Australian for Alliance

Australian for Alliance

Mini Teaser: A haze of friendship obscures the real foundation of the U.S.-Australian alliance, a foundation under stress since September 11, 2001. Best to take notice before the haze lifts.

by Author(s): Paul Kelly

What does it mean for a middle-sized regional power to be a friend and ally of the United States in the 21st century? This question is being debated today among U.S. allies with an intensity not seen since the Vietnam War. The wounded hegemon roused to action after September 11 has provoked sympathy, alarm and astonishment, but above all a desire to know whether America's pledge to defeat its new enemies once again represents the last best hope for mankind, or whether it will instead unleash a self-defeating cycle of violence and rippling chaos.

Among America's European and Asian allies a good deal of angst has been communicated to Washington in recent months, much of it organized around U.S. policies toward Ba'athi Iraq and communist North Korea. Accusations of arrogance and unilateralism have been tossed at the Bush Administration; intimations of fecklessness have been tossed back. Amid all this noise it has been easy for Americans to overlook what has been happening in Australia.

When they think about Australia at all, Americans see it as the least of their problems. The two countries have counted their dead in the war on terrorism, first in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and then in Bali. Australia has volunteered to fight alongside the United States in Iraq without conditions or complaints in contrast to certain other old American friends. But difficulties are now arising within this fifty year-old alliance, and it is best that they be acknowledged and addressed.

Friends Indeed

America has had few closer allies than Australia. Over the past century the two countries fought together in five wars and began the new century as allies in the war on terrorism, with Australian special forces fighting in Afghanistan. In June 2002 Australian Prime Minister John Howard told the U.S. Congress that "America has no better friend anywhere in the world than Australia." On the fiftieth anniversary of the security alliance (ANZUS) between the nations, Secretary of State Colin Powell described Australia as "our oldest and closest ally in the Pacific region." The relationship is enjoying one of its periodic high tides with a Republican president in the White House and a conservative prime minister in Canberra. The new National Security Strategy pays positive attention to Australia as a model ally, and the two nations are now negotiating a free-trade agreement--a difficult but potentially far-reaching expansion of their ties.

All this notwithstanding, Australians have gotten a mixed message from Washington over the past year. From "down under", it looks as if Colin Powell's effort to construct a broad military coalition to deal with Iraq was contradicted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's depiction of a unilateralist America that would not allow any coalition to define or undermine its mission. Of course, the United States has not discarded deterrence for pre-emption in all cases, but the intense public debate in Australia and many other countries focused on pre-emption. As a result, Australia's perception is that under the Bush Administration the United States is a more demanding alliance partner.

For the first time in many years, too, the alliance with America has acquired a sharp domestic focus, largely owing to the Howard Government's early declaration of intention to participate in Iraq. Opinion is now polarizing around competing views of the United States. One view, shaped by tradition, is for expressions of alliance unity and resolution to meet common threats, along with a conviction that Australian influence on the United States is maximized by close partnership. The alternative is for keeping some distance between the allies in this instance, for fear that misjudgments in Washington will harm Australia. This sentiment doubts whether America remains a reliable ally and prudent hegemon.

In any such debate, of course, what America's friends are saying counts most, but even many such friends are more worried than usual. In late 2002, three former Australian prime ministers--Gough Whitlam, Malcomb Fraser and Bob Hawke--as well as several former military chiefs joined to sign a letter opposing their country's participation in any Iraq campaign that is not validated by a specific UN Security Council resolution. This effort was orchestrated by former Labour Prime Minister Hawke, notable for his pro-U.S. views and close relations in office with President George H.W. Bush, and such sentiments are shared widely in Australia's foreign policy community outside of the Howard Government. Even inside this pro-U.S. government, private concerns have been vented about President Bush's inability during 2002 to persuade the Australian public to his cause.

