What's happening at the
Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 18:20 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 23 Aug 2017 | 18:20 | SYDNEY

Speaking loudly and waving a big flag

By

COMMENTS

3 June 2010 12:44

What is it about the struggle for Afghanistan that makes the countries involved say one thing and do another?

The Europeans speak with purpose but do little more than keep up appearances. Pakistan has given new meaning to the idea of being on both sides of an argument, manoeuvring itself into bed with both the US and the Afghan insurgency. Not to be outdone, Afghan President Hamid Karzai calls for good governance as he steals elections, encourages corruption and, while relying on the US, coddles everyone from China to Iran. 

From the outset, Australia's role has been framed in more virtuous terms, and Australians have become accustomed to the belief that Australian forces are there for the right reasons: the alliance usually rates a mention, but above all the emphasis is  on fighting terrorism and extremism, and helping Afghanistan to its feet after years of internecine war. But of course, Canberra too plays something of a diplomatic double-game in Afghanistan, with a military commitment that has never matched its lofty rhetoric.

This is no accident. Rather, the disconnect between what Australia says and does is a kind of by-product of its alliance management strategy, which aims to shore up Australia's credentials as a reliable US ally without incurring costs and risks out of proportion to such a limited strategic objective. 

But this raises a more general question: if Australia's involvement in Afghanistan is all about supporting the US alliance, why is Canberra so reluctant to speak openly, and truthfully, about it? After all, it's no secret that Australians expect the highest standard of national security, or that, as the just-released 2010 Lowy poll reveals, the US alliance is viewed as an indispensable means of attaining that security. So, why the constant prevarication?

I think there are two factors which go at least some way to explaining it.

The first is ethical. While I agree with Sam that governments tend to be very pragmatic about matters of war, populations generally think about the same issues in more moralistic terms. Like Americans, Australians are naturally reluctant to support a war for anything less than a cause which reflects their deeply held beliefs and values — yet quite willing, even enthusiastic, to go to war on behalf of those values.

With this in mind, and conscious that the cold logic of alliance management is unlikely to suffice as a moral basis for war, Canberra is forced to manipulate its public pronouncements in ways that better accord with the kind of ideals for which people are willing to fight.

The second factor is strategic. For years now Canberra has managed to get extraordinary diplomatic mileage out of essentially token military commitments. The US must be aware that Canberra could do a lot more, and that Australia's commitment does not reflect its potential or rhetoric. But for some reason, Washington has always chosen to just play along.

It seems there's an implicit bargain at the heart of Australia's alliance relationship: Washington, eager to secure greater legitimacy for its actions, accepts Australia's symbolic military contributions in exchange for Canberra's unequivocal political support – and on the tacit condition that Canberra's stated aims are identical to those for which the US itself has chosen to fight.

In this regard, the Australian way of alliance management may be more consensual than many have assumed — less a form of duplicity than a peculiar type of collusion.

This post was lightly edited after publication. Photo by Flickr user madamepsychosis, used under a Creative Commons license.

You may also be interested in...