Our well-worn alliance with the US ceased to exist a little while ago, at least in the way we’ve known it for several decades. The familiar parameters within which Australia operated for many years have now vanished. Today, new ones have arisen that will shape the alliance’s future. This new beginning will progressively impact Australian defence, foreign and domestic policies in many ways, some quite fundamental.
A child of the Cold War, the US–Australia alliance reflected American implementation of its containment grand strategy and Australian concerns over a revanchist Japan. When the ANZUS treaty was signed in 1951, Menzies’s foreign minister, Percy Spender considered it a disappointment compared with the NATO treaty signed only two years earlier. Under the NATO treaty, an attack on a signatory firmly committed the US to respond militarily in the threatened country’s defence. ANZUS, in contrast, only committed the US to consultations in times of crisis. Moreover, Spender was also frustrated that the US was unreceptive to the idea of Australian military personnel being involved with the American joint staff in operational defence planning. Spender considered ANZUS a base-level document that would need upgrading later, although this never eventuated.
Over the decades since, Australia has periodically committed forces to American-led coalitions in the hope that this would ensure Australia was never abandoned by the US in some future time of peril. This lack of certainty in the alliance treaty remained a long-running concern. There are two oft-quoted cases where this uncertainty became manifest. In early 1960s, America made it clear (PDF) they wouldn’t support Australia or the Netherlands in any armed conflict with Indonesia over the future of West Papua. America took this action seeking to avoid the possibility of Indonesia moving more closely into the Soviet orbit; the Cold War trumped parochial regional concerns. Much later, in the 1999 East Timor crisis the US was busy in the Balkans on matters it considered of much more importance and so was less fulsome in its material support then Prime Minister Howard hoped.
The two cases highlight that local Australian concerns haven’t been seen as critical to American vital interests across the last 60 years. Australia was distant to the great trouble spots where American vital national interests were in play. The Guam Doctrine arose at least partly because this was a region where America determined its involvement to be voluntary–even if it took the Vietnam War to fully grasp this. The European central front was quite different; America was deeply engaged there. Curiously, this relative unimportance allowed Australia the freedom to gradually develop a national joint defence force with its own command and control system able to independently undertake autonomous military operations, albeit on a small scale. For East Timor, Australia had the deployable joint force headquarters, doctrine, national communications system, capabilities and expertise suitable to act as the lead nation for a multinational intervention.
This was quite different to comparable NATO nations. Their location made their defence vitally important to the US and led to their armed forces being closely integrated into an Atlantic Ocean-spanning defence posture. Most specialised in specific and agreed niche roles within a much larger collective defence system. They didn’t have their own independent command and control systems—this would have been superfluous.
The Americans owned NATO in the ways that most mattered. America didn’t want individual European nations freelancing; thermonuclear war was way too serious a business. Indeed, the re-arming of West Germany was only allowed in the context of the new Bundeswehr being an integral part of the larger NATO force. Without any independent German national command system, the nation was deemed militarily incapable of going it alone.
The world has changed. Europe is no longer seen as being a region where American vital interests are threatened. Europe remains important to the US, just as Australia was in the Cold War, but it’s now a region where American involvement is discretionary. The game has shifted to the Western Pacific and Australia’s now too important to be left to its own devices. The fundamental assumptions that informed the 1987 Dibb report, which remained influential until the 2013 White Paper, are now passé.
President Obama tellingly announced the pivot to the Pacific in the Australian Parliament. American forces in Darwin symbolically occupy the barracks vacated by the Australian Army moving south. This American presence is slated to steadily grow over time, qualitatively and quantitatively. Meanwhile, American pressure for us to have a defence budget commensurate with their concerns has become noticeable.
On the other hand, Percy Spender’s worries have vanished. The US commitment to Australian defence is now almost NATO treaty like, even if only implicit. Australian military officers are now embedded in the US command structures and planning systems. And there are many further implications. The ADF’s future appears to be in providing tactical level forces that fit easily into the Pacific Ocean spanning American defence system. The need for us to be able to undertake independent operations is now less obvious, and the US may not necessarily be attracted to regional allies freelancing in any case. Our force balance might change in response, with the provision of specialised, niche capabilities perhaps growing in importance, as it did for NATO nations before us.
This new deep American interest in the region also means that our usefulness in providing a unique window on the region is dissipating. The US is now focusing its formidable intelligence apparatus on this part of the world and might develop expertise beyond us in scale, type and quality. Our regional knowledge will be of interest but of less importance to the alliance. And while some may have seen us as an American deputy sheriff, there’s no need for this now—the sheriff will always be in town. There are many other impacts to be realised and subtleties teased out. One feature is apparent though, this is not your granddad’s alliance.
Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of The White House.