51st state?

My following review appears in today’s Sydney Sun-Herald:

51st State
Dennis Altman

Antony Loewenstein

Australians have long had ambivalent feelings towards the United States. A 2005 study commissioned by the Lowy Institute found that two-thirds of Australians thought our government paid too much attention to Washington.

Furthermore, similar numbers of people expressed positive feelings towards China, far higher than France, the United Nations or the US. Once again, our leaders were out of step with public sentiment.

Dennis Altman traverses these questions in his provocative new book. He begins by acknowledging the obvious – “we live in a world dominated by the American imaginary” – but rightly states we are radically different to them.

“There is a mood of timidity and passivity in contemporary Australian life”, he writes, and unlike France – where massive protests recently won major government concessions on industrial relations – we are not prone to making large-scale public nuisances of ourselves.

This is totally unlike many other Western nations, where widespread public protest is a legitimate and even encouraged form of dissent.

Australia’s future is not “pre-ordained” and will not necessarily mirror the American model.

Altman is fairly convinced by the arguments put forward by fellow academic Robert Manne, who suggests that John Howard has cleverly positioned Australia closer to the US – strategically, economically and culturally – because it is the “most formidable empire the world has ever seen.”

Of course, as Altman notes, Howard has also pursued closer ties to Indonesia and China. It is clearly in our country’s best interests to forge relationships with a host of nations, especially in our region – a point regularly made by former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who shamefully cosied up to former Indonesian dictator General Soeharto.

Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war was always a controversial decision by the Howard government. A large number of Australians opposed the deployment – and history has already vindicated that scepticism – but the government pressed ahead. Why? Altman is in no doubt. “While the government was clearly pressured by the United States,” he writes, “our participation resulted from the government’s own assessment of how best to ensure the American alliance.”

WMDs and Iraqi human rights had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Altman could have added that responsibility for the calamitous civil war in Iraq lies directly with the occupying powers, including Australia. If Howard did indeed join the “coalition of the willing” for “old-fashioned realpolitik”, then surely he must face the consequences for doing so. The US/Australian alliance is not simply about silver-service dinners at the White House.

The role of the media in shaping our views of the United States is central in the ongoing propaganda war being conducted by Canberra and Washington. Altman wonders if our shared language is the only reason British and American writers fill our newspapers, though “it is not always clear if this shows the competence or the laziness of Australian editors.” After all, Latin American, African, Asian and Middle Eastern perspectives are rarely aired in our mainstream media.

Altman concludes by hoping that Australia’s “future need not be a nationalist one”, despite the best hopes of John Howard. The “internationalist world” is now upon us, and the United States is but one model we can look at. Seeing beyond our own borders to a more connected world is surely the way forward, whether our governments think this way or not.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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