A Dangerous Alliance? Part Two


This is the second installment of an edited extract from Dealing with America (UNSW Press). Read Part One here.

Michael Thawley said when Ambassador to the United States in 2003 that Australia had better access to the Bush Administration than any other country. He recognised the implausibility of the observation, especially in comparison with the United Kingdom, but still maintained its accuracy. He said that similarity of political positions – ideology – helped.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Thanks to Bill Leak

Has the closeness of the relationship added to Australia’s security? The explicit mention of Australia in the US National Security Strategy is reassuring to some. President Bush has been personally grateful for Australian support: Bob Woodward in his book Plan of Attack mentions ten occasions when Bush and Howard spoke during the preparation for the invasion. Could this be of value to Australia in the future? Australia has supported the United States in five major wars, but are American policy-makers conscious of this? And what difference does it make?

Professors Stuart Harris and Amin Saikal of the Australian National University emphasise that:

The US has long made clear that the US national interest comes first in its actions. For Australia this was made very evident over its involvement in East Timor, where the US, while helpful, extended only limited assistance, emphasising the priority of its own national interests, including its relations with Indonesia.

A potential issue of far greater importance is the possibility of conflict in the Taiwan Strait, in which Australian and American national interests could well be sharply different. For Australia to line up with the United States in opposition to China, as Howard has started to do, could become extremely damaging to long-term relations with China.

There are some practical benefits for Australia from our alliance with America. By increasing the community’s sense of security, it can probably keep Australian military expenditure lower than it might be otherwise. When he was Defence Minister, Kim Beazley claimed that the US defence alliance saved Australia 1 per cent of GDP.

However, a second benefit claimed by supporters of the alliance – readier access to American weaponry – currently means little. The US Administration is seeking to waive licensing rules for Australia and Britain to buy certain classified types of military equipment from the United States, but the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee opposes the proposal, saying ‘We are persuaded that this is a moment in our nation’s history to strengthen, not relax, export controls over all weapons technology [including]conventional weapons and munitions.’

Canada is the only country now exempt from the licences, and the Committee found that Iran, Libya and China had sought to exploit Canada’s liberal regulations to obtain helicopters, armed personnel carriers and infrared cameras. The alliance and Australian policies do not give these Congressional leaders sufficient confidence to relax controls on exports to the Australian Department of Defence, since this might play into the hands of terrorists!

Another benefit claimed for the alliance, the sharing of intelligence, has begun to look more like an impediment to well-judged policy. There were substantial costs from uncritically accepting the ‘intelligence’ provided by the United States and United Kingdom about Iraq.

As Kenneth M Pollack writes: ‘Fairly or not, no foreigner trusts US intelligence to get it right any more, or trusts the Bush Administration to tell the truth.’ Australians should be more skeptical too.

The Howard Government’s decision to join the American missile defence system is breathtakingly misjudged. First, there is no threat to Australia of ballistic missiles from any country (despite claims about North Korea). Second, participation involves repudiating the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, and cuts across Australia’s long-term commitment to non-proliferation. Third, so far the ‘system’ is no more than poorly tested, crude interceptors, and an ambitious and costly research program. Fourth, it provokes hostility in the region. Fifth, the principal reason the United States is interested in Australian participation is to acquire Australian financing: a US defence official observed that cost-sharing was the first reason for enlisting Australian support.

Australian participation is likely to have high legal, political and financial costs, without any clear security benefit. This irresponsible and provocative waste is simply a way to demonstrate impeccable loyalty to the fantasies of militaristic Americans. In contrast, public opposition in Canada caused Prime Minister Paul Martin to refuse to participate.

There are major political, financial, and military costs from Howard’s closeness to the Bush Administration and his Government’s imitation of American ideology and policies. These positions restrict Australia’s capacity to express its own international political, strategic, economic and social priorities: little foreign policy autonomy is left.

Unconditional mimicry of the United States, self-righteous condescension at the United Nations, neglect of Europe’s environmental concerns, and those of the global south about development, have increased Australia’s diplomatic isolation. Even Canada did not support the Iraq war. Australia is a diminished nation. Professor Ross Buckley summarises:

From our willingness to defy international law and the United Nations to go to war in Iraq, to our willingness to imprison refugees behind razor wire in the desert, and from mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory to our unwillingness to reconcile with our Aborigines, our reputational capital with many nations is lower that it has ever been.

Australia’s political distance from countries in the region has also increased. Howard’s statement adopting the US’s pre-emptive strike policy angered Australia’s regional neighbours. As we’ve seen, this position has been an impediment to Australia signing the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Treaty of Amity and Cooperation which, in turn, threatened to prevent attendance at ASEAN summits.

Another major cost of compliance with American positions is that it has weakened Australia’s standing at the United Nations. A clear demonstration of this is the speed with which Downer stopped talking about an Australian bid for election to the Security Council.

Howard’s lonely support for Bush and his policies at [World Ecoinomic Forum meeting at] Davos in January 2005 does not suggest any lessening of support for the US Administration; nor does Downer’s press statement praising the nomination of John Bolton as US Ambassador to the United Nations – a highly unusual intervention in domestic US policy and a signal of continuing loyalty to the neo-cons and to their hostility to the United Nations.

There has been some evolution of rhetoric and policy since John Howard’s fourth election victory in October 2004, but the fundamental positions are unchanged. The swift and generous community response to the tsunami provoked the Government into a larger package of support, but still only increased Australian aid by 0.02 per cent of national income a year.

Following publication of the Lowy Institute opinion poll showing that two-thirds of Australians think too much notice is taken of the United States in foreign policy, Howard addressed the Institute in April 2005 and concentrated far more on regional relations than on the American alliance. He also said that ‘there are cases where the United Nations can leverage effective cooperation for peace and security’ such as for East Timor, but there are other times when this is not possible.

He went on: ‘nor do we face a choice between multilateral institutions and alternative strategies to pursue our nation’s interests.’ This seems to imply more than the commonsense point that interests must be pursued in all available ways. Is he hinting that his Government might again act inconsistently with its treaty obligations?

Most Australians consider themselves to be citizens of an independent country, yet John Howard has drawn the country back to being weakly acquiescent. Australia will be more secure when there is an orderly multilateral system than in a world where the only superpower reserves the right to unilateral pre-emptive use of military force. Also, like all other middle-level countries, Australia’s opportunities for international influence are greatest in multilateral institutions. Australia has turned its back on these in favour of a US alliance which has not paid dividends.

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.