Last week the eminent Australian historian Prof Henry Reynolds questioned the value of our ANZUS Treaty with Donald Trump’s America. In a country whose government – from both sides of the political aisle - treats the US alliance as the cornerstone of its security, it was a courageous move, even for an academic of his standing.
Reynolds best known for his pioneering work in the 1970s and 80s exposing the then hidden history of the Frontier Wars. Today, despite the resistance of the colonial throwbacks like Tony Abbott, the violent British occupation of a settled continent of Aboriginal nations is becoming mainstream Australian history.
Whether his new assertion of a national misperception follows the same path is thoroughly problematic. The forces opposed to any lessening of dependence on the US (with the possible exception of Donald Trump himself) stand in implacable serried array. They include not only most of the MPs in the two major groupings but the overwhelming majority of our defence forces who pride themselves on their interoperability with America.
But while Reynolds’ argument rightly eviscerated our following the Americans into their appalling Middle East adventurism (to say nothing of Vietnam), his focus on the ANZUS Treaty, seemed simplistic. The real tie that binds Australia to Washington is a much more active and consequential arrangement. It’s the so-called Five Eyes relationship between our intelligence agencies and the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand.
Like ANZUS, it is a creature of the 50s and 60s, but in recent years it’s become the lynchpin of a foreign policy dominated by American perceptions of threat and the immense power of their NSA in the world of cyber warfare. Once Australian governments and individuals are initiated into this secret world they become captive to the idea that their special knowledge (which by its nature is untestable) gives them the duty to operate within its American imperatives.
But in a Trumpian world of disruption, trade wars, disinformation, outright lies and hysterical twittering, the time has surely come to at least consider our alternatives. For example, I believe it would be very valuable for Australia and New Zealand to be part of a grouping with the strength to resist unabashed Chinese domination of the region. But the membership of that group should perhaps start with Indonesia and include other independently-minded countries like Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia.
However, I'm afraid that this might well cause the Americans to expel us from the level of information we now receive in the Five Eyes arrangement; and I strongly doubt whether either side of Australian politics would be prepared to take such a step.
So the future is at best unsettling, particularly with the prospect – coming closer every day – that climate change is going to create a human migration across borders that will call the whole concept of national territorial sovereignty into question. When that happens the true danger is that refugees in their millions might well see underpopulated Australia - with so great a landmass that much of it will inevitably remain well watered - as a natural haven.
Whatever our human compassion, not everyone can climb aboard the Australian lifeboat. So we should take every prudent action to meet that contingency. We would need all available suasion of international law to discourage the departure of boat people from their native countries.
We whitefellas run a country appropriated from the Aboriginal people, and at the moment we retain it by force majeure – that is, the forcible occupation Henry Reynolds revealed so starkly. In such a critical situation we would be prudent to have a stronger legal claim than that. So a Treaty with the First Australians would be an important element in such circumstances (beyond the simple fact that it's the right thing to do). And we may be sure that the heads of our armed services – particularly the Navy – would want to avoid the horrors of a new Sovereign Borders policy a thousand times more testing than the last.
Indeed, that is when we would need the closest possible cooperation with neighbouring alliance nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. It would be nice to have America and China on side too; but I suspect they will have enough troubles of their own.