Time to strengthen ANZUS. It is weaker than we think!


The time is right for Australia to act to change the ANZUS treaty in a way that gains bipartisan support from both the right and the left of the alliance debate. Even when signed in 1951, Percy Spender, Menzies’s foreign minister considered ANZUS disappointing, especially when compared to the NATO treaty signed only two years earlier. Under the NATO treaty an attack on a signatory commits the US to respond militarily in the threatened country’s defence; ANZUS only commits the US to consultations in times of crisis. Spender considered ANZUS a base‑level document needing later upgrading; now is the time.

Australia had originally hoped ANZUS would place a firm obligation on all signatories to act together to meet common dangers; however the treaty’s wording makes US support for Australia dependent on Washington’s assessment of its interests at the time. Indeed in several tense periods between Indonesia and Australia, the US has avoided harming diplomatic relations with Indonesia by evading giving Australia full support. A treaty’s words may seem mere sophistry, but they have a certain gravitas in demonstrating clearly and publicly the specific agreements nations intend to uphold and under what circumstances.

Historically when conflict threatens, specific treaty obligations are reassuringly honoured three times out of four. Worryingly though, nations go beyond their specified, agreed treaty obligations only about a quarter of the time; Australia’s experience with the US over Indonesia is not unusual. The weak treaty wording means abandonment during a time of crisis has become a realistic fear for successive Australian governments. To allay this, the approach adopted is to consistently support the US during their times of need, hoping to foster strong feelings of needing to reciprocate when Australia calls for support. Since ANZUS was signed, Australia has been involved militarily with the U.S. in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Prime Minister Howard’s assessment that alliances are based on mutual obligation graphically illustrates that the hope of reciprocity lies at the heart of Australian strategic thinking.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

The NATO treaty is much more of a security guarantee then ANZUS, but some caution ANZUS is the best Australia can reasonably expect. There is always some bureaucratic anxiety (and inertia) about amending security treaties however opportune the time may seem. In 2004 the US extended NATO security guarantees to Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia; Georgia appears next. Given this recent strong US security commitment to these smaller ex‑communist states, Australia could reasonably seek a similar guarantee. The strong relationship between Prime Minister Howard and President Bush would help, but the change in the Second Bush administration to favour multilateralism over unilateral approaches could be decisive. The present Washington consensus favours engaging reliable allies. With worries over North Korea and ongoing Middle East difficulties, the US enhancing trusted and proven alliances appears prudent.

For the realist‑based right of Australian politics deepening the relationship with the hyper‑power US is intrinsically desirable, especially given growing nuclear proliferation concerns. The left wing though wishes Australia would display greater independence from US foreign and defence policy positions. The left’s goal however will remain stillborn while it ignores the reality that reciprocity presently frames the alliance debate. Independence, in terms of being less compelled to support the US in any circumstance, is not sensible for pragmatic Australian governments while US support in crisis situations remains so conditional. Australia felt strongly obliged to support the US in invading Iraq; arguably the doctrine of reciprocity was the compelling factor. By comparison NATO alliance partners France and Germany, being confident of US support in a conflict involving them, could realistically adopt more independent policies. Paradoxically, the left needs a stronger, more certain treaty with the US to give future Australian governments the option to be as independent as the left would wish.

Australia already considers the US alliance the ultimate insurance policy, the time is ripe to make it actually so. A n enhanced NATO‑like treaty in reducing the fear of abandonment by our superpower ally would allow Australia to be more independent in policy making if it so choose. The Australia‑US treaty needs to be made as high‑quality and as robust as the NATO treaty: no more, but no less; Australia and Latvia should be equal. Such an achievement could represent the Howard Government’s greatest long‑term legacy to Australian security.

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