the perils of the us alliance

The Australian Financial Review (Review Section), 11 July, 2003


At a point in history when allies and traditional friends of the United States have been sacrificed to "coalitions of convenience", NATO has been sidestepped because it is too structurally consultative, and the future of the United Nations looks bleak because it refuses to endorse Washington's imperial ambition, Australia's view of "the US alliance" looks remarkably anachronistic.

Clearly Canberra has a much less flexible conception of alliance to the one currently held by its great and powerful friend. Australia is Washington's only close ally to describe the relationship as "the US alliance", as if it were a permanent lifeline with a timeless existence all of its own. This may have made some sense in the late 1940s when there were fears of Japanese re-militarisation, or even during the Cold War when descriptors such as non-aligned and Third World conceded the dominance of ideological divisions and bloc thinking.

However, common threats are the glue which maintain alliance solidarity, and until September 2001 the post-Cold War world provided little which bound together allies with fading memories of joint struggles in the Pacific and East Asia. Bonding by exclusion requires a common foe, and none could be easily identified. Until 9/11.

From an Australian perspective, the attacks on New York and Washington, and later in Bali, provided just the kind of adhesion the alliance needed. According to Prime Minister Howard, Islamic militancy seeks "to destroy and debase our way of life" and has targeted the United States and Australia "not because of what we have done, but because of what we believe in and because of who we are." Al Qaeda and its affiliates have "transformed our world" and a "key motivation" of this common threat is its " detestation of western values." The missing ingredient of the alliance's raison d'etre had been found.

Amongst allies who do not refract their foreign policy entirely through the Washington prism, US foreign policy since 9/11 has been confusing and concerning. According to the British historian Eric Hobsbawm, "the policies that have recently prevailed in Washington seem to all outsiders so mad that it is difficult to understand what is really intended."

Not so, at least in Australia.

Governments in continental Europe led by Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac may be examining the consequences of the Iraq war for future trans-Atlantic ties. German and French philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida might be calling for a counterweight to the dangers posed by US strategic preponderance. However, no such debate or reflection on the war has erupted in this country. This is despite polls which suggest that only a bare majority of Australians now support the US position in Iraq and that 39% of the population believes that Washington's military power makes the world a more dangerous place.

Why not?

One explanation is that according to ideological vigilantes on the political right, it is not possible to criticise the policies of the Bush Administration without being "anti-American." For commissars who make no distinction between the American state and American society - an old Stalinist convention - it isn't possible to love Americans and despise the foreign policy that is enacted in their names. This is a replay of the racist slur that one could not criticise Jakarta's behaviour in East Timor without being "anti-Indonesian."

The Australian people clearly disagree. While 63% of the population holds favourable views of America and Americans, only 45% of Australians are well disposed towards President George W. Bush.

However, there is another more compelling reason why US foreign policy has not evoked the same concerns in Australia that are being expressed elsewhere in the West. The current state of the relationship between Canberra and Washington has produced a very different intellectual and policy climate to the one which prevails in much of Europe.

For dependent allies of the United States such as Australia, a misguided belief that "everything has changed" after 9/11 has led to a steady departure from strategic self-reliance, diplomatic independence and regional engagement. Instead, the closest possible partnership with Washington has been sought by Canberra in the belief that only trans-Pacific ties can provide a modicum of security in volatile and uncertain times. In March Prime Minister Howard argued that Australia's participation in the war against Iraq was, in part, out of a duty to our alliance partner.

Little thought appears to have been given to the consequences of such an approach. And yet the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) fiasco is a clear demonstration of the dangers of an increasingly vicarious foreign policy. Australian diplomacy is now firmly tied to a stridently unilateralist US Administration which, despite multilateral pretences, does not believe in an alliance system that involves genuine consultation.

Current Australian attitudes towards the United Nations, the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Anti Ballistic Missile treaty, strategic pre-emption and even France, to take only five recent examples, are indistinguishable from their American source. It may be good for alliance solidarity, but there are a number of dangers in this approach for Australia.

