We’ve got a big brother in America

Since the first interaction between the governments of the United States and Australia, Canberra has shown an unreciprocated devotion to Washington and a mistaken belief in shared interests that undermines our foreign policy. Recently this has manifested through an economic tit-for-tat with China and the Brereton Report’s grim reminder that Australians committed war crimes fighting in US wars.

When events like this occur, both major parties offer no analysis of the alliance. Instead they talk only of the US relationship through catch-phrases such as ‘cultural similarities’ and ‘common values’.

An event from the early 1900s cuts through a century of these platitudes and shows the true nature of the relationship, based on Canberra’s pathological fear of its neighbours and unshakable belief in American exceptionalism.

When Australia federated, in 1901, it was still primarily concerned with remaining an English-speaking Anglo-Saxon bastion in Asia, as reflected in legislation like the White Australia Policy. However, by 1906 the ailing British Empire had withdrawn their battleships from the Pacific region and formed an alliance with Japan, which, after winning a war against Russia in 1904-1905, showed itself to be a formidable naval power.

These developments deeply disturbed Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, who saw Australia as surrounded by Asian threats ready to invade. So he looked to another Anglo-Saxon power, the United States.

As luck would have it, at the same time President Theodore Roosevelt was establishing the US as an imperial power in its own right – taking over Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam in 1898 while implementing the Monroe Doctrine and seeking dominion over the Americas.

To cement the US as a global power and flex its naval muscles, Roosevelt sent sixteen newly-created white battleships to circumnavigate the globe. Deakin fought hard to get this ‘Great White Fleet,’ as it was known, to visit ports in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Australians were whipped into a fervour over the visit and Deakin called on those ‘nearest to us in blood, in character and in purpose,’ to protect Australia. He even asked the US to extend the Monroe Doctrine to Australia, which Washington rejected.

The song We’ve Got a Big Brother in America written by ‘DryBlower’ Murphy in 1908 and published in anticipation of the fleet’s arrival sums up this mix of imperial subordination and xenophobia, with the chorus reading:

We’ve got a big brother in America
Uncle Sam
Uncle Sam
The same old blood, the same old speech
The same old songs are good enough for each,
We’ll all stand together boys
If the foe wants a flutter or a fuss
And we’re hanging out the sign, from the Leeuwin to the Line
This bit o’ the world belongs to us!

The idea that any other country wanted to seize ‘this bit o’ the world’ was a figment of Australia’s imagination. Japan never planned an invasion, even during the Second World War. And at the time, the British-Japanese alliance of 1902 had all but guaranteed that Japan would not invade Australia.

One of the few things that could threaten this arrangement is if Canberra invited a rival power into its ports and started overtly supporting it as the new military force in the Pacific. Deakin’s courting of Washington and campaign for the US fleet drastically increased the threat Australia posed to Japan, and thus Japan’s threat to Australia. 

While Australia’s reasons for embracing the US came from fear of its Asian neighbours, a preference for White-Anglo dominance in the region and a deep belief in a mutual comradery between English-speaking countries, the US had a much more realist outlook. For them, the Great White Fleet was a tool to intimidate Japan, cement their standing as an imperial power, undermine the British and – although this was not often talked about – collect information for a future invasion of Australia.

During its ‘goodwill’ visit to Australia in 1908, the US drew up plans to invade and occupy Australia through Melbourne, Sydney, Albany and Perth. These plans were detailed –20-35 pages each – assessing defences in the country, identifying areas of attack, locating railways, sewers, medical facilities, electricity generators and shipyards, and listing military forces.

As a reported half million Sydneysiders waved in the fleet and Deakin spouted off about shared blood ties, the US was drawing up the best place to march its troops, making it significantly more of a threat than Japan – or any other country – ever was.

What makes this episode so relevant today is Australia’s enduring delusion concerning the motives of the United States. As academics – and even former prime ministers from both sides of politics – have pointed out, Australia would be a lot safer and more secure if we did not tie ourselves so closely to the US.

Even Scott Morrison tacitly acknowledged this. In late November, he accepted the Grotius Prize from the conservative UK think tank the Policy Exchange. The prize was meaningless, just one of the ways think tanks get high-ups to speak at their events by appealing to their ego. However, the speech he gave at the event was one of the most interesting in his whole tenure, as it revealed his awareness of the precarious nature of Australia’s geopolitical situation.

