Australian questions about what Donald Trump will do to the alliance recall Robert Menzies’ fear that ANZUS would be ‘a superstructure on a foundation of jelly’. If Trump has the Oz alliance assumptions quivering, that dread of a shaky base has been around since the moment of conception.
As with Curtin’s turn to the US in WW2, Australia’s feat in achieving the ANZUS treaty was driven by circumstance and happenstance and a lot of pushing. That perspiration and inspiration didn’t come from Prime Minister Robert Menzies. The intellectual creativity and diplomatic wheeling-dealing came from the External Affairs Minister, Percy Spender, who described his leader as sceptical verging on negative about the Pacific pact quest.
Spender seized the moment to get ANZUS in 1950–51 when the Korean War meant the US desperately needed Oz (and Kiwi) agreement on what Menzies called a ‘soft’ peace treaty with Japan.
Though pessimistic about Spender’s chances, Menzies was present at the creation and exploited the deal with a master politician’s gusto. Retiring in 1966, Menzies told his farewell press conference:
‘If I were asked which was the best single step that had been taken in the time of my Government I think I would say the ANZUS Treaty because the ANZUS Treaty has made the United States of America not perhaps technically, but in substance our ally. In other words, we have a species of alliance. Don’t hold me to it as a technical expression—we have a species of alliance with the United States. And placed as we are in the world, that is tremendously important.’
The duality is striking: from jelly to the best single step. Yet the way Menzies phrased that farewell thought—‘species of alliance’—hints that some jelly reservations lingered.
Donald Trump stirs at old tensions between the desire for firm alliance commitments and enduring doubts.
Spender laid out the quest for a Pacific pact in his first foreign policy statement to Parliament on 9 March 1950 (Menzies led the Coalition to power in December 1949). Spender’s speech is a foundational document of Oz foreign policy (here in Hansard).
In his memoirs, Spender wrote that Menzies was ‘unenthusiastic’ and ‘poured cold water’ on the efforts to create a Pacific pact. The Menzies view was that Australia didn’t need a formal alliance because the US was ‘already overwhelmingly friendly to us and Australia could rely on her’. In both London and Ottawa, Spender said, Menzies used the ‘superstructure on a foundation of jelly’ description.
The jelly perspective from the Washington at the time is given by the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who signed the ANZUS treaty in 1951 and gave President Truman this account of the first ANZUS council with Australia and New Zealand in 1952:
‘It seemed to me that both countries suffered from a paucity of knowledge of what was going on and faulty appreciation of current situations. They felt remote, uninformed and worried by the unknown.’
Menzies’ jelly scepticism was based on experience with American diplomatic reluctance and outright resistance from the US military. From 1936 to 1950, all Australian political parties ‘advocated negotiation of some form of Pacific security pact as an essential element in Australian foreign policy’. Menzies’ scepticism also went to the core of his personality and beliefs—his Britishness.
Menzies was uncomfortable with the shift from a family relationship with Britain to a contract with the US. And the eventual Menzies’ passion for ANZUS was tinged with disappointment at the decline of Britain’s role in Asia.
Coral Bell commented that Australia’s ‘over-long national adolescence as part of the British Raj’ produced the model of a family commitment which was comprehensive and automatic, not needing to be defined in writing. ANZUS marked the move to the world of contract:
‘It was not comprehensive, never covering economic relationships, nor even all security problems (though at one stage Australian policy-makers tried hard to interpret it as doing so). It wasn’t automatic, but required an act of political will—a choice—at a specific time by both parties.’
Menzies used that ANZUS-as-contract language in a Parliamentary debate on the meaning of the alliance in April, 1964: ‘There is a contract between Australia and America. It is a contract based on the utmost goodwill, the utmost good faith and unqualified friendship. Each of us will stand by it.’
Those were Menzies’ final words in a speech dancing eloquently around Washington’s decree that ANZUS wouldn’t cover Australian troops sent to Malaysia during Confrontation. Malaysia is certainly in ‘the Pacific area’ covered by ANZUS; but the US wasn’t going to read the contract as creating any obligation to help Australia (and Britain) fight Indonesia.
Menzies, the great lawyer, had to invoke the spirit of the pact rather than the letter of the treaty. What ultimately mattered, he said, was the ‘high-level acceptance of responsibility’ by America in embracing ANZUS: ‘It is not for us to assume that any great ally of ours will avoid that [responsibility] any more than we will avoid it. It is a great mistake to talk dogmatically of what the United States of America will do.’
Donald Trump is the personification of Menzies’ thought about never being dogmatic about what the US will do. How will Trump read the terms of the contract?
Menzies proved right about the shifting foundations of the alliance: the treaty wording is unchanged yet the nature of the pact has evolved and grown and shifted extraordinarily (and shed the Kiwis).
As President Trump nears, Canberra suffers another Dean Acheson moment—feeling ‘remote, uninformed and worried by the unknown’.