The first is Australia's moral complicity in actions it can do little to influence, but for which there are significant consequences. The ethical value of Australia's behaviour in Afghanistan and Iraq will be measured by the predictable consequences of our actions. This extends well beyond the removal of two repressive and unpopular regimes, to include protecting individuals from avoidable harm and the welfare of people we have deprived of government, law and order, as well as basic services such as public health. Seemingly ambivalent about our role as an occupying power in Iraq, Australia has not fully discharged either its moral or legal responsibilities for nation re-building. Regime change may not have been Canberra's official policy but it was an inevitable product of military intervention in both cases, and Australia must deal with the consequences of it.

A second risk is guilt by association . As Australia's foreign policy becomes indistinguishable from America's, we should expect Washington's enemies, especially in the Arab and Muslim worlds, to see matters in a similar light. But is it in our national interest to hitch our wagon so closely to the US if it means getting caught up in Washington's blowback? It is still unclear whether Australians were specifically targeted in Bali last October, whether they were mistaken for Americans or victims of a generic anti-Western attack. Policy convergence will ensure that in the future such distinctions will become superfluous. A more independent stance may not buy us immunity from anti-Western terrorist assaults, but we don't need to consciously increase our vulnerability either.

A third problem arising from such a pro-US position is that we will be taken for granted in Washington. Countries which regularly express their fidelity to the United States lose leverage because concurrence can be assumed. Allies which play a little harder to get often win significant concessions, as Pakistan and a number of Central Asian states did after September 11. Canada, Turkey and Japan have remained close allies with the US even though they refused to join the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. Despite Canberra's assiduous support for Washington over the last two years, the US will not deviate from pursuing its national interests just to reward a junior partner. Even in the current amicable climate there won't be a free trade agreement between the two countries which requires US farmers to compete on a level playing field with their Australian counterparts.

Australia is earning a reputation as Washington's stalking horse, even in countries such as Iran where it is far from clear that our interests and Washington's coincide. It's not only trade policies which diverge. Australia's more sensible approach to the North Korea problem is having little if any effect on Pentagon planners. Elsewhere in North Asia, Canberra does not want to choose sides in a dispute between the US and China over Taiwan. But can it avoid doing so? Co-optation is not in our interests, nor should we become a willing hostage to forces we can barely influence, let alone control.

Is the Australia-US alliance "built on shared values," as Prime Minister Howard claims? We are certainly the only ally in East Asia which identifies culturally with the US. However, it is not clear that Australians would generally embrace the neo-conservatism and Christian fundamentalism which permeates the Bush Administration - even if John Howard, Peter Costello and Michael Jeffery do.

Nor are expressions of cultural affinity especially helpful to a policy of regional engagement. Australia's intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq put us at odds with our closest neighbours in South East Asia (Indonesia & Malaysia) just as it did during the Gulf War in 1991, reinforcing a belief that we default strategically to the US in times of global crises. These days, regional engagement looks skin deep. We habitually notify the region of decisions we have taken after they have been cleared with Washington. We don't consult them beforehand.

Has Australia's closer relationship with the US since 2001 actually enhanced our security? As Gabriel Kolko has argued, at a time when the US itself has never been more militarily powerful, it has never felt less secure. This paradox brings little comfort to Australia.

Recent legislative responses to alleged terrorist threats which peel away long-established legal protections and civil liberties, suggest Australians are not seeing the benefits of Washington's security umbrella. Public opinion, particularly after the Bali attack in October 2002, is divided on the virtues of the US alliance and periodically concerned by Washington's aggressive behaviour around the world. Despite Mr Howard's claim that dealing with Iraq was a pre-requisite for reducing the threat posed by other non-conformist states, the invasion of Iraq has almost certainly encouraged other 'rogues' such as Iran and North Korea to acquire or develop the only military technology likely to deter a US strike - nuclear weapons. Encouraging the proliferation of WMD is hardly in Australia's interests.

