The Australian/US Alliance

The American Alliance: Is it actually in our national interest?

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while now. Another Australian soldier has been killed in Afghanistan today, yet a national debate on the reasons why Australia has a presence there at all is ominously missing from the national discourse.

The alliance is a sacred cow in Australian foreign policy; it’s almost never questioned and both major parties in the last election reaffirmed their commitment to it almost reflexively and without hesitation. It is seen as crucial to the national defence, and I think if you asked the average person on the street, they would be short on details but would probably just accept the reality of the alliance just as instinctively. But why?

“Great and Powerful Friends”

I’m paraphrasing the work of others here, particularly some of the studies I undertook under Professor Wayne Reynolds at the University of Newcastle, but having alliances with powerful protectors has been something Australia has always done. Up until the Second World War, that protector was Great Britain, until then Prime Minister Curtin’s famous “free of any pangs” speech where he publicly put Australia into the US camp after it became dramatically clear that–in the wake of the continuing Japanese onslaught in the Pacific and the fall of Singapore–Great Britain’s support could no longer be counted on. Aside from some hints of mistrust manifesting themselves in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s (causing, amongst other things, the commencement of an Australian atomic weapons program), Australia has pretty much been firmly lockstep with the US. Our military deployments have for the most part reflected theirs: We had major deployments of troops in Korea, Vietnam, Gulf War 1, The Invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ironically, most of the Americans I call my friends have no idea that Australia was involved in many of these conflicts and, tellingly, one asked me “What are you guys doing in Afghanistan?”

So why does Australia involve itself in others’ wars? Conventional wisdom would say that in a country the size of ours — with a landmass roughly the same as the United States or China — and having a population as small as we do, we cannot adequately defend ourselves alone should the country ever be attacked.  This unseen but ominous possible adversary has had many faces over the years: We had the “Yellow Peril” seen in the widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in the 19th century gold rush era. We were a white nation far away from the mother country surrounded by the numerous and ominous “yellow” races to our north: Australia’s immigration policy famously reflected this fear with the unambiguously racist “White Australia Policy,” which only officially ended in 1973.

For a while, the fear changed and it was the Germans we were afraid of. This caused, amongst other things, a Queensland governor with a handful of angry farmers to invade New Guinea and, of course, our involvement in World War One.  The yellow peril manifested itself again in the Second World War and was brought dramatically close to home with Japanese air and naval attacks on the Australian homeland. The unseen threat took on a new face with the fear of communism in South East Asia. After this it simmered for a while, with punters and pundits looking ever nervously at our northern neighbor Indonesia. Finally, we have the current bogeymen: International terrorism and the strategic implications of the rise of China.

The Threats We Face.

Yet do we actually face a real threat today? Or are we partially causing the very security issues we seek to avoid in siding with the US?

Despite a popular misconception among the public, the only power in the Pacific today that is capable of invading the Australian mainland is the United States. The two powers that often seem to clog up the discourse on this topic amongst the uninformed, China and Indonesia, both lack the force projection power to be able to send, support and supply an invasion force the distance required to get to and then hold a continent the size of Australia.

Indeed it is distance and size that are crucial in understanding any potential invasion threats we might face. Australia is very far from almost everywhere, which means getting here is a logistical nightmare. Australia is also very, very large. As such, these two concerns mean that anyone coming here with a mind to invade is making a massive commitment in terms of manpower, money and supply.

So, given that it is highly unlikely at this point that we are going to be invaded by the United States, or anyone else for that matter, what of the other threat? What of international terror?

In 2002, terrorists suspected of being tied to the Islamist group Jemah Islamiyah carried out bombing attacks in Bali, killing over 200 people, including 89 Australians.  The nation was deeply shocked, and the Australian government vowed resolutely to stand up against terror and not to be intimidated by such attacks.

Yet was it inevitable that because they “hate our freedoms” (as stated by US President George W. Bush) as the terrorists supposedly do that we were going to be attacked? Why were Australians considered a target by a jihadist group at all? A recording supposedly attributed to Al Qaeda stated that it was because of our support for the US war on terror and our involvement in East Timor. Presumably this was part of the global “crusade” against Islam that Osama bin Laden and his supporters claim is being waged.  So did we somehow make ourselves a target?

Australian Special Forces were some of the first troops on the ground in the US attack on Afghanistan in 2001. Then Prime Minster Howard invoked the ANZUS Treaty, stating that the USA had been attacked and Australia had a duty to aid them. His argument is questionable, but it seems in doing so we possibly put ourselves in the cross hairs of international terror and continue to do so.  Indeed, Howard’s dogged support for the US agenda was again graphically put on display when Australian troops were committed to the internationally condemned US invasion of Iraq. If Al Qaeda wanted an example of just who’s agenda Australia was tied to our involvement in these military adventures was a pretty clear one.

So Do We Need the Alliance?

If you believe that Australia needs a protector to ensure its safety, then yes. The alliance grants us access to US intelligence. It does legally bind the USA to aid Australia in the event of an attack, and our armed forces have access to US military technology that they might otherwise not have.

Yet, all of these things are problematic in nature. We do not currently face any invasion threats in the foreseeable future, so the need for a protector is moot. Intelligence is handy; yet, we do have the ability to gather our own, and given that the foriegn intelligence that lead the Howard government to commit troops to the invasion of Iraq was so unreliable, it would seem that it would be a good idea if we increase our own intelligence gathering resources.

Military technology is buyable from a multitude of sources, not the least of which is the USA itself, and sales of which are not dependant on a formal military alliance between buyer and seller. This is saying nothing about the potential to develop our own armaments, an industry Australia has dabbled in but not developed.

The alliance ties us into conflicts that are not necessarily in our interests to pursue and it also puts us into alignment on issues where we could, as an independent player, be considered neutral or at least impartial.  The US agenda is not necessarily our own and yet Australian governments often seem all too willing to tie Australia’s fortunes to it. Prime Minister Howard was tellingly dubbed a “deputy sheriff” by President Bush, a mantle he hurriedly tried to shed in the wake of public discomfort and regional distrust; yet, this condescending and patronizing label is “a fly on the wall” view of the nature of the alliance and the impressions leaders give and receive behind closed doors.

The alliance is also a potential issue with the rising power of Asia: China. China is Australia’s second largest trading partner and these ties are only increasing. Should US/China relations sour for whatever reason, Australia will find herself in a very difficult position; precedent would indicate that if push comes to shove, Australia will side with the US. Yet this would clearly have negative consequences for the relationship with China, consequences that could be dire economically. Clearly in this case, the US side of the fence is not where we should be standing with our usual auto-pilot “all the way with the USA” attitude.. It may actually be more in Australia’s interests to not get off the fence at all.

Australia’s alliance with the US is a legacy of old, strategic thinking and old fears about potential threats that either do not exist or our ties create and worsen. As a country, we’ve stayed under the cloak of older brother nations since our founding. At some point, Australia will need to serve its own interests, walk on its own and grow up.

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~ by benephobia on August 29, 2010.

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