May 5th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: The facts behind the rural revolt

Editorial: Rescuing the airline industry

Canberra Observed: What a Beazley Government means

Agriculture: Dried fruit industry savaged by deregulation

Text: Straws in the Wind: Our new cultural assimiladoes

The Media: A tale of two murders

National Affairs: Behind Costello's veto of Woodside takeover

Defence: Labor's new Maginot Line

Letter: Defence priority

Comment: Why Australia needs a strong manufacturing base

Globalism: Are trade treaties a Bill of Rights for Big Business?

History: Death in Life

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Defence: Labor's new Maginot Line

by Tony O'Brien

News Weekly, May 5, 2001
²b³Laurie Brereton's utopian vision of the ALP's foreign policy.

The recent (April 11) address at Deakin University's Melbourne campus by Shadow Foreign Minister Laurie Brereton purported to deal with Australia's contribution to international security.

But in practice, it amounted to no more than a diatribe - rather than a well considered argument - against the Bush Administration's missile initiatives: a diatribe, furthermore, backed up by ignorant misinterpreting of European power politics before World War II.

Those anticipating a fresh, vote-winning ALP foreign policy initiative, following Labor's wanderings and deliberations in the electoral wilderness for the past five years, were disappointed.

Much of Brereton's vision for a Beazley "government in waiting" was a resurrection of Gareth Evans' foreign policy of absolute faith in regional collective security, the infallibility of peace through the United Nations, and disarmament.

Brereton attempted to defend his opposition to America's National Missile Defence (NMD) and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) systems by an analogy with France's ostensibly total reliance on the Maginot Line. The French, according to Brereton, regarded the Maginot Line as the "shield of France," and put total faith in this "one-dimensional" defence system, at the expense of the air force and army. "Seeking absolute security through sophisticated weaponry" was dangerous, Brereton warned.

The NMD/TMD program, Brereton suggested, may trigger an arms race, may encourage anti-satellite weapons, may have consequences for the Middle East and international security, may stimulate China, Russia and North Korea to adopt more missile technologies, and may derail progress on disarmament. To forestall these disasters Australia must, apparently, embrace an independent foreign policy role that only Labor can deliver.

For Brereton, Labor's recurring nightmare is continued exclusion from any research, development or trial of the US missile systems, and Labor "will review any Australian involvement in NMD through the early warning satellite relay station located at Pine Gap". Globally, Labor would work towards disarmament, with reviews and strengthened international programs of non-proliferation and bilateral dialogue; would support UN structures; and would explore possibilities for new multilateral agreements for the separation of warheads from delivery vehicles. Australia could also use the ASEAN Region Forum (ARF) to encourage dialogue between the US and China.

Deviating from his prepared speech, Brereton saw Australia as a "middle power" and assured the audience that he would re-invent Evans' foreign policy role. The incoming ALP Government would, he argued, develop a good-neighbour relationship with nearby friends such as PNG, Fiji and Indonesia. But Evans' concept of Australia's middle power role was never that of "a great or major power". Evans himself has admitted: "we do not have the clout to rely on anything other than the capacity to persuade - a capacity often best applied by building coalitions of the like-minded." In Brereton's vision for the future, the issues of "power", "clout" and who exactly comprised "the like-minded" were overlooked. The East Timor affair proved that while Australia needs allies, regional coalitions cannot be whipped up where no like-mindedness exists: although such flaws in the logic of collective security and passive defence are best forgotten during the rush to the ballot box.

Brereton's argument likening America's current missile policy to the Maginot Line was a stale rework of Paul Bracken's article "America's Maginot Line" (The Atlantic Monthly, December 1998), and of similar reflections by Australian defence academic Desmond Ball, as well as various peace researchers. In 1979, Ball cautioned "against over-reliance on high technology deterrent weapons and equipment" which have a "provocative nature and high cost." Again in 1997, he opposed Australia acquiring high-precision Tomahawk missiles to maintain our technological edge within the region. Other Australian academics have argued that high-technology defences are "threat-creating systems".

Brereton's assurance that the Maginot Line "ended not as one component of a comprehensive French strategy, but almost as the sole component", is a fable: or, more politely, historical fiction. It ignores the fact that the German victory of 1940 was delivered by France's own state of unofficial civil war, which ever since 1934's coup attempt had raged among revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The French navy, ignored in Brereton's Maginot construct, was well-balanced and modern by 1939 standards. Worse, were French civilian diplomats' and politicians' contradictions in foreign policy and blind faith in collective security; the "Stresa Front" alliance (1935), which led to Soviet diplomats promoting anti-German coalitions with Czechoslovakia and France.

The Brereton brand of utopian thinking may be summarised with a variant of Marshal Bosquet's epitaph for the Charge of Britain's Light Brigade at Balaclava (Crimean War, 1854): "C'est magnifique, Monsieur Brereton, mais ce n'est pas l'histoire."

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