A Dangerous Alliance? Part One


The Americans under George W Bush are too entranced with their exceptional virtues and global military reach to pay attention to the voice of a marginal player, and we under John Howard are too concerned with our need for American protection to raise our voice The result has been a deep division of opinion in both countries, weakening the alliance.

Bruce Grant, Fatal Attractions: Reflections on the Alliance with the United States, 2004.

When Australia was the only country to join the United States and United Kingdom in the invasion of Iraq, many UN diplomats and staff were surprised and asked why.

The answer begins, of course, with the trauma of near-invasion by the Japanese in 1941 “42, and gratitude to America for protecting Australia. Australians sometimes forget, though, that this action was a by-product of America’s need for a base from which to organise their response to the Japanese.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

President Roosevelt told Richard Casey in 1941 that ‘while the USA would go to the defence of Canada if it were attacked, Australia and New Zealand were so far away that they should not count on American help.’

The treaties signed at the start of the Cold War are strong bonds. The 1947 UKUSA Security Agreement or ‘Secret Treaty’ between the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand has been considered to be of major importance, and involves each country in collecting signals intelligence and sharing this information.

The ANZUS Treaty of 1951 was a formal expression of Australia’s dependence on the United States for protection and has been a central element of Australian defence and foreign policy ever since. All Australian governments for 60 years have, as Don Watson comments wryly, ‘thought it wise to be friends with them.’

There has always been ambivalence about America in Australia. The example of the United States influenced the structure of Australian federal institutions. Yet parallel pioneering histories led to contrasting consequences because of different orientations: Americans’ sense of being God’s own country contrasts with Australians’ easy-going curiosity and wish to engage with the rest of the world, exemplified in the high proportion of Australians who travel internationally.

The national origins of later immigrants have influenced cultural development: the Irish, Italians, Greeks and Chinese have been influential in both countries; the higher proportions of Africans, Germans, Scandinavians, Jews and Hispanics in America, and of other Asians in Australia, have contributed much that is distinctive to both.

Australians admire American dynamism, enjoy their media, follow Wall Street, visit Disneyland and New York, and attend their postgraduate universities. Australian economic development has benefited from American investment and technology, though in recent years Australian investment in the United States has grown close to theirs in Australia.

There has also been a stream of thought critical of American superficiality, the ‘Austerican’ shoddiness described by the architect Robin Boyd in the 1960s. Peter Craven, when editor of Quarterly Essays, wrote ‘America for all its glory and its relative benignity is also a ghastly society, in touch with nightmares of vengeance and bloody-mindedness that little old gradualist Australia cannot dream of or can only dream of by proxy.’ Historian Ken Inglis has remarked that America is the home of the very best and the very worst.

The view that shared values provide a strong basis for the alliance is misleading. There are similarities “ of language, ethnicity and political institutions “ but even those are declining: Spanish is now a major second language in the United States, for example. Both had Christian origins, but they have become religiously diverse, and are now more secular; and religious expression is much more intense, widespread and in parts doctrinaire in the United States.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Thanks to Peter Nicholson

Both are relatively politically conservative, but the strength of the Australian labour movement has made and kept social services and social protection more effective and accessible. Both have unevenly racist histories. Perhaps the Howard Government’s claim of ‘shared values’ is simply a less explicit way of noting the extent to which it has copied the market-fundamentalist economic ideology and complied with the neo-conservative foreign policies of the Bush Administration.

There are crucial divergences underlying the national purposes of the foreign policies of the two countries. Americans maintain their sense of being God’s own country with a vocation to be an example to all nations and to lead the world to freedom and democracy.
Australia has no global ambitions, and those related to the region are for stability and economic advancement rather than dominance.

Australians are famous for utilitarian pragmatism, tending to mythologise the ‘Australian lifestyle’ “ a comfortable and sometimes hedonistic existence in the lucky country “ though we work more hours per year than any other OECD country. Bush emphasises aspects of American society about which most Australians are skeptical: readiness to use military force, hostility to the welfare state and to sustainable development, the role of religion in public life, gun ownership and the death penalty. Paranoia based on fears and conspiracy theories is far more widespread in the United States.

Shared values are not the determining force for an alliance. The claim that they are is close to saying that WASPs “ White Anglo-Saxon Protestants “ should stick together, a xenophobic paradigm which more and more Americans and Australians would reject. The strength of the strategic partnership must be determined principally by strategic issues.

The central fact about the Australian “American alliance is that it does not mean much to the Americans. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye, doyens among American international relations scholars, note that ‘most Americans “ even many American students of international relations “ have only a dim awareness of relations with Australia.’ They accurately describe the security relationship as ‘highly asymmetrical. America could fail to protect Australia without jeopardising its own security, but Australia could not defend itself against a powerful attacker without American support.’

Australia’s support has been of value to US administrations seeking to legitimise their actions “ in Korea, Vietnam and the Iraq wars “ but Australia’s military contribution to those wars was marginal. Australia is of minor value in American strategy. It is virtually irrelevant in the calculations of American neo-conservatives, realists and even multilateralists. In April 2003 an Australian journalist asked a senior US military spokesperson at a media conference, ‘How are the Aussie troops doing?’ His question was met with a baffled look and a roomful of laughter, expressing the irrelevance of Australia to the operation.

There is no reason to expect otherwise. Australia has almost the same area as the United States but only seven per cent of the population. More than 15,000 kilometres of sea separate the countries. The Australian economy is the world’s fourteenth largest; America’s the largest “ though the whole European Union is larger still.

Australia is a middle-level country, far from theatres of potential conflict. As a stable, friendly alliance partner, Australia can be useful to the United States but cannot expect to be of great importance. It is irresponsible of the Howard Government to be obsequious and so reinforce American pride, but Australia cannot be an equal partner either, as Mark Latham advocated.

This is an edited extract from Dealing with America (UNSW Press), $16.95.

Part two will appear in next week’s edition of New Matilda.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.