It’s no insight to say there’s a debate in Australia about the nature and necessity of our alliance with the United States. This has been going on for decades, but was kicked into high gear by Hugh White’s 2010 ‘Power Shift’. Ben Moles, Andrew Kwon and Jerry Hofhuis have all commented on this blog about the US/Australian relationship. Other big fish have also spoken – Prime Minister Gillard wowed the US Congress, Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser made an elegant contribution at the 2012 Whitlam Oration. Yet too often there seems to be a focus on what we give (which is comparatively little) to what we get (which is comparatively much).
Debate about the relationship is a good thing – but the only logical conclusion is that the ANZUS alliance is incredibly useful and beneficial to Australia – it gives us access to US decision makers, it gives us security, and it also (frustratingly for America) gives us quite an enjoyable bit of a free ride.
This is not to say we shouldn’t continue to examine the relationship both constantly and critically – but this should include recognition of the concrete advantages of the relationship, and not just the intellectual imperfections or imbalances that some commentators complain about, or view it as a zero-sum card game with the wrong partner, against the inevitability of Sino-hegemony which some strategists (wrongfully) predict.
Access: America takes Australian individuals, ideas and interests seriously. If we feel something is serious enough to talk about, then they will listen. But remember, the idea that Australia can ‘teach’ America something about Chinese engagement is a little patronising (Since ’79, three of the US Ambassadors to the PRC were actually born in China). What Australia can do best is to drop the right comment in the right ear at the right time. To paraphrase Churchill, if America does the right thing after exhausting all other possibilities, then the task for Australia is to help steer America there more quickly and conveniently than would otherwise be the case – to the benefit of Australian interests. Fraser’s autobiography gives one example, when a word in the ear of Reagan’s Vice-President triggered a realisation that a planned US apathy over the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands would render Margaret Thatcher so furious with betrayal that she would have made De Gaulle look like Lafayette. During the Bush era, words were said that helped America appreciate the risk of being seen as the anti-Islamic Crusader of Bin Laden’s propaganda (perhaps not as successfully resolved as Fraser’s example, but it could certainly have been far worse!). Picking up a megaphone and shouting the obvious is crude – but having a serious talk off the record can get results.
Thus, we should appreciate that our words count, and that a discrete and sophisticated Australian Word to the American Wise can and does help steer America toward more effective and successful policy goals.
Security: America provides a security guarantee to Australia and the region – a guarantee that has been tested time and again. In the 1950s it protected Taiwan and South Korea from communist occupation. It went into South Vietnam for the same reason (and arguably bought enough time for more southern countries to shore up their own anti-communist defences). In the 1980s it worked in Afghanistan, and has of course been involved with many countries in the region. America has proven itself – and even if Clinton might have apparently almost fumbled the ball over in East Timor, Indonesia still knew what was what.
As Authoritarian China continues to rise, and its future remains unknowable (to itself, if not to those predicting the inevitability of democracy ), and the PLA plays its own in-country game, the guarantee of a liberal-democratic rule-based friendly powerful off-shore balancer is self-evidently a good thing. After all, if Andrew Kwon is correct, and Australia ‘needs’ an alliance with the powerful…why did we choose America in ’41, and not Japan in ’39?
Free ride: The problem of this security guarantee is that it let many countries relax – why should you do the heavy lifting on your security when America will always step in for you? America’s response to this altitude was the Guam Doctrine of President Nixon. Richard Armitage’s recent call for increased Australian Military spending is very much in the same vein – and perhaps equally in vain. As Hartcher noted, “The rotating deployment [of US Marines in Darwin] provided a level of assurance that gave the government an excuse to cut the Australian defence outlay”. It did indeed, and quite an adroit step it was! Australia has an amazing level of access to the US machine – both in military hardware and intelligence data. Our alliance gives us a phenomenal bang for our buck – and we need to calibrate our spending to make sure we don’t take too much for granted. Thus, given America’s self-interested commitment to regional stability, the call by some Australian commentators to draw away from America and pursue an ‘independent’ foreign policy strikes me as self-indulgent blather. Australia would look like a rebellious and snotty-nosed teenager making a scene – pursuing an ‘independent’ foreign policy in the full knowledge that America’s presence means nothing can seriously go wrong.
Free rides are free rides, and Australia should not increase defence spending just because America feels slightly used. But at the same time, scorning the alliance for the sake of Canberra’s ego would put us out in the cold for no gain at all!
Overall: With contemporary China alternating between cranky and belligerent and cranky and insecure, maintaining a snug alliance with America makes sense – to us, and to all the regional countries that are scrambling to strengthen their own ties with the USA. When the Chinese Foreign Minister declares “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact”, (can you imagine the opprobrium if a US Secretary of State had said that!) then we should straighten our backs and walk with pride by America’s shoulder. Given that America has many more years of bearing the leadership burden – Robert Lieber, Robert Kagan and a recent New York Magazine article all point out America’s many regenerative strengths – we should welcome the fact that our alliance is in such good shape – and that it serves Australian interests so such an effective and efficient manner.
Guy Roberts is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. His thesis examines the ‘China Policy’ of President George W. Bush.