After pontificating about the global political system, Morrison said: ‘A new era of geopolitical competition is underway … our preference in Australia is not to be forced into any binary choices [between the US and China].’

It is obvious why Australia does not want to make this choice. By choosing either power, it would drastically weaken itself. Yet within a matter of weeks Morrison gave an emergency press conference demanding an apology from Beijing over a meme posted by a middle-rung Chinese official. At the same time, the US announced it will be testing new hypersonic missiles on Australian soil, and Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, let slip that the US has plans to station warships at a naval base near Perth.

Despite Morrison’s claims, Australia has made a binary choice. It could have been an independent country in the Asia-Pacific region with strong ties to its neighbours and the ability to forge truly independent foreign policy. Instead, it picked an imperial power in the US, expecting it to be a loyal ally based on nothing more than misplaced racial solidarity. While a string of prime ministers, politicians and academics have bemoaned this fact and can see the damage this choice has done and will continue to do, there has never been a concerted effort to correct it.

Foreign policy in Australia has largely been carried by the momentum of bad decisions and the bizarre idea that identity and cultural kinship trump political calculations.

The US military and political figures did not think this way when they were drawing up plans to invade in 1908, and they are not thinking about this when they are testing missiles and stationing troops in Australia. The alliance was never equal and, far from protecting us, it makes Australia more vulnerable.


Image: The arrival of the Great White Fleet at San Francisco, 1908

Sam Brennan

Sam Brennan is a editor and journalist who focuses on humanitarian and economic issues. He has worked as a reporter in Lebanon and Australia for outlets including The Daily Star, Al-Monitor, Independent Australia and Middle East Eye, covering environmental degradation, inequality and art. He is currently Editor-in-Chief of the human rights magazine Right Now and works for the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.

More by Sam Brennan ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. “During its ‘goodwill’ visit to Australia in 1908, the US drew up plans to invade and occupy Australia through Melbourne, Sydney, Albany and Perth.” – I can’t verify it from the link provided – it’s a book preview that doesn’t go past page 20.

  2. Tired of people throwing out this ‘racial’ card cop-out without proposing any better alternative in foreign relations to what Australia is currently doing.

    Better ties with Asian neighbours? We already have strong relations with India and Japan as part of the Quad alliance with America. What more do you want?

    Or would you prefer to be closer in bed with the Chinese Communist Party?

    Whatever may or may not have happened in 1908 is hardly relevant. The fact that (which you didn’t mention) Imperial Japan committed terrible atrocities in the early 20th century is also irrelevant.

    We’re in 2020, Chinese interference in our systems is a major concern – politically, technologically, and security-related.

    Let alone China’s Belt and Road Initiative and debt traps they’re creating across Asia, Africa and Latin America in efforts for global hegemony.

    Make no mention of their artificial islands, on which they’ve built military bases, and exploitation of the nine-dashed line to expand their naval boundaries.

    Make no remark of their coup of Hong Kong, and detainment and attempted genocide on the Uighur Muslims.

    Oh, almost forgot about Taiwan, who China is setting up to invade. Guess which country is supporting Taiwan and is essentially the only factor standing in the way of Beijing taking over the island? That’s right, America.

    Grow up and quit being treasonous, or buy a one-way ticket to Beijing.

    If Overland are open enough to have me publish a rebuttal to this article on their platform, then let me know. I hope the preference is not to undermine Australia’s sovereignty and put on lipstick for the CCP, because those smudge marks would be the least of our concerns.

    *The comment was originally signed but the commenter has since asked for his name to be removed.

    1. Hey mate, writer of the article here. This article was really just trying to focus on the inability of Australia to view their relationship with the US in clear political terms, and that this has been true for a century.

      You are absolutely right that this article makes no mention of the numerous human rights issues of the Chinese Government, nor its economic policy. It also does not mention the US’s economic policy nor the US’s human right’s abuses or Japan’s imperial ambitions outside of Australia during the 1900s. This is because this article was about Australia’s relationship with the US (focusing on an event that is emblematic of the relationship), and while there are topics related to this issue of major importance, they have been (and should be) given the full focus of an article in of themselves to explore. If this article was about Chinese human rights abuses or political manoeuvres, then your criticisms are correct, but it is not about that, so your comments come off as a bit of a non-sequitur, like you are reading a completely different article and then arguing with that.

