Australian ex-PM: Alliance with U.S. may end up pulling Australia into war

The pinnacle of political power is slowly changing its homestead, moving eastwards to the Pacific, with the region becoming more and more vital within global matters; and U.S. is pushing itself actively into the regional scene, spurring rising rivalry between America and China. What future holds for the Pacific region? What is at stake between Washington and Beijing? And how’s the political games in the East change the balance of power in Europe? We speak to former Prime Minister of Australia on these questions. Malcolm Fraser is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Malcolm Fraser, former PM of Australia, welcome to the program, it’s great to have you with us. Now, we start from this summit. Australian prime minister Tony Abbott promised to shirt-front Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit. Canadian prime minister Harper posted as saying strong words to Putin during their meeting. Now, this states – they don’t play that big of a role in the crisis, and I mean the Ukrainian crisis. They don’t really decide much in it, so why the hostility? Is it a show for the voters at home?

Malcolm Fraser: It’s really a show for people at home, and it’s a show for people at home because a number of Australians were on that Malaysian aircraft. I figure it’s just a continuing saga of the way the West has allowed relations with Russia to deteriorate over many years, not just over the current problems over Ukraine or relating to the Crimea, but certainly Australia and Canada can’t influence the outcome whatever happens with Crimea at all.

SS: The way I see this summit is also about solving things and diplomacy; western press says that Russia presumably got a cold shoulder at the G20 summit, so does this that the Western diplomacy ran out of things to say if it has to resort to snaps?

MF: I think that civility is enormously important between leaders and if you’re going to get anywhere and to make progress you treat other leaders – especially people with whom you might disagree – with civility, because unless you do so relations are only going to become more difficult and I regret the welcome that President Putin received or some might say did not receive because he was not welcomed by senior members of the government . As head of Russia, a great and proud nation, he should certainly been treated with respect while on Australian soil by Australian leaders, and also by other countries, by other people, who happened to be guests of Australia during the course of this particular meeting. To take steps to sideline president Putin, to try and repeat views of opposition to or threatening sanctions, or increase of sanctions against Russia – I think that’s the wrong way to handle this kind of issue, and especially, I have that view because along with Dr. Kissinger of the U.S., professor John Mearsheimer from Chicago University and a numbers of others I believe that the West is significantly responsible for the problems in the Crimea.

SS: Australia introduced sanctions against Russia’s oil, gas, financial and defence sectors. What is for Australia, what is it aiming for?

MF: Australia would be aiming for whatever the U.S. is aiming for. We would have introduced sanctions because the U.S. has introduced sanctions, not because of any particular, separate, Australian interest.

SS: But, also, the economic isolation, especially in the case of sanctions, is supposed to be against the norms of international trade – and I mean, as they can only be introduced via the UN. Is economic isolation of Russia even possible?

MF: Well, I don’t really believe it’s possible, because Russia is a large, powerful and diverse country. There are many countries who will not participate in the imposition of sanctions in relation to Russia. But Australia would have taken this course because the Australian government believes that if the U.S. wants to do something, it will do it. It’s as simple as that. I happen to disagree with that view, because the U.S. is not the font of all wisdom, there are a number of things where Australia has national interest, which are quite different from the national interest of the U.S., and we need to assert our own independence much more strongly than we, in fact, do.

SS: I want to talk a little bit about China. China’s a big partner for Australia, I mean the two have signed a landmark Free Trade agreement after the G20. Are China’s growing ties with Russia something that Australia and its Western allies should be worried about?

MF: Well, I’m certainly not worried about that, whether America is worried about it or not – I wouldn’t be too sure, but I suspect that America doesn’t like this development. China has always been against foreign strategic entanglements, it has done it’s own things, it has often worked for a good relationship with as many countries as possible, but it does not want a military partnership, if you like, with other countries. If NATO and America persist with their policies in relation to Russia, then I believe, that might well force China and Russia closer and closer together. The recent agreement about, I think, a gas pipeline, recent agreement about fast train between Moscow and Beijing are the examples of these two very great countries cooperating in decisive and practical ways. The sanctions that have been imposed by the U.S. and other Western countries are bound to stimulate even closer cooperation between Russia and China.