Among America's best Australian friends, too, there is a dawning recognition that a more demanding America poses a challenge. Over the past year the word "unilateral" has meant to discerning observers not that the United States would prefer to act alone, but that it expected its closest friends to embrace its own threat perceptions. Like most other nations, Australia was psychologically unprepared for the 9/11 calamity. Its empathy for America over the attacks on New York and Washington was real enough, but when President Bush said that America was "at war'', there was little real sense that Australia was also at war. When the President declared that Iraq was a threat to the United States, there was no real sense that Iraq was also a threat to Australia.

An omen of this disorientation in Australia was the fact that the ANZUS Treaty was invoked for the first time by an attack on America, not on Australia. Australian architects of the alliance, and most of their Australian successors, assumed that ANZUS had mainly to do with American help for Australia's national security, not the other way around. Naturally enough, when the equation was reversed, new questions arose. What dangers and costs might Australia create for itself by joining U.S.-led military coalitions? Will America play the constructive leadership role in the international system that its junior allies need and expect of such a hegemon? Or will alliance actions undermine Australian security in its particular regional framework?

These questions are vital for Australia. While John Howard was correct to stress shared values between America and Australia, shared values are ultimately not as important in an alliance as shared interests and strategic purpose. Any discussion of the U.S.-Australian alliance must penetrate the haze of mutual congratulations that surrounds it and address this question of shared strategic purpose. When we assess the alliance in that way, the first thing we see is that things have changed from Cold War days--and rather too few observers have marked the ways.

A Matter of Interests

Since 1951, the shared purpose that knit America and Australia together (initially with New Zealand) arose from the common enemy of Asian communism. This was why the ANZUS Treaty was negotiated and sustained. In a deeper sense the treaty has worked Australia's way, since an alliance with the world's superpower is a national asset for a middle power operating outside any regional political bloc. But with the end of the Cold War, and of any broad threat from Asian communism, what are the purposes of the alliance today? Since the ability of the ANZUS partners to re-interpret the alliance to fit new strategic circumstances is the guarantor of its endurance, we should want to know what this re-interpretation sounds like.

From Australia's perspective, such re-interpretation has three basic themes, the first of which arises from the old geopolitics, the second from the new, and the third from a combination of the two.

The first theme concerns China. Is America prepared to accommodate the rise of China and work to integrate it into a constructive Sino-American framework? Since Australia's national destiny is tied forever to East Asia, this is obviously a matter of paramount importance for it.

The second question originates within the new geopolitics: how the United States chooses to pursue its security interest in the long struggle with Islamist terrorism. Does the United States prefer a unilateral, military-dominated approach or one that gives weight to multilateral and political mechanisms as well? How this question is parsed in practice is of enormous importance for all U.S. allies, for it will define the intersecting parameters of utility and trust within America's closest bilateral relationships.

The third question is a subset of the second: How will the alliance be relevant to Australia's challenge from Islamist terrorism within Southeast Asia and, more generally, to the prospect of living with this destabilizing threat? The October 12, 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 88 Australians, was a psychological and strategic turning point for the country. Australia must now realistically see itself as a terrorist target and its region a frontline in the war. This is a new enemy never imagined by the architects of the ANZUS alliance. The decision for Australia is whether to approach this challenge by giving priority to its partnership with the United States or to collaboration with its neighbors--or to engage in the difficult test of finding a sustainable balance between the two.

Managing a Rising China

While America is Australia's most vital state-to-state relationship, its most important region is East Asia--the focus of its trade (56 percent of exports), neighborhood cooperation and security concerns. For several decades the central task of Australian policy has been to integrate its Asian ties with its U.S. alliance, a challenge assisted by the fact that these objectives have been mutually reinforcing most of the time. For example, the joint status of Australia and Japan as U.S. security partners deepens the scope for Australia-Japan collaboration. If the U.S. alliance came to be seen as undermining Australia's role in Asia, on the other hand, then it would count as a serious liability to be weighed against the undoubted benefits of the alliance. Australia, therefore, has a profound interest in the way America manages its relations with China.

Essay Types: Essay