Australia-US Alliance Series: part 1

Thanks to Bill Leak

The Australian-American alliance: a proposal based on historical reflection

By Peter Edwards

The Australian-American alliance appears to be as close as its supporters could possibly hope, but its warmth carries with it the seeds of potential weakness. It is now closely associated with two leaders who come from the same side of politics and with a military commitment that even conservative observers think may lead to disaster. Could the alliance stand the strain of failure in Iraq, or of future tensions arising from disputes over China, or trade, or human rights, especially if the leaders in Washington and Canberra were not politically and personally sympathetic?

Notwithstanding current cordiality, a future administration in Washington might take the view that allies, especially those in the Asia-Pacific, are more trouble than they are worth. A greater risk is that Australian public opinion might come to the view that close association with the world’s greatest superpower carries more risks than benefits.

In a recent Lowy Institute Paper, I reflected on the history of the alliance since 1907. The paper looked at the five major arguments that Australian governments have used to persuade their electorate that the alliance remained essential, in good times and bad. They were, in summary, strategic insurance and preferential access to policy-makers, intelligence, advanced technology, and the US market. These arguments carry weight, but all need to be constantly reassessed in the light of changing circumstances. What we now need is a think tank which looks at the alliance as a political institution in its own right and which undertakes independent assessments of its management and its future challenges.

Speaking clearly and acting boldly on issues of shared interest

By Rory Steele

Australia ‘s alliance with the United States retains popular support but research shows growing antipathy towards the US generally and scepticism towards the Free Trade Agreement in particular. Such disenchantment — matched in international surveys — coincides with perceived US unilateralism and poor responses to challenges like terrorism, globalisation, climate change and above all Iraq.

The alliance was the key reason why Australia went to war in Iraq; less compelling was the first stated reason, namely removing WMD, and the subsequent one of removing Saddam. Major parties and the electorate acknowledge that Australia’s national security fundamentally depends on the US, and the value of our partnering it in difficult times.

Australia needs to restore confidence in and revitalise our relationship with the world’s leading power. Paradoxically we should first step back — from the personalised, deferential relationship Prime Minister Howard has with President Bush, under which we risk being taken for granted and losing respect abroad. We should schedule our exit from Iraq, where we have done more than any US ally except Britain.

Washington will respect an ally that speaks clearly and acts boldly on issues of shared interest. On issues of principle Australia should be prepared to adopt a distinctive position. We should urge the US to be cautious in our region. We should insist on the worth of the United Nations, and of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In public diplomacy we should be forthright advocates for US policies that aid the weak, advance political fairness and liberalise world markets.

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