Alliances, maturity and Asian strategic balances
18 Jun 2015|

Geoffrey Barker has written an important couple of posts (here and here), arguing the case for a post-ANZUS defence policy for Australia. Important because, if he is right, and ANZUS has passed its use-by date, Australian policy settings face radical overhaul in the coming years. But is he right?

At the heart of Mr Barker’s argument lies a set of assumptions: that ANZUS belongs to the category of alliances that are more prone to collapse than endure; that grown-up states—‘mature states’, he calls them—should stand on their own two feet; and that the practical benefits of ANZUS are going down—and the risks of entanglement up—as relative power balances shift in Asia. I’d like to consider each of those positions in this post.

Let’s start with the issue of the use-by date. In the academic literature, Stephen Walt’s article ‘Why alliances endure or collapse’ argues that there are a variety of factors that help to explain alliance durability. In terms of Walt’s analytical framework, ANZUS doesn’t look like it’s about to collapse. Yes, changing threat perceptions colour the relationships between the alliance members, and yes, some issues of credibility flicker in the background. But it’s not an offensive alliance, it’s not aimed at any single adversary, and it’s not the subject of domestic political contention. Moreover, it’s part of a system of alliances that jointly contribute to global and regional security, and while that system endures we’re not about to pull it down. In short, if we were trying to determine whereabouts ANZUS might best fall on the durability spectrum, it would be more towards the ‘durable’ end than the ‘collapse’ end.

Secondly, the issue of maturity. If our alliance genuinely stands between us and a more mature foreign and strategic policy, Australians would be more inclined to set it aside. After all, we all want a sensible, mature strategic policy for Australia. But is ANZUS a barrier to a more independent, strong-willed and self-reliant Australia? I don’t think so. Alliances in general are not a refuge for the weak-willed and the immature. Any quick survey of the membership of US alliances worldwide would show that it’s typically the advanced states—like Britain, Germany, France, Japan and South Korea—that form the membership. That’s just sensible: the craven and faint of heart have little to offer potential alliance partners.

Of course, our data points about the merits of alliance membership aren’t just academic. We have close to hand a real-world case of whether alliance membership is a good or bad thing: was NZ’s strategic policy more mature after its expulsion from ANZUS arrangements in 1985? Or did it struggle harder for lower returns, snuggling closer to Canberra when Washington withdrew the security blanket? I think I’d want to see more convincing evidence of the gains from alliance non-membership before recommending it as a course of action.

Finally, is ANZUS of declining value to us as US relative power declines in Asia? Well, US relative power is going down as other powers rise, which would seem to portend a more uncertain strategic environment rather than a more certain one. For us to throw away a set of formal security assurances—true, not a guarantee—while power balances are shifting in Asia would seem to aggravate our own strategic problems, not solve them. We would still face that transformational Asia, but with fewer policy options than before and an ADF weakened by fewer connections to the US military. US relative power might be declining, but it will remain a major player in Asia for decades yet.

The key reason we support the US position in Asia, and do what we can to strengthen it, is not because we have an interest in following blindly the dominant Western power of the day. We are not inherently interested in protecting one great power’s national interests over another’s. Rather, we’re interested in a stable, prosperous, liberal regional order. So far, the US has been the only great power committed to designing and sustaining such an order in Asia. China’s only going to displace the US in Australian strategic thinking when it can prove that it is a better supporter of such an order than the US is. That time’s not close.

If we were to move into a post-ANZUS strategic policy, how would we best advance that broader strategic agenda? The costs to Australia would not be merely financial but strategic and reputational. We would be paying more for our defence, would be less well-positioned to pursue our regional ordering objectives, and would have soured our relationships with remaining US allies.