Comprehend the ally
8 Feb 2016|


The first rule of alliance management is to understand the ally.

For a junior ally, that’s core stuff. Read the great and powerful friend. Find the meanings. Relate domestic trends within the ally to international tides or torrents.

If your alliance rests on a commitment to ‘consult together’, then constantly consider the nature of the people to be consulted. A treaty, for instance, with this Article III:

‘The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific.’

People around Canberra who can recite Article III from memory usually carry on to the first sentence of Article IV:

‘Each Party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.’

Constitutional processes, indeed.

Constitutional processes is a fine, formal phrase for America’s presidential pandemonium.

Electoral dynamics weren’t at front of mind (think new Cold War and lingering fear of Japan) when those articles were adopted and signed in San Francisco in September, 1951, entering force in April, 1952 as the ANZUS Treaty.

The constitutional processes phrase rests on the truth that any alliance between democracies has roots in domestic politics.

Electoral dynamics will trump much else in 2016 for the two ANZUS allies.

An election year in Australia, coinciding with the US election, is a moment to ponder the first rule.

Canberra’s discussion of  ‘alliance management’ is one of myriad examples of the central importance of the alliance in Oz strategy and defence thinking.

Attempting ‘alliance management’ is a step up from the old idea of having to pay the insurance premium.

Maybe Australia is making progress if it has moved from merely paying the price to some attempt at management. Much of the last decade could be read as premium payment rather than management mode, but management remains a laudable aim.

As in most years, Australia has a lot of strategic business (White Paper, submarines) of passing note to Washington.

Those big declarations and decisions will not completely obscure, as they often do, that rule-one-requirement to keep an eye on the fundamentals of the ally.

And understanding the many ways the peoples of the US and Australia see the world in different colours.

What does the current US political process tell us about where the great ally is headed? Pick your pundit, take your choice.

My guide through America’s massive media blather is the 80-year-old doyen Elizabeth Drew.

Here’s Drew on the US politics of frustration and the belief that Washington is dysfunctional:

‘The Republican strategy of trying to keep Obama from succeeding has boomeranged on the party itself. Over the period of Obama’s presidency, many voters have come to view the established politicians as out of it and irrelevant, and so the thing to do in this election is to try something new.’

The public rejection of US conventional politics means the politician who presents as nihilist is in sync with the zeitgeist. Drew’s diagnosis: ‘This fascinating election is also a troubling one. The centre isn’t holding and both parties are so deeply divided as to raise the question of whether any victor will be able to govern.’

Able to govern? Refer back to rule one. Thank Kim Beazley for six years hard graft as Washington Ambassador and ask Joe Hockey to go hard. And rework the wisdom attributed to Wilde, Shaw and Churchill: this is an alliance separated by a common language.

Also consider the wisdom of a previous Oz Opposition leader who went on to do a good job in Washington. Andrew Peacock in 2003 listed four areas where the national beliefs of Australia and the US differ sharply:

  •         interpretation of the meaning of political freedom
  •         attitudes towards the role of religion in public life and the challenge of American exceptionalism
  •         the place of wealth and economic status in society
  •         attitudes towards war and the standing of the military.

Michael Evans uses those Peacock points in a fine essay for Quadrant on the different political cultures of the two allies. He adds a fifth: different frontier legacies.

America’s frontier produced the personal liberty, individual energy and spirit of innovation of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

In the Great Southern Land, the harsh bush frontier fostered social equality and collective endurance alongside a talent for improvisation.

One example illustrates many of those separate features: different national attitudes to guns and the right to keep and bear arms.

John Howard tells a nice yarn about speaking at the George W. Bush presidential library and being asked about his proudest political achievements. The first two (joining the US in the war on terror and balancing the budget) got loud applause. Then the third on the list: ‘We brought in national gun control laws. The audience went ‘uuuhhh’… it was like the sound of air exhaling from a balloon.’

Michael Evans posits (and John Howard would agree) that there’s no greater responsibility in Australian statecraft than ‘ensuring smooth American–Australian alliance relations through the translation of cultural affinities into congruent policy interests.’ Amen.

As Malcolm Turnbull said of the presidential pandemonium in a Q/A in Washington last month: ‘I’m sure that we will work with whoever the American people in their wisdom choose.’ Amen, to that, too.

Note the plea Turnbull added to that pledge to follow America’s democratic flow. The PM asked Washington to maintain ‘America’s commitment to continuing to underpin that rules-based international order’ and to keep providing the ‘Pax Americana’ goodies. Amen and hallelujah.