Australia and the US — Managing the alliance better?

The agony of Iraq continues despite the concerted efforts of President Bush to talk up the situation on the ground – in hauntingly similar ways to those used by Washington in the last days of the Vietnam War. In large part this — and the evident lack of a realistic exit strategy for Iraq — have contributed significantly to the dramatic slide in President Bush’s public support in the US with little sign of swift recovery. Simultaneously there have been further signs that a frustrated Washington may be well down the track in contingency planning for a military response to Iran’s defiant nuclear stand.

This carries significant further challenges for Australia. Again, as was the case in Vietnam, “getting out” of Iraq is likely to prove far more difficult than “getting in”. The US exit from Vietnam eventually was dictated more by the desire to extricate itself from the scene than by any genuine success of the Vietnamization program on the ground. Domestic political imperatives will force Washington to keep its cards pretty close to its chest in this process — which in turn will test its relationships with its partners. Australia and other smaller partners will have to fall in line and attempt to harmonise their own public statements and policy decisions accordingly.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

As in the decision to sign up for the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, alliance considerations again would weigh heavily on the Howard Government’s consideration of its response to any US request for support for military action in Iran — in words or actions.

The Centre for Policy Development sees this as a time once again to reflect on the state of our alliance relationship with the US Over the next month the Centre for Policy Development will publish a series of contributions on this topic from commentators in politics, diplomacy, defence, academia and the media

Several common themes emerge from the wide spectrum of views:

– Though created in the immediate aftermath of WWII with particular threats then in mind, ANZUS has remained central to Australian foreign and defence policy-making regardless of which political party was in power. Bipartisan support for ANZUS in both countries has remained fundamental.

– At issue more has been the nature of the alliance and the formal obligations required of each party in disputes outside their borders — such as any future US military engagement in the Taiwan Straits or Australian military intervention in support of PNG against any Indonesian military threat.

– But we must not ignore the less formal or moral obligations expected of both alliance partners. Has the relationship become too much one of “compliance” rather than genuine “alliance”? Should not a robust alliance allow differences of opinion and foster genuine dialogue on any points of contention?

– Going further, is it not dangerous for the alliance to place too much reliance on the personal relationships between political leaders? This always risks tainting the alliance with domestic political arguments largely irrelevant to the substance of the bi-lateral relationship. As did the “All the way with LBJ” episode in Australia.

·- We must never overlook that it is not an alliance between equals. This places very real limits on how far Australia can seek to exercise its alliance muscle with the US — whether on broader geo-political issues or even in trade and commercial disputes.

– “Defence” was at the core of the initial ANZUS concept and remains very much so. Cooperation in defence policy, military planning and intelligence issues have grown extensively. But so also has inter-operability with US forces and our dependence on the US for defence technology and hardware.

Despite the pervasiveness of US culture here, Australians have a very limited appreciation of what makes their superpower alliance partner tick. We devote too little attention in Australia to understanding China or Indonesia but that far outstrips efforts to comprehend the complexity of the US environment which is ultimately critical to so much of Australia’s future.

This week we bring you:

The Australian-American Alliance: a proposal based on historical reflection by Peter Edwards

Speaking clearly and acting boldly on issues of shared interest by Rory Steele

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