      I also want to point out that no where in this article do I say we need to ‘get into bed with China.’ In fact, I explicitly say we “could have been an independent country in the Asia-Pacific region with strong ties to its neighbours and the ability to forge truly independent foreign policy.” Which (and I could be misreading you here) you don’t really seem to want.

      I may be wrong, but from reading your comments you seem to be so fearful of China that you are wanting protection from the US, without really thinking of the repercussions. In which case, I would urge you to re-read the article, specifically how Australia by so uncritically siding with the US and presuming it has the best intentions for us, actually increases tensions and makes Australia more vulnerable.

      I do agree with you though, I think it is great that we have reached out to other nations in the region for closer ties, such as India and Japan. Diplomacy and having the ability to pick up the phone and talk to other leaders is almost always a good way to go. When you ask what more I want, I want this sort of diplomacy to be the norm, for Australia to have strong diplomatic ties with countries in its interest and not to be so closely tied to the policy coming from Washington. This also means having a good relationship with the US, just not one that is based on subordination.

      I am also confused as to how I am being treasonous when I condemn things like Deakin actively asking for an Imperial power to extend its reach over Australia (which seems to fulfil the “betraying one’s country” definition). The thrust of the article is to seek a more independent foreign policy and put more power back in the hands of Australia, which to me seems to be the opposite of treasonous, and far from “undermine Australia’s sovereignty” this article is an appeal to strengthen it.

      I also think we agree on not wanting there to be a global hegemony, be it China or the US. One way to achieve this is to not have countries built up military assets in other sovereign nations. We should have a critical eye of big powers, be it China or the US. My point is that by not doing this and siding with one (the US), we diminish our ability to handle both.

      I understand these are emotive issues and there is so much to write about on it, but I would urge you to read it in good faith.

      1. Hey man, thanks for the reply.

        I agree in theory that a more ‘truly independent policy’ would be great, one that’s not based on subordination. However, I think that’s neither viable nor realistic when we’re facing a clash that unfortunately means we have to take sides in military terms. While you could argue that America setting up bases abroad could be threatening a country’s sovereignty, you could say the same for China casually re-colonising a few corners of the globe and its naval aggression including bases on artificial islands and coercing SE Asian countries. While I agree with you that we shouldn’t blindly follow a nation and should be open to all possibilities, I think it is also wise to call out and challenge the threatening behaviour of another and it would be naive to dismiss it.

        But let’s move past this piece specifically – I would have less of a drama with the article’s content if Overland would share more diverse perspectives relating to our foreign relations. Al-Jazeera, for example, is much more balanced – on the top of my head, it had one piece slurring Australia’s war crimes in Afghanistan while other articles evened this out with wider context. Sure, AJ is principally a daily news outlet while OL is a lit mag, but the effect is the same.

        The editor of Overland doesn’t seem to want to respond to why the magazine won’t touch – or if they’d be open to exploring – any other China-related issues that I’ve detailed in other comments here (the editor’s replies avoided the challenge while highlighted my potential misinterpretation of the article, when I was trying to steer this towards broader questions and directions). This heavy dominance to one side of the equation is where my concern mostly lies.

        *The comment was originally signed but the commenter has since asked for his name to be removed.

        1. “This heavy dominance to one side of the equation is where my concern mostly lies.”

          No it doesn’t. Your concern lies in misrepresenting the article and its author as guilty of treason. Of course we are open to submissions on “broader questions and directions”.

  3. Edit/addition:

    The assertion in this article that missile-testing in Australia in agreement with the US is somehow a precursor for an American invasion of Australia is completely ludicrous. Sure, we must consider all possibilities – which you could claim for anything – but this is clutching at straws, hardly above conspiracy, and spreading misinformation.

    *The comment was originally signed but the commenter has since asked for his name to be removed.

      1. Well what’s the point of mentioning America “testing new hypersonic missiles on Australian soil”?

        Couple that with the closing paragraph:
        “The US military and political figures did not think this way when they were drawing up plans to invade in 1908, and they are not thinking about this when they are testing missiles and stationing troops in Australia. The alliance was never equal and, far from protecting us, it makes Australia more vulnerable.”

        The article is clearly a one-sided attempt to portray American as the enemy as opposed to China, without any nuance.

        I’m open to different opinions because that’s how we learn. However trying to make a positive correlation between an invasion that never happened over a century ago and suspicions that they might want to do it now is a dangerous line of thought and – dare I say it – Chinese Communist Party propaganda.