SS: Now, the U.S. wants a Trans-Pacific partnership which would actually leave China out, while China wants a broader free trade area of the Asia-Pacific. Excluding China is simply impossible, what do you think?

MF: China can’t be excluded because of the size of its economy, because even though people point to slowing growth in China, it is still growing at 7% a year, and if it had not been for that, many-many countries not only in Asia but throughout the West also, would have experienced much more difficult time during the recent recession, that recent recession in Europe would have been very much greater. So, in many ways, China has been a focal point for stability and for economic progress, and I believe it would continue to be so. It’s worth noting, I think, that China has never been an imperial power, the way many European countries have been imperial powers, and the way the U.S. and Japan have sought to be imperial powers. I’m not fearful of Chinese military aggression, I do not believe it is going to occur, unless unreasonably provoked, for example, by provocative actions which, if they are going to come, would be more likely to come from japan than any other country.

SS: I want to talk a little bit more about the Trans-Pacific partnership which is being criticised in the U.S. and the terms of negotiations aren’t easily understandable for the public. Do you feel its to Australia’s advantage to be part of it?

MF: You’ve hit the nail on the head. The details of that agreement had not been published, there’s been no public discussion and there’s one aspect which I’m told is in the arrangement, which I hope will not be: and that is that it would give major corporations the power to sue governments, and this could indeed inhibit, lessen the capacity of governments to adjust policies in appropriate ways in future years. I mean, if, for example, resource companies came into Australia on one basis, and then the government sought to establish more equitable tax arrangements – then, if the Trans-Pacific partnership allows that corporation to sue the Australian government, to say “No, you can’t alter this tax arrangements, it got to stay as it was in the beginning” – well then that’s something that I would totally oppose.

SS: Now, the U.S. and China have a major economic relationship. At the same time, we’re seeing a massive Washington’s military build-up in the Pacific. What kind of a Chinese threat is the U.S. preparing against? And, also, is it going to involve Australia as well?

MF: China’s economic influence, and let’s face it, military influence grows, because its military expenditure is very-very small, compared to the U.S., but it has been rising. It is inevitable that they would want to develop a navy and an offshore navy. The Americas have said at times “China will destroy freedom of the seas”, but this makes no sense! Two thirds of China’s own trade goes through the Eastern-South China sea, and trade is a two-way business: both parties through a trade deal presumably benefit - or it wouldn’t take place. And so, I think, there’s a lot of emotion or paranoia or plain fear on the part of the Americans for the military buildup in the Western-Pacific. Last time I was in China, Chinese leaders were saying to me “you know, America has two policies. One - discussion, strategic and economic dialogue, and that seems to go well, but then they have a policy of military buildup, in which America believes, and too often, when America has not been able to achieve what it wants by diplomatic means it turns to military solution. And those military solutions have generally been failures”

SS: Now, you co-authored a book called “Dangerous Allies” about the parallels of an Australian-U.S. partnership. Why is the U.S., in your eyes, a dangerous ally to Australia?

MF: Because since the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. has been a supreme military power without restraint. When both superpowers existed, each restrained the other in very real ways. Now America being number one is unrestrained. In addition to that, the ideas of American exceptionalism, a nation endowed by God, better than any other, more exceptional than any other, what America does is right, because America does it - and these words, if not exact, are words of an American former diplomat, who wrote an article, published a year or two ago, saying that American exceptionalism dooms American foreign policy. Well, if the country has that attitude, it doesn’t listen enough to other countries, to the concerns of a countries, and it does not read or understand the history or the culture of those other countries. In those circumstances a sensible agreement is very difficult to achieve. Now, America being number one, wants to remain number one. Since the fall of the Soviet Union…

SS: Sorry to interrupt, but here’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking you’re saying “America is number one, wants to remain number one, and all the allies that it has right now are unthinking or not even capable of ending their ties on U.S. dependance”. Who would protect Australia for example, if they were to end their ties with America?

MF: But do we need protection?

SS: I don’t know, you tell me. Is Australia capable of ending its ties with America?

