Australia’s Security Rationale and the ANZUS alliance

Andrew Kwon

The ANZUS treaty may be the cornerstone of modern Australian Security Policy, but it is by nature more of a reflection on Australian identity than a foundation. The article “The Perils of Continuing an Unquestioning ANZUS Alliance Reliance” by Ben Moles was able to provide a nuanced opinion on the alliance and the foibles it may hold for Australia, but it failed to consider certain complex issues surrounding the alliance and Australia which makes it difficult for things to be done differently.

There is nothing to fear, but fear itself Ben touched on the concept of fear as a principal force in dissuading flexibility in Australian strategic thinking. However the fear present in Australian security rationale is systemic and has played an intricate component since pre-federation (1901). The Australian identity is something which is difficult to define, but among the aspects to stands out is an underlying fear of isolation and encroachment. Geographic and even political isolation throughout Australia’s short history has served to consolidate these innate concerns and is best highlighted by Geoffery Blainey’s book title ‘The Tyranny of Distance’. Thus this brings me to my point on the psychological role of the alliance in the Australian psyche.

I agree with Stephen Walt’s premise that states seek alliances to balance threats, but for Australia it transcends this purpose; The ANZUS alliance serves as Australia’s principal means to “keep calm and carry on”. Though one can be critical in saying that this justifies Australia’s reliance on the ANZUS alliance, this should not be narrowly applied to the US as Australia has never truly been without the constant presence of a “great and powerful friend” in defining its security policy.

Lessons from the past The unique history of a state often plays a greater part in dictating how it will conduct itself when faced with uncertain circumstances. As such states often seem to undertake counterintuitive action amidst rapidly evolving environments. Hence this brings me to the point on the appeal of the familiar over the unknown. A universal characteristic shared from states down to the individual is applying a methodology which is familiar rather than one which is necessarily more efficient or logical. This pattern of behaviour is often consolidated by repetition and more importantly vindication.

In the case of Australia, the familiar is the maintenance of a close relationship with the superpower of the day; this Modus Operendi is both tried and tested and reflects Australia’s own historic development. Unsurprisingly the reaction of being asked to consider redefining a pattern of behaviour which not only appears to be working but also fundamental to self-identity is often met with apprehension and perplexity.

Irresistible Force The influence of precedence and psychological issues aside, the most complex and tangible issue that Australia faces when considering any change to its ANZUS obligations is its institutions. An often underestimated and overlooked factor when considering the ANZUS Alliance is the pervasiveness and influence of institutionalised US-centric behaviour. Though ANZUS is a military alliance its viability hinges on the active participation of several major departments in the Australian government; Apart from the obvious case of the Department of Defence, The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Treasury and The Attorney General’s Department would be but a few of the departments involved in making ANZUS work.

To have so many departments in all levels of government from Strategic to Operational (if we follow the Gyngell-Wesley model) means there is considerable disincentive for any sitting government to consider any change due to the financial burden of minuscule alteration and the greater strain of reforming an entrenched system. Therefore if we consider the combination of a nascent propensity towards familiarity coupled by a collective institutional psyche geared towards instinctive US-centric behaviour as well as a streamlined and well-rehearsed whole of government system, it makes the consideration of alternative policies considerably difficult.

Andrew Kwon is a 2012 graduate with a Masters in International Security from the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. (


One thought on “Australia’s Security Rationale and the ANZUS alliance

  1. Andrew, a well written piece: Analogous to Plato’s allegory/analogy of the cave- on several levels (I am unsure about the correct term for an analogy of an analogy)- Australia remains shackled by ANZUS and this relative self imposed isolation remains a danger and this is what we should fear most, the potential isolation ANZUS keeps us in not drags us out of (I should add that I am not claiming to be the truth bearer or light bringer- although continued and repeated ANZUS questioning could do for any future career I might ever of had in Australian Defence/Gov what hemlock did for Socrates).

    I understand and agree with much of what you say- however, just because something has been and is, doesn’t mean it ought to be and should continue (irrespective of the difficulty that rests in considering alternate policies)- driving down a straight road- looking into the rear-view mirror reviewing a straight road with only a few bumps along the way behind you, shouldn’t induce the driver when approaching a crest in the road, obstructing the view of what lays on the other side, to hit the ‘gas’- only perhaps Richard Nixon would do this- pragmatism would imply that at the very least we should ease of the gas a little- if not begin to think about applying the brakes.

    Many regional states are adopting the ‘Goldilocks’ approach in their dealings with the US following on from the ‘pivot’ announcement- wanting just a little attention but not too much. Australia, by a clear margin, has stuck its head above ‘the trenches’ (rotating US troops, talk of use of the Cocos islands for unmanned surveillance flights and increased port access for US naval ships in Western Australia) and this has certainly drawn the attention of many regional states, not necessarily for the right reason.

    You mention Michael Wesley which jolted my memory to an early paper I wrote a couple of years back for Uni on the theme of Australian security policy and Asia- here is my concluding remarks: “A key feature to Australia’s future security policy in Asia may well be addressing and asserting its position as an Asian actor and convincing its Asian neighbours that it is more than a subordinate and agent to the desires of the US by removing its ‘deputy sheriff badge’. This will prove a challenging obstacle for Australian policy makers to overcome. However, as Michael Wesley indicates, the consequences for Australia not addressing this issue could have alarming ramifications “One fear is that South East Asia’s success will lead to an exclusive regionalism that results in Australia being shut out of Asia diplomatically, economically, and strategically.” Australia is in danger, if not delicately addressing this issue, of being marginalised and its position within Asia will reflect its geographical position, one of relative isolation.”

    I don’t believe this is a question of Australia seeking to be understood in Asia. Australians might well begin any debate on foreign affairs with the thought that there is no chance that they will ever enjoy good relations with all the nations to their north. Australia’s problem is that it now exists in a new and dangerous power situation and its people and policies are not properly orientated towards the fact.- These words are not mine, nor were they penned and published in an op-ed this morning. They were published almost 50 years ago in Donald Horne’s ‘The Lucky Country.’ Australia certainly is a lucky country, for many reasons, not least because, thanks mainly to ANZUS, we have arrived at where we are today without largely having to address the changing power situation Horne identified and that is still happening around us.

    There exists a saying that goes ‘that in life you make your own luck.’ Whether Australia continues to uphold ‘The Lucky Country’ moniker (for which Donald Horne believed it was, and I believe it still is and can be) may very well be dependent on orientating Australians and Australia’s policies towards the changing power situation in our region- we’ve got some catching up to do- this won’t happen by chance but by well and thoroughly considered policy/decision making.

    I can’t say for sure what is on the other side of the crest in the road- but I’d take a punt at saying it ain’t going to be smooth, straight or the easy down hill ride we’ve managed to coast up until now. One things for sure though. We need to be more pro-active in making our own luck!

‘When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite’.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s