Australia-US Alliance Series: Week 4

Let’s not ‘hug too close’

By Richard Woolcott

Australia ‘s relationship with the United States will become less dominant over the next decade and the 1951 ANZUS Treaty less relevant. ANZUS should not be seen either as an unequivocal guarantee of our security or as a sacred cow. Three main factors will drive such changes in Australian attitudes.

First, the established world order is changing rapidly. A world dominated by an all-powerful United States since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, is giving way to a more complex international situation with new rising centres of power. China and India will seek to translate their spectacular economic growth into greater political influence.

Secondly, as a result of Iraq, the wider Australian public will be more aware that the Alliance can be a cause of costly and unnecessary entanglements, rather than a guaranteed source of strength, especially in the absence of a defined national threat.

Thirdly, the Government’s tendency to exploit the ANZUS Alliance for domestic political advantage is likely — after the Iraq experience — to prove counter-productive and to strengthen such concerns. The assertive, indeed messianic, foreign policy and the often insensitive style of the Bush Administration has also led to a precipitous decline in international and domestic respect and support for the Bush presidency with which the Howard Government has so closely linked itself.

The responsibility of a good ally is to give honest counsel not, as the former British Ambassador in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, wrote of Tony Blair’s approach to President Bush, to “hug too close”, as if such closeness was “an end in itself”.

As the President of the Council on Foreign Relations and former principal adviser to Colin Powell, Richard Haass, has argued publicly, “Australia did have a choice”. It would not have fractured the alliance and would have been, Haass wrote, “perfectly acceptable” to say “no” to joining the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as some other American allies and close neighbours, Canada and Mexico, did despite strong pressure from Washington.

We need to avoid appearing to take part in a security arrangement to “contain” a supposed Chinese military threat. The best basis for future stability and peace in Asia will lie in cooperation and sensitive diplomacy between the major countries involved. Our future role in this region should not be seen simply through the prism of ANZUS. It must be to exert what influence we can muster with the major regional powers to press for more cooperative relationships.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

Coping with the Alliance

By Paul Barratt

The alliance is a curious animal in current circumstances. A product of Australia’s fear of a resurgent Japan as a consequence of the “soft” peace treaty with the US following WWII, the alliance has become a relationship based much more on common hopes and opportunities than on common threats and fears. That, and the convergence of fundamental values and institutions, is what now keeps the alliance alive and relevant.

A vital part of alliance management is to maintain other national interests that conflict with alliance demands. In the early 1970s I was a young officer in the Defence Branch of the Treasury. We were alongside the US in Vietnam. At the same time we were involved in the early stages of a major rewrite of the international law of the sea. Key issues were extension of territorial waters from three miles to twelve, and the assertion of economic rights over the continental shelf. The US was strongly opposed to both measures; extending sovereign waters would reduce the number of straits through which submarines could pass without declaring themselves, and there was a fear that economic rights would over time become full sovereignty (‘creeping jurisdiction’). The US made strong representations to the Australian Government.

There was an intense debate about this at Departmental level — no nonsense about “whole of government approaches” in those days, everyone said what they really thought and none were accused of not being ‘a team player’ for doing so. Defence argued that the defence issues were very important but refused to say that they were of overriding importance. Foreign Affairs argued that solidarity with the US and Western Europeans was of over-riding importance. Treasury and National Development argued that the marine and mineral resources issues in the waters around Australia and its territories were too important to overlook.

This debate was resolved in the correct forum — Cabinet. The decision was to go with the extension of territorial waters and economic rights, and it was taken with full knowledge that the US wouldn’t like it. So important was it that our Ambassador to the US was camped outside the Cabinet room while the debate was going on. Both he and the Cabinet knew that the message he had to deliver would not make our major ally happy. Yet the decision was made and it had no adverse impact on the alliance.

Would we have the ticker to take a decision like that today?

Leave a Comment