President Clinton's tardy response to the East Timor crisis in 1999 tapped into subliminal doubts within the Australian community that, despite regular down payments on insurance premiums since the 1950s, the US may be reluctant to pay out when we ultimately make a claim under ANZUS.

Washington disregarded institutions of global order and world common good such as the United Nations and international law, once they failed to legitimate an attack on Iraq. This is a regrettable but available option for states which can use their raw military power to achieve foreign policy objectives. Why not-so-powerful states such as Australia, which are disproportionately more dependent on the stabilising features of international society, should emulate such behaviour is not obvious. Small and medium powers have a greater interest in the protections and order afforded by national sovereignty and international law.

How then can Canberra's new preference for "coalitions of the willing" over multilateral institutions be explained?

The first point to note is that "coalition" implies a genuine range of relatively equal contributions from states, when in fact Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq were US interventions with a small number of minor contributions from Washington's allies. They were coalitions in name only.

Mr Downer is mimicking the neo-conservative agenda in Washington when he emphasises "outcomes" rather than "process," and rejects a "blind faith in principles of non-intervention, sovereignty and multilateralism." According to the foreign minister, bodies such as the UN "are becoming sort of behemoths of institutions. And multilateralism is becoming universalism." The danger here is that Mr Downer has sacrificed national strategic perceptions for ideological solidarity. The temptations of unipolarity are not for middle powers like Australia, even if Canberra has, since 1999, become accustomed to cost-free military deployments.

The ends rarely justify the means. The discovery of mass graves in Iraq, for example, cannot retrospectively justify intervention especially for those whose humanitarian concerns for the people of Iraq only surfaced when the WMD issue lost traction in the days before the war. Where was Mr Downer's commitment to humanity in the 1980s at the peak of Saddam's crimes when the West was strongly supporting the dictator and many of these graves were dug? How many of those buried were incited to rebel by George Bush's father in 1991, only to be betrayed by Washington's greater desire to see an iron fist maintained in Baghdad?

It is also difficult to see this approach becoming a principle to be applied universally. "Sovereignty in our view is not absolute," claims the foreign minister. "Acting for the benefit of humanity is more important" than "some 19 th Century notion of sovereignty." This might be true for the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia, but it is certainly not the case in South East Asia. In Indonesia no humanitarian concerns are expressed in Canberra for the people of Aceh or West Papua, in fact their oppressor is loudly supported. Closer to home, sovereignty suddenly becomes supreme and absolute.

Prime Minister Howard claims "the United Nations Security Council completely failed to meet the world's need over Iraq. That responsibility fell to the coalition of the willing, which included Australia."

In fact the UN accurately reflected world opinion on Iraq, which was divided but overwhelmingly opposed to the war. It was the "coalition of the willing" which was out of step with global sentiment, hence its reluctance to seek a supplementary Security Council resolution to 1441 authorising the use of force. Mr Howard's statement is only true if the "international community" now comprises the United States, its allies and clients, a comforting view from Canberra but remarkably ethnocentric and in no way a reflection of reality.

Finally, an over-reliance on the personal chemistry between leaders can be intoxicating but is almost always a short-term benefit. As the Keating-Suharto friendship showed, jointly crafted institutional structures have greater longevity than transient political leaders. If President Bush loses in 2004 or Prime Minister Howard retires from political life some time soon, the current level of goodwill between the political elites of both countries may suddenly pass and relationships will need to be made anew.

Rather than seeking to maintain it all costs and dismiss those who critically examine it as anti-American, it is prudent and realistic to review "the US alliance" now before the idea of an independent Australian foreign policy becomes an anachronism.

(Adapted from : Burchill, S., 'The perils of alliance', The Australian Financial Review (Review Section), 11 July, 2003)


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