painted warships visited Sydney and Melbourne as part of a two year voyage across the world. It was US president Theodore Roosevelt’s symbolic exercise of projecting American power. While the Fleet was welcomed in Australia, the Yanks were seen as friends, their presence an assurance for the Australian public and political class that another powerful military ally existed to promote Western values in the East.

One of the many tasks for the US crew was to record strategic information on Australia and New Zealand, drafting up maps and gathering intelligence, in case the United States should ever need to invade and conquer Australia. Naive to this intention the mob of excited Aussies cheered the foreign fleet on, they were after all ‘white’.

Australia would volunteer a generation of young men to fight for empire in the First World War. A new Pacific ally had been recruited to help secure the region while British and Australian vessels were required elsewhere. The Japanese navy protected Australia during the war, securing supply and safeguarding the coastline. Much of the Australian public at home kept ignorant about the friendly Japanese navy protecting them.

Another world war would come and Australia joined as a loyal member of the British empire. Australia felt isolated with many of its fighting age men deployed far away fighting for the British. When Japan entered the war as an enemy, the British government was reluctant to release Australian forces for the protection of their homeland, instead sending many of them to suffer in blunders. In 1942, the Australian government had requested from London, fighter planes to defend Australia, they were denied. Canberra also wanted its fighting men to return to Australia, the British masters who decided that they would be best used elsewhere. Many Aussie soldiers killed or captured in Greece, Singapore and North Africa rather than come home to defend Australia.

Once the United States entered the war, the situation in the Pacific was dire for a time and Generalissimo MacArthur after his retreat from the US colony of the Philippines set up his headquarters in Australia. The shift began from Australian dependence on Britain to the United States. MacArthur becoming the emperor of Australia making decisions at times for the Australian government and its military. It was not below MacArthur to take credit for victories and to blame Australians for his mishaps or to down play any Australian involvement in battlefield success.

What has been good for London or Washington has not necessarily been good for Australia. That should should have been starkly clear after the experience of 1942. There were lessons for Australia in the war. It is not to late to learn them.” David Day, “The Politics of War”.

In the atomic age following World War Two the British government used parts of Australia as testing zones for various weapons. Canberra knew little about the results or risks as Australian service personal and civilians were used in the tests. Australia was a utility for the London to exploit, Canberra’s fear of Soviet atom bombs falling from above only led British ones exploding in parts of Australia instead.

Australia during the early Cold War would balance its obligations of service as a British empire member with its need for a US strategic ‘friendship’. Australia was a large advocate of the US led, South East Asian Treaty Organisation and Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty. The Australian military contributing to the Korean, Malayan and Vietnam wars with eagerness and loyalty. Australian governments had welcomed US military operations in Asia. Experts in Canberra reasoned that such wars in Asia would act as both forward defence for Australia while keeping a large US presence in the region.

By the 1970s the United States had set up strategic bases in Australia, from crucial satellite monitoring stations to what is known as ‘Pine Gap’. Parts of Australia becoming off limits, the details of which remain unknown to Australian policy makers while under control of the US government.

Pine Gap, North West Cape and Nurrungar became key US assets in Australia. Locations to spy on not just the Soviet Union but the world. These facilities are not just used to ‘spy’ and coordinate US operations but are also landing sites for US strategic bombers, some of which may be nuclear armed. For all the Australian public knows, the US could have in place strategic missile silos. Australia was after all in the minds of US planners a crucial island on the other side of the world and its military a component of their own interests.

Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in the early 1970s began to challenge US dominance of Australian policy. By 1972, Australian soldiers left Vietnam, Whitlam was openly critical of the US bombings of South East Asia. A policy of self-reliance was explored. Australian and US relations became stressed, especially as discussions of Australia leaving the strategic partnership and shutting down such facilities as Pine Gap, a challenge to Washington’s interests. Whitlam and his deputy Prime Minister had both publicly and privately threatened shutting down Pine Gap should US-Australian arrangements not be favourable to Canberra.

In 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was overthrown in a political coup. A coup that had British and US finger prints on it, the opposition party was installed and the Pine Gap issue and relations between the US returned in Washington’s favour. The detail of the 1975 coup can be found in the John Pilger article ‘Coup that ended Australian Independence’. (

Since 1975 Australia has become a coup nation, Prime Minister Keating himself a beneficiary of such an over throw when he replaced Bob Hawke in 1991. The level of involvement from the US in Australian leadership changes is often omitted or one of partisan and public intrigue. It would be naive to assume that Washington is kept in the dark before these changes occur and it is very likely that the US knows in advance of the Australian public who the new leader is. How much influence the US has in such decisions is unknown and lends into conspiracy, for now.

The Australian military is ever more reliant on the US, even at its peril. In the case of the Seasprite helicopter affair, when the RAN sought a maritime helicopter, corruption and incompetence ensured that none landed in ADF service only that tax payer dollars left the nation. It was one in many embarrassments that should have been a lesson rather than another example of ADF politically inspired preference to US weaponry. The M1 Abrams tank has since been used by the Australian army, replacing the ageing AS1 Leopard tanks. To the F-35 and F/A-18 all ensure an integration with Australia’s biggest ally, it also generates reliance and retains a client nation status. Now Australia will get expensive US nuclear powered submarines, a deal that suits the US.

The United States still controls parts of Australia and under the AUKUS agreement it looks to be the major factor in most strategic decisions related to Australian defence and foreign policy. To the US, Australia is a geographical asset, a place for its spy facilities, air bases, naval ports, a capable professional military to utilise and a land mass to project power into the Pacific. In over one hundred years, Australia has remained a frightened nation, one that relies on empires. The need to stand on its own two feet has always been there, the will lacking. Winning an America’s Cup Yacht race decades ago is not enough, Aussies need to start saying no to the Yanks and standing up for its own self interest rather than to Washington’s.

Australian governments are not victims of reckless foreign policy and military adventures, they are complicit. The US and UK most certainly benefit and even aid these decisions but it’s a continued desire from Canberra and the insecurity and arrogance of its experts and politicians who continue to embrace policies favouring Anglo-American dependency. The belief that security is found in the US waging a real or a cold war in the Asia-Pacific region is dangerous. Perhaps for some in Canberra the uncertainty of peace is a lonely place for a self alienating Australia.

Despite welcoming the war against China, Australian trade and reputation in Asia continues to suffer. The terms of AUKUS don’t favour Australian citizens, it’s one which will go onto mandate who is friend and foe, what can be traded and with who. From Canberra it’s a continuance of 19th and 20th century insecurities. Canberra wants to have the Yanks close to home because Washington is intimidating but the unknown Asian frontier frightens them more. Canberra’s policies have embraced its allies but ensured it no longer has any real friends, an arrangement which won’t end well.

March 2023

Published inAll Articles and EssaysPhilosophy, Society and LibertyWar, History and Foreign Policy