        Yet the CCP haven’t had to lift a single finger to write this article (unless of course they fund this magazine – but I wouldn’t want to make any allegations based on conjecture alone like this piece!)

        *The comment was originally signed but the commenter has since asked for his name to be removed.

        1. You appear to be wildly conflating some clearly different things. One is an historical episode presented in the article in order to illuminate the history of Australia choosing the US as an imperial ally. The other is the present-day decision to insist on this alliance – to the point of allowing the US to test weaponry on Australian soil. You somehow think that this last mention is an “assertion” that the US will invade Australia, when this is in fact not even remotely implied. The conclusion of the article states quite clearly that, as Scott Morrison himself also appears to believe, as quoted, Australia would be better advised to pursue an independent foreign policy.

          Not that I didn’t enjoy you calling the author “treasonous”, mind.

          1. Whether we like it or not, ‘insisting on this alliance’ is the best option we have.

            Sure, the American regime isn’t without flaws – nor is ours – but it’s the among the best of allies we can have. What does this vague ‘independent’ foreign policy entail?

            The author bringing the whole ‘racial’ thing into it is complete PC bs, seems to be subtly defending China because Asian people are considered minorities (in the West), while the Han Chinese are actually the most populous race globally. None of which has any bearing on the discussion until we consider that they’re governed by a totalitarian regime that rejects and penalises free speech, persecutes the groups I mentioned earlier and whose aggression in the South China Sea must be stopped. I’ve lived in China. I don’t want them spreading their mechanisms of control and dominance in their imperial quests.

            There’s no room for ‘independence’ here. Again, whether you like it or not, we’re at war already.

            Well the article is treasonous and I’ll happily defend that in any form of communication. I’ll even jump on a live stream if you like. 

            On that note, I can’t find any article in Overland’s archives that critiques China’s human rights violations (which I’m happy to do for you if you’re serious about a balanced reporting of Australia’s national interests – the payment can even be donated to a cause of your choice).

            Why does China escape the wrath of Overland’s criticism? The site had a recent article ‘The atrocity exhibition’ which dissected the ADF’s inquiry into its war crimes and involvement in Afghanistan, which I thought was pretty fair enough (but at least Australia had the balls to own up to it).

            But it would’ve been good to show in another article a second side to the story – China’s hypocrisy in slandering Australia with the cartoon is telling. This was a missed opportunity to highlight its killing and persecuting of millions, particularly the Uighurs, which as Overland’s About Us page says, would ‘give a voice to those whose stories are otherwise marginalised, misrepresented or ignored’. For some reason Overland has been quiet on this issue – can you answer to this?

            Further, also could be explored here is China’s investment in Afghan oil and mining, and the potential futures of an Afghanistan in which America and allies have withdrawn and China has increased its influence.

            Yes, America has committed plenty of war crimes this century in at least Afghanistan and Iraq. But it’s not all ‘America bully, everyone else victim.’ I’m even currently reading a war reporter’s memoir in Iraq which explores these contractictory factors. There’s so much nuance to this but there’s been nothing on Overland about this – focusing on slandering Australia.

            Accordingly, you publish this piece that shows little understanding of the serious threat that we’re facing from China (espionage and cyber and biological warfare in addition to the other more tangible actions I said earlier).

            If or when China invades Taiwan, what’s your response going to be? Should we still aim for some utopian ‘independent’ foreign policy or do we support Taiwan with the US? What sort of precedent would it set if we don’t oppose China’s aggression?

            Pushing away America is not the right call.


            P.S. Even if you want to consider my comments an attack, it’s coming from the position of a current Overland subscriber who would like see greater balance – the balls to stand up to China while continuing to publish whatever else you like. I look forward to seeing what direction you’ll go with this.

            *The comment was originally signed but the commenter has since asked for his name to be removed.

          2. This seems a very long way to go to rationalise having fundamentally misread the article.

  4. The treaty with the British didn’t stop the Japs from bombing the shit out of Darwin and they have always seen Australia to be in their traditional territory waters, much like the Chinese and Koreans. All the yanks ever did for us was to drag us into one illegal conflict after another and were still bloody at it!!!

  5. @Giovanni
    Dean has got a good point. Come to think of it, Overland never seems to criticize China in any way. Why is this?

    Can you prove that Overland is not “in bed with the CCP”? Do Beijing-oriented sources fund Overland? Or is Overland predisposed this way ideologically? Or both?

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