Who's Leading Who?


During the Sydney APEC Chaser-Summit in early September the Howard and Bush administrations inked the Defence Trade Co-operation Treaty, deepening Australia’s access to US military technology and contractual rights. The agreement underscores the intensifying nature of the US-Australia alliance. For some Australian nationalists, the agreement is further evidence of Australia’s lapdog approach to foreign policy; a sign of dependence and our prolonged adolescence on the world stage.

Don Watson’s 2001 Quarterly Essay, ‘Rabbit Syndrome: Australia and America,’ captures this mood in its suggestion that Australia should petition the United States to become the 51st State of the Union: ‘The United States will get a State instead of a colony and Australians wouldn’t have to go on pretending our souls are our own.’ Watson falls into the camp that laments Australia’s endless quest for great and powerful friends, because that quest has laid to rest the pursuit of Australia’s own ends.

The key instrument in Australia’s permanent infantilisation is held to be the 1951 ANZUS Treaty. As New Zealand’s role in ANZUS is currently redundant, the Treaty effectively defines the terms of the US-Australia bilateral alliance. Until its invocation after the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001, the Treaty was (and still is) an umbrella under which hundreds of more concrete agreements worked, including intelligence sharing and the terms of military exercises.

But the benefit Australia aspires to, will sometimes come at a cost to the United States for instance, it is possible to view Australia’s attempt to intensify the US’s involvement in Vietnam in the early to mid-1960s as an attempt to draw the US deeper into Australia’s immediate neighbourhood. So, might it not be possible to think of the US-Australia alliance from a different angle?

Let’s assume that Australian foreign policy elites are ruthlessly pragmatic and far-thinking and that they are adept at using the alliance to serve particular State-defined national interests. Is it not possible to reverse the typical image of dependency and move to an image of the tail wagging the dog at least on occasion?

Ambrose Bierce in his 19th century Devil’s Dictionary defined an alliance thus:

In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other’s pocket that they cannot separately plunder a third.

Bierce’s wit is a suggestive starting point to undo the dependency thesis and begin to unravel what interests are served through the alliance.

What does Australia get from the US-Australia alliance?

In its important foreign policy statement ‘Advancing the National Interest’  (2003) the Howard Government states:

The depth of security, economic and political ties that we have with the United States makes this a vital relationship. No other country can match the United States’ global reach in international affairs … Further strengthening Australia’s ability to influence and work with the United States is essential for advancing our national interests.

And speaking at a Federation Event in Darwin in 2001 Howard claimed that

The ANZUS pact between Australia and the United States has done more to deliver the security of the Australian nation in the years that have gone by since World War II than any other international arrangement.

The first quotation is unremarkable: Australia’s government seeks to align itself with the hegemonic superpower. Access to that power, by support of that power, is seen as advancing the wellbeing of Australian security.

The second quotation, however, is remarkable indicating that the government’s scepticism of the collective security arrangements and an emerging international order based on the efforts of the United Nations goes so far as to discount anything but the US as the key to global order.

ALP legend has it that during its last term in office (1983-1996) Australia pursued ‘middle power’ diplomacy. As a middle power, Australia was said to have had an interest in the creation of international rules and regulations as a safeguard against the capricious nature of an international system dominated by great powers. Yet any critical assessment of modern Australian foreign policy would note that Australian governments of all stripes have largely responded to security questions using the grammar of the US alliance, often intuitively.

The middle-power or alliance diplomacy positions reflect degrees of difference not substance and Labor and Liberal governments are capable of embracing either option, depending on the domain issue.

Policy and intellectual communities surrounding the government are keyed into the grammar. Indeed, they are its constructors. In a 2003 ‘Melbourne Asia Policy Paper,’ titled Australia‘s alliance with America Paul Dibbs, one-time architect of Australia’s security policy, declared that any dispassionate analysis would confirm the indispensability of the US-Australia alliance, which he held to be self evident.

In 2004, ANU Professor Hugh White, agonising over the Iraq war, and thinking with the grammar of the US-Australia alliance, ludicrously confirmed the unprincipled nature of alliance logic when he admitted  the possibility that sometimes going to war for the sake of maintaining an alliance can be a wise decision:

And what of the first policy judgment: that we needed to support the invasion to protect our alliance with the US? This is a respectable argument. It sometimes makes sense to go to war to support an ally if you expect them to support you when your turn comes. It would have been unwise to say no to Washington about Iraq. But we did not need to rush to say yes either.

For some leading academics of international relations, like the University of Queensland’s Rod Lyon and William Tow, Howard is a ‘prescient political seer, (in) position to extract substantial and enduring benefits from the ANZUS affiliation including the culmination of a wide-ranging bilateral Australia-US Fee Trade Agreement.’

Now, perhaps counter-intuitively, it is arguable that none of these views including Howard’s indicate servile and wretched lapdoggery in the face of a great and powerful friend. Rather, all of them indicate a calculated approach to the US-Australia alliance, even going so far as to speak of extracting benefits that might well be seen as costly to the superior partner in the alliance.

In this view, Australia and its ruling elites are not victims of dependency but beneficiaries of an alliance system that secures a global hierarchy of States and economies in which Australia sits comfortably. Australia is a partner in what has been described as a system of global apartheid, where access to the goods that deliver wellbeing are skewed heavily in favour of advanced capitalist economies.

The US-Australia alliance does not tie Australia into slavish dependence. In fact, Australia has significant strategic independence. That the current Australian Government may appear to lack this, simply reflects a convergence of interest.

It is arguable that the Howard Government’s 1997 foreign policy paper, ‘In the National Interest’  actually anticipates the hard-nosed disavowal of the United Nations by the Bush Administration and that, rather than following the US into Iraq, the Howard Government saw such action as the consummation of its own security outlook or more
specifically as a means to advance that outlook.

This is to suggest that the US-Australia alliance is not just about poor choices or misguided policy. There are structural features of Australia’s place in the world that compel it to bandwagon with the US, and sometimes to be a step ahead.

If there is to be substantive and enduring change in Australian foreign policy, there needs to be a fundamental and substantive change in the grammar of Australian society, economics and politics. Without such changes Australia’s alliance relationship with the United States will always be an active/reactive one within a space that takes as given the global hierarchy and Australia’s ‘rightful’ place in it.

Whatever happens in the upcoming election, don’t expect any dissident dialect to emerge just yet.

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