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What the Sea Cucumber Can Tell Us About Australia’s Foreign Policy

ByRobert Silverman

The Author

Robert Silverman is the pen name of a journalist and academic with extensive Australian and international experience in teaching, researching and writing on politics and history.

As a guide to Australian foreign policy, consider the relationship between the sea cucumber and the pearl fish. The sea cucumber breathes by expelling water from its anus. When the anus dilates to let the water out, the pearl fish dives in and stays as long as it likes. 

Precisely what the pearl fish and its little mates do inside the sea cucumber only the pearl fish know but what a wonderful refuge for a small fish living in a world of much bigger ones. 

Up to the 1950s Australia lived securely within the sea cucumber of the British Empire. Life inside was perfect. Nothing could possibly change, “I did but see her passing by and yet I’ll love her till I die,” warbled Robert Menzies of Her Majesty the Queen.  

In the 1930s, Menzies was respectful of “Herr Hitler” and wanted to sell iron ore to Japan even as it ravished China so, had they won the war, Australia might have taken up residence in a German or Japanese cucumber. 

As nothing lasts forever, not cucumber and not empire, Australia might have found itself unfortunately stuck when the British Empire finally died but fortunately the rear end of another cucumber was waiting in anticipation.

Soon Australia was just as safe and comfortable as before. “All the way with LBJ” Prime Minister Harold Holt declared when this corrupt Texas schemer, Lyndon Baines Johnson, paid a quick trip to his Down Under satrapy. 

There has to be a reason the sea cucumber allows this arrangment with the pearl fish.  Perhaps it nibbles away at parasites lodged around the cucumber’s innards.  The same logic has to be applied to the relationship between Australia and its great power hosts. It makes itself useful by fighting their wars. 

This goes back to before federation when in 1885, NSW sent troops to fight alongside British troops in Sudan. The Sudanese resisted for more than a decade before being chopped to pieces on the battlefield by wheel-mounted Maxim guns. The inescapable parallels are Afghanistan or Iraq, both invaded and occupied by the US with the full support of the Down Under ally living inside its cloaca.  

Both wars were savage violations of international law so to hear Albanese bleating about the sanctity of the rules-based international order is to reach for the vomit bucket. Going all the way with LBJ meant sending troops to Indo-China, where nearly 60,000 US soldiers, 500 Australians and millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians had to die so that the cucumber could live.  

Force multipliers’ 

The US dropped millions of cluster bombs on Cambodia.  A high percentage of these weapons never explode, lying in the grass or just under the soil for someone – often a child – to tread on or pick up decades later and lose a foot, fingers or an eye.  In the 1980s, the US ran a clandestine line of cluster bombs from Chile to Iraq. 

These ‘force multipliers’ helped Saddam Hussein’s army stave off the mass land attacks by Iran.  Israel sprinkled south Lebanon with cluster bombs in 2006. In 2020, 360 casualties, dead or wounded, were caused by cluster bombs dropped during war. More than 40 per cent were children.  

A 2008 international treaty banning their production and use (the Convention on Cluster Munitions) has now been ratified by 111 countries, not including the US, Russia, China, India and Israel, among other countries.

Cluster bombs are in the news again now that the US has decided to send them to Ukraine.  Australia has signed and ratified the cluster munitions treaty that is says is fully aligned with its defence forces’ strategies and procedures yet in Germany, ahead of moving on to Lithuania for a NAT0 summit, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese would only say that Australia does not produce such weapons. 

There is a clear moral issue here. The cluster munitions treaty falls under the heading of the ‘international rules-based order’ frequently cited by Albanese when inveighing against Russia yet he has refused to condemn the supply of US cluster bombs to Ukraine.

This brings us back to the sea cucumber and the pearl fish. Only one Australian prime minister in recent history has refused to imitate the pearl fish. That was Gough Whitlam in 1975 and his punishment was to be thrown out of office in a manoeuvre that had the US and the UK written all over it.  Since then his sycophant successors have fallen over themselves to demonstrate their loyalty.  

By insisting that the US provide prima facie evidence that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 attacks the Taliban government of Afghanistan was complying with the rules-based international order. By refusing to give it and invading instead the US was breaking that order. To this day, Osama bin Laden has never been on the FBI’s wanted list for 9/11. 

The invasion of Afghanistan violated international law but Australia still joined in. The bombing of wedding parties and other war crimes against civilians were the result, with the Taliban still outlasting the US and its troupe of camp followers.

In 2003, Howard offered to join the war on Iraq even before being asked. That war, based on lies,was also a violation of the ‘international rules-based order’ but Australia still took part, with one of its senior military commanders, Jim Molan, taking a leading role in the destruction of Fallujah and the killing of hundreds of civilians. 

The US-orchestrated proxy war on Syria violated international law yet again, even more blatantly when the US invaded in 2015.  Its NATO allies and friends, including Australia, joined the action to destroy the Syrian government, with Australian warplanes helping to kill more than 100 Syrian soldiers in one attack. 

