Published 9 December 20202 February 2021 · History / Politics We’ve got a big brother in America Sam Brennan 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 However, by 1906 the ailing British Empire had withdrawn their battleships from the Pacific region and formed an alliance with Japan, which, after winning a war against Russia in 1904-1905, showed itself to be a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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