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Armed neutrality for Australia reconsidered

By Peter Stanley - posted Friday, 8 June 2012

Twenty-odd years on, I think that it's time to reconsider David Martin's idea. Australia should take responsibility for its own defence. We should declare that Australians will neither invade other nations, nor allow any encroachment on our own territory. This demands imagination. Australia has effectively always been subservient to a larger, stronger imperial power – Britain until 1942; the United States since. For all the talk of maturity and independence Australia remains utterly dependent upon a foreign power. Shaking off that mentality is perhaps the first and greatest obstacle.

But other challenges remain. Armed Neutrality offers to those who seek peace the challenge that it would not involve the repudiation of armed force. It is not a stance for pacifists. It sees armed force as a legitimate means to maintain national integrity. It could see Australia spending more on arms, creating a larger defence force and calling upon more citizens to devote more to defence than at present. (Some nations have completely repudiated armies – Costa Rica or Iceland – but in the world and in the region in which we live that is simply irresponsible.)

There's no point pretending that self reliance would come cheaply or easily. But the weapons we buy would only be used for Australia's defence, not to invade nations with whom we have no quarrel.


Since Sweden joined a European military force (sensibly, because Europe is a force for stability rather than aggression) there is now only one nation that exemplifies armed neutrality. Switzerland is determined never to be conquered, but has never waged aggressive war. It demands a high level of participation by its citizens and expects conscripts to use modern, sophisticated weapons. A small, land-locked mountainous nation might seem to be incomparable to a large, sparsely-populated island continent, but the essence of its self-reliance remain a powerful model.

Certainly there would be risks in adopting Armed Neutrality. Even a strong, self-reliant Australia could face a threat greater than it could deter or defeat. (But Anzus offers no guarantee of effective defence, either.)

It is possible that Armed Neutrality could result in a more militarised or violent nation (though this has not occurred in Switzerland or Sweden, where reservists take their automatic weapons home).

It is also possible that Armed Neutrality could produce a more selfish Australia, one focussed on safeguarding its needs at the expense of others' misfortunes. But one of the bright spots in Australia's record since 1945 has been the extent to which its defence force has served as peacekeepers. Again, as the Swedish and Swiss models show, there is no necessary tension between Armed Neutrality and accepting international obligations in peacekeeping.

In his Gough Whitlam address, while professing support for the alliance Malcolm Fraser nevertheless recognised that 'its efficacy has its limits'. Malcolm Fraser looked for Australia to rely on 'our own skill, our own strength, our own diplomacy, wisdom, our contribution to our region, our contribution to the overall security of that region'. These, Fraser thought, 'are what will secure Australia's future'. In which case, he really doesn't support Anzus, but has opened the possibility of Armed Neutrality.


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Dr Peter Stanley addressed Just Peace, Brisbane, as a private individual.

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About the Author

Prof Peter Stanley, of the University of NSW, Canberra, is one of Australia’s most active military-social historians. His book Bad Characters jointly won the Prime Minister’s Prize for History in 2011.

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