MF: We are capable of it, we could do it, and if we want to re-establish our own sovereignty, our own sense of independence, we need to do it. We will need to spend more money on defence, because now we only spend one and a half percent of GNP on defence, we would probably need to spend three percent - which is not massive, many countries spend more. The reason for this change in Australia is that through all the years of a Cold War, while on many things we did follow America, we did not have to. We could have said “no” and that would have been believable. But now because there’s an American Task Force stationed on Australian land in Darwin, a task force which could deploy anywhere across Western Pacific, and also because of change in weapons and communications technologies in Pine Gap, technical, highly sophisticated facility - it is not only a defensive facility, it is also in many ways an offensive facility, having a role in aiming and targeting of modern weapons systems. This means that if we did not want to follow America into a conflict, and America were using those forces from Darwin and the facilities of Pine Gap, it would be difficult for an Australian PM to be believed.

SS: Talking about cooperation between Australia and the U.S., now Australia is already sending help in the fight against ISIS. The U.S. wants your country to increase troops on the ground. Will Australia agree to that?

MF: It probably will, but it shouldn’t, because unless countries from the region - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Emirates, Turkey, take ISIS seriously, the West bombing of ISIS - Americans, Australians and others - you’re not going to win it from the air. You’re not going to win without tens of thousands of troops on the ground, and if local countries are not taking ISIS seriously, thinking that it can be won by Western forces is total mythology. You cannot impose an order in the MIddle East by Western arms and Western armies. So, president Obama should not have acted and began his bombing campaign, unless he had a commitment especially from countries wealthy and powerful, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that they would provide ground troops to enable the fight against ISIS to be consummated successfully. So, just using aircraft and bombs is not going to be a solution, and certainly for Australia and America, whether Australia sends a few more troops or not will be irrelevant to the final outcome. The local countries are not taking what’s happening in region seriously, and, therefore, for America to do so, for Australia to do so, makes no sense whatsoever because we cannot succeed.

SS: President Obama has several times highlighted Russia as one of the top threats to the world along with ISIS. What do you think - is Russia really a menace to global security?

MF: I believe that since the fall of the Soviet Union that Russia’s historic importance and historic relationships have been very much belittled. I think American presidents did not understand the history of Central or Eastern Europe. If they had, they would have never supported the movement of NATO as a military organization to the very boundaries of Russia. From my perspective what president Putin did over in Crimea is understandable, because if the Crimea does one day join NATO, Secretary-General then writes to Russia, and says “remove those military facilities on the Crimea, they are not compatible with NATO policy” - then, that to me, would have been a declaration of war if I was Russian, because those bases are of historic importance to Russia - outlets to the Black Sea, to the Mediterranean, etc. No Russian government would accede to such a request. Therefore, making sure that Crimea returned to Russia - which probably should never have left - was perhaps averting much larger and potentially, much, much more dangerous problem between Russia and NATO. Instead of understanding that, the West had roundly castigated president Putin and Russia, but they’ve made a lot of the criticism very personal, which does not help, and so, moving NATO east was like saying to Russia...well, it was really exhibiting the spirit of Versailles after the First World War, rather than spirit of generosity in the Marshall plan which was demonstrated after the Second World War. Why with the fall of the Soviet Union, when the West was in the sense victorious, did the West want to revert to the spirit of Versailles , which had been proved to be such an absolute disaster for everyone, victors and for vanquished over a longer term? This is why professor John Mearsheimer wrote an article, published in America just a few months ago, why the West must take responsibility for what’s happening in the Ukraine. The West looks at what’s happened today, they look at today’s facts - they don’t look at the history that has contributed to the current situation. They don’t look to the motivations of the other countries, and especially they had not looked to the motivations, as I believe, of Russia - and that makes it much more difficult to see a final and peaceful outcome, that may in the end now lead to a division of the Ukraine, if that might be a solution, but I suspect in those circumstances America would still seek to impose continuing sanctions on Russia.

SS: When you spoke about NATO, NATO’s new rapid response force is planned to be headquartered in Poland. What should Russia do? Just ignore new NATO bases on its borders?

MF: Well, Russia should not do very much, it should not say very much. President Putin has spoken less on all of these discussions than any other leaders - I think that has been sensible; it should try and get the West to understand Russian motivation and purposes, but surely, America and NATO are not so foolish to take steps that will provoke another war.

SS: Thank you very much for this interview, we were talking to Malcolm Fraser, former PM of Australia. We were talking about China’s increasing role in Asia-Pacific and in the world, also talking about cooperation and partnership between America and Australia. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, we will see you next time.