The Australia–US alliance isn’t in trouble (yet)

The recent exchange between Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump over the Manus Island refugee deal has quickly been portrayed as a barometer of the health of the Australia–US alliance. Some observers of the alliance have fretted that Trump will prove to be a wrecking ball through the bilateral relationship and expressed fear that public opinion will turn against the US, providing an opening for China to influence Australia’s future strategic policy choices.

More predictably, opponents of the alliance have seized on President Trump’s behaviour to vindicate their claim that Australia remains supine to a domineering great power. Exemplifying that approach, in recent commentary published in The Australian on the Trump–Turnbull phone-call, former foreign minister Bob Carr dismissively referred to ‘gullible little Australia’ and portrayed the alliance as ‘the only expression of Australia’s international personality’.

It’s easy to be tempted to assume the alliance is in deep trouble after recent events. Trump’s disrespectful tone towards Australia’s Prime Minister and his contemptuous reference to a ‘dumb’ deal with one of America’s most committed allies serves to reaffirm the arrogance and poor judgement of the new President. But does it spell trouble for the Australia–US alliance? At least three points suggest that supporters of ANZUS can rest easy and that alliance opponents should cool their jets.

First off, this is hardly the first time Australian governments and US administrations have muscled up to each other and disagreed on substantive issues. The Menzies government made its displeasure known during the 1960s when the Kennedy and Johnson administrations refused to provide explicit guarantees that Washington would come to Australia’s military assistance if it got into an armed conflict with Indonesia.

And who can forget the well documented feud between Gough Whitlam and Richard Nixon? Malcolm Fraser made no secret of his disdain for Jimmy Carter’s strategy of détente, and John Howard and Bill Clinton famously clashed over tariff barriers and Washington’s unwillingness to provide ‘boots on the ground’ in support of Australia’s leadership of the INTERFET operation in 1999. Cross words between allied leaders is standard fare in international relations, and we shouldn’t romanticise the Australia–US alliance as some sort of exception to this—because as history shows, it isn’t.

Second, alliances are robust institutions and more resilient than we give them credit for. NATO split politically over the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but it was essentially business as usual in terms of military cooperation, including on nuclear command and control, which lies at the heart of NATO’s extended deterrence arrangements. With the exception of the multilateral SEATO arrangement that became moribund by the 1970s, it’s hard to think of any alliance involving the US that has been terminated since 1945.

All alliances involve tough conversations which typically revolve around burden sharing: we shouldn’t be disheartened by argy-bargy between leaders over the division of costs in alliances. After all, each member of every alliance in the world seeks to maximise their own influence and minimise their own liabilities. That’s an iron law of international relations.

Third, the animated discussion over “that” call between Turnbull and Trump has risked exaggerating the agency of leaders in determining the fate of alliance relationships. While President Trump is intent on correcting what he sees as free-riding by allies, the reality is that leaders are merely one piece of the puzzle in alliance management. Ironically, Trump’s fixation on squaring the ledger with countries—including allies—that have in his eyes exploited US goodwill may have the effect of strengthening institutional mechanisms in the Australia–US alliance.

Aware that the White House risks permanently alienating valued allies, the Pentagon (including the institutionally powerful US Pacific Command), intelligence agencies, the State Department, and members of Congress will double down on reinforcing institutional arrangements. Intimate intelligence sharing, deep military cooperation, and shared norms about democratic governance are the enduring foundations of the Australia–US alliance, not missives delivered via Twitter.

None of that’s meant to imply that the Australia–US alliance is necessarily immune from risks. The longer Trump continues his current domestic and international collision course, the greater the pressure for the Australian government to publicly push back against the US. Already, in the past three weeks, America’s image as the “indispensable leader of the free world” has been badly damaged and Washington could quickly find itself without committed followers in the international system.

Moreover, should Trump end up pursuing a highly escalatory policy vis-à-vis China, including a trade war and talk about going to war in the South China Sea, Australia would face a serious risk of entrapment in unwanted US adventurism.

Australia seeks US leadership and reassurance, and it has been willing to commit forces and political support in a variety of theatres, including those beyond the Asia–Pacific. But it doesn’t seek disruptive brinkmanship. In such a scenario, the danger of a serious alliance disruption is indeed very high. Until then, however, the chances are good that the alliance can weather the Trump storm.