Australian Foreign Policy/ Foreign Affairs

Our first big brother: Britain

As a fledgling nation throughout the 20th century and as one that remains relatively young and small today, Australia has historically seeked the friendship of the two great powers over this period: Britain and the United States. Perhaps there have been times that Australia has taken these historic and/ or current alliances for granted, or merely accepted them on face value.

So it is surely worth placing critical analysis on our past relationships with these great powers, for the purposes of future reference.

Britain, through initially sending convicts to Australia in 1788, will forever be the primary influence on the founding of modern Australia.

To some these origins are viewed ingloriously, while to some they are viewed with great pride.

Nonetheless, convicts and 19th century settlers, who were overwhelmingly British, ensured that the character, culture and ethnicity of the empire’s far- flung southern colony, predominantly resembled the homeland.

Then in 1901, Australia federated and formed its own nation, largely independent although still heavily influenced by Britain.

Yet, it was only 13 years later that our young country found itself flung into the midst of the world’s greatest war: World War 1. The war had developed in Europe due to no Australian involvement, and yet, our allegiance to Britain meant full commitment to the war efforts.

This all- encompassing adherence to serving the British empire was reflected by the wartime Prime Minister, Joseph Cook, who announced; “Whatever happens, Australia is part of the Empire right to the full. Remember that when the Empire is at war, so is Australia at war.”

While only a delusioned maverick would have broken away from serving Britain in this war, our nation paid an extraordinarily high price for its service, losing 60 000 soldiers from a population of less than 5 million.

Despite this tremendous sacrifice, Britain neglected Australia in the inter- war period, ignoring the increasingly imperialistic Japan it had sought cooperation with. Then, a mere 21 years after the end of the Great War, Britain’s declaration of war upon Germany saw Australia dragged into yet another enormous conflict.

Although some perspectives argue an imminent Japanese invasion meant World War 2 a matter of necessity, some accounts differ. So as for that once- feared Japanese invasion, we will never know for certain whether Australian efforts in World War Two prevented its occurrence.

Regardless, Britain grew arrogant in the Second World War, and dismissed its concerns in the Asia- Pacific region.

Guided by Winston Churchill, Britain even allowed for the fall of Singapore with relatively insignificant resistance, for a ‘Germany First’ war strategy was favoured in spite of the increasing gains Japan was making in the region.

Britain’s guarantees that it would send a fleet to protect Australia from invasion were superfluous, and so for the first stage of the war, Australia was left largely to fend for itself despite its generous troop offerings to Britain.

Since the middle stage of the Second World War, Australia has continued to maintain ties with Britain, through cultural, historic and trading connections.

But as time has progressed, relations between Australia and Britain have to some extent shrunk, given the greater sovereignty Australia enjoys and the much less significant position that Britain occupies in the world.

Not withstanding criticism, I certainly do have considerable affection for Britain for without it Australia would not exist. Further, the nation’s achievements of ending slavery, developing the English language, sports, capitalism and much of our democratic thinking, are and should be the envy of the world.

However, there is something that should be learnt from our history, in the phase of our particularly strong connection with Britain between 1788 to 1942.

Being allied to a great power as Britain once was, can come with benefits. Nevertheless, if a nation is willing to indiscriminately enter into any conflict its superior ally becomes involved in regardless of the conflict’s origins, this can have deadly consequences.

Clearly, while the current circumstances are indeed different, our historical relationship with Britain proves it fatal to commit innumerable military forces to a given ally, should these tributes not be reciprocated.
For it should always remain imperative that actions abroad are aimed at improving outcomes for Australian people and their interests, rather than for powerful foreign entities.

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