Anthony Albanese and the Australian government back the US and Israel as junior partners in bullying and exploiting the world, argues David Glanz
As Israeli bombs rained down on Gaza, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was enjoying a rare White House state dinner hosted by President Joe Biden.
It was all smiles in Washington DC over a meal of Sarsaparilla-braised short ribs followed by hazelnut and chocolate mousse cake as the two leaders discussed how to peg back China.
But neither were prepared to condemn the second Nakba under way in Gaza, let alone call for a ceasefire.
And, without a pause for embarrassment, Albanese declared that the US alliance was based on, “a shared belief that freedom, peace, and equality are not just American ideals or Australian values, they belong to all humankind”.
Many see this nauseating display as evidence that Australia is subservient to the US, a mere lapdog that follows its master’s commands.
After all, there was once a time when Albanese spoke at pro-Palestine rallies against Israeli slaughter. Now, as prime minister, he insists that Australia is in lockstep with the US in support of Israel.
Australia has willingly sent the military to support US-led wars under both Coalition and Labor governments: in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan.
Canberra is stepping up its collaboration with the US against China, buying nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS agreement, joining the US in ramping up the Quad alliance with Japan and India, and hosting more US forces in the Northern Territory, including potentially nuclear-armed B52 bombers.
It seems that Australia really is the US’s deputy sheriff, taking orders from Washington.
There is a major problem with this common misunderstanding of the relationship between the two countries, however.
Putting all the blame on the US masks the role that Australia plays in its own right as an imperialist bully.
And it can open the door to the argument that while Australia should not join US-led wars, it should still build up its military at the expense of action on poverty, housing or climate change.
To make sense of this situation, it’s important to understand how global politics is constantly shaped by the rivalry between the major imperialist powers.
The US, Russia, China, France and Britain, which at last count had 12,672 nuclear warheads between them, are jostling for influence—military and political domination of entire regions, control of sea lanes, access to markets for their corporations.
In military terms, the US is dominant, spending more on its armed forces than the next ten military spenders combined. But it is worried about the economic growth of China, which underpins a build-up of armed force.
Unlike the big imperialist nations, Australia cannot project power on a global scale. But it is far from insignificant. It is the 13th largest military spender in the world and dominates across the South Pacific, PNG and beyond.
Australian forces are currently deployed across the Middle East (including Syria, Egypt, Israel and Iraq), in South Sudan and in and over the waters of south-east Asia, the South Pacific and bordering North Korea.
Australian aircraft operate out of Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth. The RAAF is spending $500 million upgrading its airstrip on the Cocos Keeling islands, which are closer to Jakarta than Perth.
From the first years following the 1788 invasion of this continent by the British, the colonial settlers worried about their control of the land mass—fighting frontier wars against Indigenous resistance and keeping a wary eye on encroachment by European rivals.
The emerging Australian ruling class benefitted from its domination of the region, including control of the sugar trade in Fiji and the mining of phosphate for fertiliser on Nauru.
As Australian capitalism grew, it expanded into mining in PNG and industries like coconut oil processing, soap manufacturing, biscuits, plastic products, plantations, beef breeding, sales and distribution across islands including Fiji, Niue, Tonga and Samoa.
The profits from these ventures were eclipsed by Australia’s exports of wool and later minerals. But the establishment of Australian colonies (in particular, PNG) and the domination over other island nations ensured Australian control over shipping lanes to more lucrative markets in the northern hemisphere.
Meanwhile the fear that rivals—principally Germany before World War One and Japan after—would challenge their control meant that the Australian ruling class was constantly attempting to draw stronger imperialist allies into the region as a back-up.
The colonial premiers had to campaign to persuade Britain to take control of the south coast of New Guinea (Papua) in November 1884. For Britain, it was an inconsequential addition to its empire—for Australia, it helped form a bulwark against rivals.
Australia put pressure on Britain to seize colonies on other occasions—in Fiji, the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), Samoa and the Cook Islands.
With the entry of the US into the Second World War in December 1941, and the eclipse of the British empire, the Australian ruling class began to look to America as the guarantor of its regional rule.
In 1951, Australia, the US and New Zealand signed the ANZUS Treaty, thought to offer a guarantee that the US would intervene if Australia was under threat.
But the Australian ruling class has always lived in fear of being abandoned by its imperialist guarantor.
One researcher wrote that in early 1960 the Australian government was planning for the possibility, “that, to escape a war, Britain and the US might some day decide that Australia was expendable, even in the face of a Chinese atomic threat against Australia”.
In 1968, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk visited Australia and reported Liberal Prime Minister John Gorton as, “saying that Australia could not rely upon the United States for nuclear weapons under ANZUS in the event of nuclear blackmail or attack on Australia”.
Three times, the Australian ruling class found that the US would not automatically support Australia against Indonesia.
Between 1964 and 1966, Australian troops fought alongside British soldiers to defend the newly independent state of Malaysia from Indonesia, in what became known as the Konfrontasi.
Historian Hugh White wrote that the US, “would not assure Australia of military support against a disruptive and increasingly well-armed Indonesia”.
In 1969, the US supported Indonesia’s takeover of West Papua, which Australia had coveted as a potential possession, given its shared border with PNG.
The pattern was repeated in 1999, when President Bill Clinton refused Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s request for military support against Indonesia in East Timor/Timor Leste.
Howard admitted to being “disappointed” and “stunned” that, on the one occasion when it was Australia asking for “boots on the ground”, the US said No.
To minimise the risk of abandonment, Australia’s rulers have willingly joined first British and then US-led wars as down payments on what is effectively a military insurance policy.
Far from being dragged unwillingly into successive conflicts by their “masters”, Australian governments have insisted on joining the fight.
In the case of the Vietnam War, Australia was keen to lock America into the region. As Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt put it, “We will win there and get protection in the South Pacific for a very small insurance premium.”
Diplomat Malcolm Booker wrote that, “It was the Australian government which in the early part of 1965 pressed on the American government the need for strong military action in Vietnam.”
On 28 April 1965, Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that an Australian battalion of 800 soldiers would be sent to Vietnam—the day before such a move was officially requested by the South Vietnamese government.
It was no different under Labor. Prime Minister Bob Hawke took Australia into the First Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq in 1990 in line with a request from US President George Bush senior—but it was later revealed that Bush’s phone call followed lobbying by Australian officials in Washington.
The AUKUS agreement, too, was an Australian initiative—not an American demand. Nine Newspapers writer Peter Hartcher reported in May 2022, “When Joe Biden was first briefed on Australia’s request for nuclear-powered submarines, he did not say ‘yes’. He was cautious, even sceptical.”
Hartcher wrote that the AUKUS plan came from then Coalition Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose officials sounded out the Pentagon in 2020 and British officials in 2021.
In May that year, the Director-General of Australia’s peak intelligence assessment agency, the Office of National Intelligence, Andrew Shearer, pitched the idea to the White House, where officials wanted assurances that Labor would fall in behind the Liberals’ proposal.
Given a secret briefing, Albanese gave that assurance, not because of US standover tactics but because he understood the value to Australian imperialism of enmeshing the US even deeper into the region as a guarantor of Australia’s power.
To stop the second Nakba and prevent the genocide that is taking place in Gaza, we need to build a mass movement that can challenge US imperialism.
Our task will be helped if we understand that Australia is an imperialist country in its own right—no lapdog of the US but a middle power that sees the US alliance as central to projecting its own power.
That means the best way to weaken the Western alliance that is backing Israel’s horrors is to take on our own government. The road to a free Palestine starts on our doorstep.