Crispin Hull / Playing by the rules?

At last, after more than half a century of Harold Holt’s “All the way with LBJ” and the USA, Australia is showing some caution and seeing some reality.

At the Ausmin talks in Washington this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds politely declined the US’s typically bellicose and militaristic invitation to join it in more forays over and into the territory and seas illegally claimed by China in the South China Sea.

For too long Australia has been led astray by the US militarily. Prime ministerial lapdog after prime ministerial lapdog have been duchessed, bribed or cajoled into joining the US into illegal adventures: Holt, Gorton, McMahon into Vietnam; Hawke and Howard into Iraq.

Covid and Trump have now highlighted what should have been obvious long ago. The US magnificently and magnaminously created a rules-based international order with the Nuremberg trials, the United Nations, the Bretton Woods world trade system and the reconstruction of Europe under the Marshall Plan. But since the late 1940s it has been the author of more in breaches of the international rules-based order than any nation on earth.

The sorry litany is compellingly told by Australian author and former NSW Supreme Court judge Michael Pembroke in his recent book “Play by the Rules” (Hardie Grant Books).

In the late 1940s the US meddled in the Greek and Italian elections in a way that makes Russians interference in the US election in 2016 look half-hearted.

The US went in for wholesale regime change. It instigated the overthrow of the democratic Mossadegh Government in Iran in 1953 because of Iran’s plan to nationalise its oil industry replacing Mossadegh with the repressive Shah. That, of course, set in train a real domino effect with one autocracy replacing another, dashing hopes for democracy and freedom in the Middle East ever since.

The following year the US overthrew the democratic Guatemalan government at the behest of the US United Fruit Company, whose commercial interests were threatened.

On and on it went – invasions; election meddling; regime change: Vietnam, Cuba, Chile, Grenada; Angola; Nicaragua; Iraq, too name a few.

Given the choice between doing the right thing or the wrong thing, successive US Administrations have invariably chosen the thing that is in its best selfish, short-term interests.

The impeccably logical and aspirational words of chief Nuremburg prosecutor and US Supreme Court judge Robert Jackson in 1945 have been ignored. First, Jackson said that any resort to war other than in self-defence is criminal.

He said the world had to “devise instruments of adjustment, adjudication and conciliation so reasonable and acceptable to the masses of people that future governments will have always an honourable alternative to war.”

Referring to the US he said: “We cannot successfully cooperate with the rest of the world in establishing a reign of law unless we are prepared to have that law sometimes operate against what would be our national advantage.”

But virtually ever since, the US has espoused and promoted the rules-based international order in word but flouted it in action whenever its short-term interests were at stake.

This week Australia made it fairly plain it was not going to join the Trump Administration’s mad and dangerous game play with China.

Payne said that Australia’s relationship with China was important “and we have no intention of injuring it ….  nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests”.

The question is often posed: “Which country is more dangerous: the US or China?”

The answer, of course, is that they are equally dangerous, but in different ways.

Since Xi Jinping took over the Communist Party, it has become more brutal and militaristic at home and abroad. And the Communist Party’s retention of power dominates all the actions of the Chinese Government. It has been a radical change from Deng Xiaoping’s “open door” policy which began in 1978 and lifted 800 million people out of poverty in the next 40 years but which was criticised by many in the party at the time.

Under Xi, China engages in bi-lateral aggression – asserting its interests against one nation at a time.

The US, on the other hand, cajoles, duchesses and coerces other nations to join its undermining of regimes and institutions it does not like. Recall the law that prohibited companies from trading with the US if they dared trade with Cuba.

Recall the coalitions of “the willing”.

Recall National Security Advisor John Bolton threatening to negotiate bi-lateral treaties to ensure other countries would shun the International Court of Justice and threatening to ban the court’s personnel from entering the US and to confiscate the court’s property in the US. So much for the international rules-based system.

True, the US is still (we hope) a democracy in which Administrations can be tossed out by voters, and internally it has a justice system which, though flawed, does not permit the wholesale imprisonment and torture on grounds of religion or ethnicity, or arbitrarily on any other ground, as happens in China.

But the US pursues foreign policy with far too much illegal resort to military interventions in the interests of its corporations and the Administration’s prospect of re-election.

The world expects better of the US. And its disappointment is that much greater when the US fails to meet the standards that it was instrumental in putting into place.

The US has not led by example so can hardly expect China to adopt the rules-based order. When China flagrantly breaches the rulings of international courts and tribunals, and gouges fish and other resources in breach of the law of the sea, it is inexcusable. After all, that is to be expected of a communist dictatorship, but it does not excuse other nations from doing the same.

So Payne and Reynolds are right to be cautious with the US and keep the door open to diplomacy with China. Moreover, Australia should remain cautious even after Trump goes (for the world’s sake, at the end of his first term). After all, since President Harry Trump ordered the unnecessary second atomic bomb on Nagasaki while Japan was set to surrender just to scare and impress the Soviets even further, virtually every president has engaged in some military overreach of a kind that Jackson would have rightly branded criminal.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 1 August 2020.

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