Can Australia Really Count on America?

October 21, 2023 Topic: Alliances Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: AlliancesAustraliaPoliticsCongressPolarizationDonald Trump

Can Australia Really Count on America?

What will Washington do for Canberra if things get truly tough?


The phrase ‘great and powerful friend’ is a totem of Australian defense, setting strategy since federation.

The totem’s purpose is to make and manage The Alliance—capitalize and underline it as crucial and central. The search for certainty adds punctuation: The Alliance?


Certainty is ever beset by alliance questions of interest, commitment and degrees of difficulty. Judge how the great and powerful friend will express its greatness. Count its power and weigh that against other powers.

At the heart of the US–Australia alliance lies the friendship calculation. What is the strength of the insurance? What will Washington do for Canberra if things get truly tough?

Australia’s longest-serving prime minister, Robert Menzies, coined the totem, although he expressed it in the plural, as ‘great and powerful friends’. The ‘friends’ usage meant Menzies could do a heart-and-history embrace of Britain, while swiveling his eyes and head to the new alliance with America.

The ANZUS Treaty, secured by Menzies’s government, is in its eighth decade, and the totem still does symbolic duty. The totem’s deeper use, though, is as a gauge, to measure the constant question: how fares the great and powerful friend?

Answering that question, an outstanding Washington strategist, Robert Gates, has just pronounced the US ‘the dysfunctional superpower’.

Gates rose from entry-level analyst to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1991 to 1993. Then he was secretary of defence from 2006 to 2011, serving in the cabinets of both a Republican and a Democrat president, a rare bipartisan achievement. Gates damns the unpredictable mayhem of Washington as it faces extraordinary international challenges, beginning his Foreign Affairs article:

The United States now confronts graver threats to its security than it has in decades, perhaps ever. Never before has it faced four allied antagonists at the same time—Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran—whose collective nuclear arsenal could within a few years be nearly double the size of its own. Not since the Korean War has the United States had to contend with powerful military rivals in both Europe and Asia. And no one alive can remember a time when an adversary had as much economic, scientific, technological, and military power as China does today.

Beyond the accounting of external challenges, the essay is striking for its pessimism about what ‘fractured political leadership’ means for the US’s global role.

The division of powers is a design feature that builds conflict into the workings of Washington. Yet today’s dysfunction can divert and distract the superpower. Gates sees no ‘long-term strategy to ensure that the United States, and democratic values more broadly, will prevail’. A wise owl—an insider’s insider—worries that domestic political warfare will cause America to lose the geopolitical contest:

The United States finds itself in a uniquely treacherous position: facing aggressive adversaries with a propensity to miscalculate yet incapable of mustering the unity and strength necessary to dissuade them. Successfully deterring leaders such as Xi [Jinping] and [Vladimir] Putin depends on the certainty of commitments and constancy of response. Yet instead, dysfunction has made American power erratic and unreliable, practically inviting risk-prone autocrats to place dangerous bets—with potentially catastrophic effects.

Donald Trump may be more symptom than cause (though he’s a helluva symptom), as Gates laments: ‘Both friends and adversaries wonder whether Biden’s engagement and alliance-building is a return to normal or whether Trump’s “America first” disdain for allies will be the dominant thread in American policy in the future. Even the closest of allies are hedging their bets about America.’

The hedging quandary will get no public attention as Anthony Albanese heads to the White House next week for his first visit as prime minister, offering his version of the totem: ‘The Australia–United States relationship is unique in scale, scope and significance, reflecting more than 100 years of partnership between our nations.’

The scale–scope–significance combo will allow the PM to lift his eyes above the Washington mayhem. Albanese will hew to the familiar frame of the great and powerful friend, even if a prime minister from Labor’s left will never lift the phrase from the Liberal Party founder.

Menzies, though, was a canny realist beneath the silver tongue and political carapace. And the calculations underpinning the three dimensions of his totem can take the alliance temperature in a time of feverish temper.

On the power measure, the US still has military weight that puts it in a class of its own, as Gates comments: ‘All told, the United States spends more on defense than the next ten countries combined, including Russia and China.’

The economic element of power tells a tale of shifting relativities. Under the purchasing power parity metric, China overtook the US to become the world’s top economy in 2014. The US is still number one when measuring nominal GDP in US dollars. Which indicator you pick can depend on the argument you want to make about power.

In the region that matters to Australia, a rich new era of Asian commerce arrives, yet US protectionism means it will have ‘fewer economic carrots to offer’ and US ‘economic and political sway will be diminished’, as The Economist notes. ‘America will retain influence over Asian security, but its economic importance will decline.’

Many indices track power. It’s more complex to measure the ‘great’ bit of the totem. How a great nation uses its power can be a matter of character and politics as much as policy interest. What Gates fears about an ‘erratic and unreliable’ Washington echoes a view Menzies put in a 1959 letter to his deputy prime minister after a US visit: ‘There are, from our point of view, some crazy things done in Washington.’

Menzies would have embraced the lines Lord Carrington used as NATO secretary-general: the allies ‘sing in harmony, not in unison’ and whatever the frustrating discordant notes, ‘they’re the only Americans we have’.

Menzies believed in the US as a great power because ‘predominant power means predominant responsibility’. In the opening stages of the Cold War in 1950, Menzies observed that ‘any enlightened American’ would see that ‘domination of Europe by the common enemy would lead to an American isolation which would be for the American people not merely ominous, but disastrous’.

The canny realist’s view was that the US had an abiding interest in maintaining the global balance. And these days, the global balance is set in the Indo-Pacific (even Europe quietly adjusts). Australia’s defence strategic review mentioned it as a simple statement of fact: ‘The Indo-Pacific is the most important geostrategic region in the world.’ The new geography of power adds extra value to the ‘friend’ dimension of the totem. What the Indo-Pacific demands of the US becomes the broad frame for the ANZUS friendship.

Reading the ANZUS Treaty as a lawyer inspects a contract, Menzies noted that nothing is automatic or required, but between ‘contracting parties of good faith it renders common action against a common danger substantially inevitable’. Savour the shades and weighting of that phrase: substantially inevitable.

Menzies claimed ANZUS as one of his greatest achievements and turned it into a formidable political weapon against Labor. Yet he was a skeptical participant in the creation of ANZUS, with the key Australian role played by the external affairs minister, Percy Spender.

In Spender’s words, Menzies was ‘unenthusiastic’ and ‘poured cold water’ on the efforts to create a Pacific pact. The Menzies view was that Australia didn’t need a formal alliance because the US was ‘already overwhelmingly friendly to us and Australia could rely on her’. He described the idea of a Pacific pact as ‘a superstructure on a foundation of jelly’. There’s quite a distance from ‘jelly’ to ‘substantially inevitable’, but a canny politician executes such swivels with nary a blush.

Menzies thought American interests and the nature of America would drive US actions, whatever the terms of the alliance contract. Indeed, he was happy to bandwagon on US military spending; in the choice between guns and butter, Menzies’s budget choice was butter.

In his book on the Menzies era, one of the few negative notes struck by former prime minister John Howard is the comment that defense spending was low in the 1950s and into the 1960s: ‘In a sense, one of the benefits of ANZUS was that, in financial terms, Australia’s defense came cheaply.’

Today’s lift in Australia’s defense budget—in our era of disruption, deterrence and dollars—is partly about contributing to the alliance. But it’s also a response to the questions raised by another big ‘d’ issue—the dysfunction of Washington.

Albanese heads to take a close-up look at the great and powerful ally, and make some quiet soundings about the future of the friendship.

Graeme Dobell is a senior fellow at ASPI.

This article was first published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Image: sasirin pamai /