Australia is not at war with Syria any more than it was with Afghanistan and neither country had done anything to provoke Australia, whose government did not even apologise for the killing of Syrian soldiers or offer  recompense for the families of the dead. All Syria got from Malcom Turnbull was “regrets” for this “mistake”, which clearly it was not as the attack helped the Islamic State consolidate its position in eastern Syria, in line with US strategic thinking.  

Neither has Australia has had anything to say about the sanctions intended to finish off a country already brought to its knees by this war. Not long before the attack on Syria, Australia had given its im/moral political support to the US-NATO war, which destroyed the most developed country in Africa, Libya.   

Craven suckholery

The US already has several military/communications bases in Australia – prime target China – but when US president Barack Obama visited in 2011, prime minister Julia Gillard gave him another one, a land base in Darwin (since expanded to include a naval facility). There was no public discussion or prior approval of this. Wanting to please Australia’s great ally, she just did it.

Albanese has taken this craven suckholery to an even higher level. He has taken Australia into new ‘security’ arrangements directed against China that are bound to richochet sooner or later and has landed Australians with a $368 billion bill for up to five US nuclear-powered submarines, delivery date some time in the 2050s when wars will be fought differently and they may well be obsolete.

China is understandably alarmed not just by the sub deal, and Australia’s strategic relationship with hostile powers but the presence of US land, sea and communications in Australia, part of an aggressive wall the US has been steadily building to ‘contain’ China.  

Repeatedly we are told that it is China, which does not invade other countries, is the threat to Australia’s security and not the US, which has attacked or invaded dozens of countries just since 1945. Along with the war on Russia, closer now to open rather than just proxy through Ukraine, it seems we have been reverse engineered back to the 1950s.

No sooner had Albanese been elected Prime Minister than he rushed off to join a NATO summit. When Paul Keating recently described Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, as a supreme fool and an accident waiting to happen, Albanese rushed to his defence, describing Stoltenberg as “a friend of Australia,” which clearly he is only as long as Australia does what NATO wants.    

It is decades since NATO was just an organisation committed to defending Western Europe in the event of a Soviet attack. It is now a global army, basically a mercenary force, paid largely by the US and underwritten by EU governments, fighting for the US wherever and whenever it decides to intervene, from the Balkans to the borderlands of Russia and Central Asia.   

What the invaded party thinks is of no concern. The Iraqi parliament has demanded that the US get out of Iraq but it refuses to go and NAT0 stays on with it. By itself, Iraq cannot shift these intruders from its soil any more than Syria can. 

Australia as a NATO ‘partner’ 

As fast as he can Albanese is consolidating Australia’s position inside the US/NATO sea cucumber. As NATO puts it, Australia is “one of its partners across the globe.” Military interoperability, cyber ‘security’ and hybrid warfare ‘resilience,’ logistics, participation in NATO land, air and sea war ‘games’ and regular political dialogue are all part of the picture.  

Through its loyalty Australia has earned its place as a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner, alongside Georgia, Jordan, Sweden and Ukraine.  It is further enmeshed in US policy through the ‘five eyes’ (Australia, NZ, Canada, US and UK) intelligence-sharing consortium and regional ‘security’ alliances with the US, the UK and other partners. 

Australia has given Ukraine hundreds of millions of dollars in ‘ humanitarian’ and military aid , including the despatch of  scores of military personnel to the UK to train Ukrainian soldiers. The mission is codenamed Operation Kudu, after an African antelope whose fate it is to be torn apart by lions.  Recently, Australia decided to send a surveillance aircraft plus 100 crew/support personnel to Germany to monitor the flow of ‘aid’ across the border with Ukraine. 

With Australian support, NATO is now expanding its presence in the Asia-Pacific, accounting for Keating’s outburst against Soltenberg. The war on Russia through Ukraine is an American interest as a war with China over Taiwan would be.  If these endless wars are the price of staying inside the US/NATO alliance, is such an alliance worth it on moral, legal and practical grounds?

What Australians think of all this is irrelevant.  Foreign policy has not been a dominant election since the Vietnam War. The Australian people are not consulted or asked for their approval before the politicians make decisions that arguably threaten their future more than safeguard it.   They are just expected to foot the bill and go off to fight another war when the time comes.   

The word ‘independence’ is never far from the lips of the politicians and the media commentators but talk is cheap.  Real independence never comes as a gift but has to be fought for, as any Latin American or African will tell you. 

Friendship based on doing what the friend wants just because he wants it is not true friendship.  No two countries have permanent shared interests.  Only in the context of going along with whatever the US wants is it in Australia’s interests to provoke China or buy into the war in Ukraine, which has the potential to turn nuclear.

Interests might coincide but they often don’t, at which point, in the name of true Independence, the weaker partner has to stand up for itself or stay snug and secure up the rear end of the cucumber. There is no point in saying the choice is Australia’s to make because it was clearly made long ago.



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