Trumped-up: a non-aligned Australia?
28 Jan 2016|


Mark Beeson’s latest post, speculating about the future of the ANZUS alliance under a Trump presidency, quietly champions the idea of an ‘independent, non-aligned Australia’. Such an Australia, Mark argues, wouldn’t have to make difficult choices between the US and China—rather, it could avoid those choices altogether. And such an Australia wouldn’t have to bear the costs in blood and treasure that its current alliance obligation imposes upon it. Wow, no difficult choices and low costs!

What’s wrong with that logic? Well, non-alignment would be attractive only if it allowed us to pursue our national interests rather better than we do now. But Australians have never believed it would. We’ve never been non-aligned, never gone to war alone. Our strategic history is a story of relationships with two great and powerful friends—the United Kingdom and the United States—because we’ve seen those relationships as mechanisms to advance national and regional security. And they’ve given us access to defence technologies, logistical support, training opportunities and intelligence that we couldn’t begin to duplicate locally.

Why would we want to throw away those advantages? Mark worries that Donald Trump—an ‘extremist’—might win the US presidency and promote a strategic policy so dreadful that George W. Bush’s would seem like the teddy-bears’ picnic. Personally, I see Trump as someone shrewdly exploiting the current wave of anti-establishment sentiment in US politics. Surely he’s doing no favours for the right wing of US politics. Maybe we’ll end up with a Trump taking out the Republican nomination and even the presidency—the future is mercifully veiled. But there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip.

Still, as Prime Minister Turnbull recently observed in Washington, Australia stands ready to work with whoever the US electorate, in its wisdom, chooses as president. That’s certainly been the pattern in the past. When Ronald Reagan was first elected, some noted that a B-grade actor who had once starred opposite a chimpanzee scarcely constituted promising material for the Oval Office. Yet Reagan went on to be one of the great US presidents.

Were even Bush’s policies that bad? True, post 9/11 Bush embarked upon a transformational set of national security goals. Those weren’t the goals upon which he’d been elected in 2000. Then his global agenda had been—to use Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier’s description—‘utterly conventional’. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Bush appealed to what Walter Russell Mead once called the ‘Jacksonian’ school in US politics—a school which ‘represents a deeply embedded, widely spread populist and popular culture of honor, independence, courage and military pride among the American people’. The Global War on Terror might have arisen under Bush, but—notwithstanding a name change—it’s with us today, and not about to end anytime soon, regardless of who wins the presidency later this year.

Let’s pivot back to Australia. I’m keen to know what it is that a non-aligned Australia could do that we can’t do now. Some have argued we’d be better placed to be ‘part of Asia’. But a close defence relationship with Washington isn’t un-Asian—many Asian countries have one. Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand are formal allies. Taiwan has a close relationship. So does Singapore. India and Vietnam are drawing closer to the US, not becoming more distant.

Strategically, would we be in a better place for distancing ourselves from the Americans? I’m with those who believe that non-alignment would cost us more and deliver us less. There are some parts of the alliance commitment—US extended nuclear assurance, for example—that we’d find hard to replicate at any price. And if we were to take our strategic responsibilities seriously, playing a part in both our region and the wider world, our defence spending would go up, not down.

Moreover, I suspect we’d be confronted by a set of strategic choices just as pressing as the one we currently face. Australia, because of its size and weight, would remain a player in Asia, even if a weaker one for having cut its ties to the US. Washington and Beijing, plus a host of other regional capitals, might well be more interested than ever in Canberra’s ‘independent’ policy stance. Supporters of a non-aligned Australia would probably argue than we would be free to make those choices on the basis of national interest. But that’s exactly what we do now.

Besides, being an ally is scarcely an anomaly in the modern world. Indeed, among the countries of the developed world, being an ally is an entirely normal condition. NATO ties 26 European countries and Canada to the US and each other. And that’s before we count the US allies in Asia, or its security partners there and elsewhere. Alliances don’t endure merely because policy-makers are too feckless to terminate them. They endure because they continue to be practical instruments of strategic policy. ANZUS is already into its 65th year. The smart money should be on it getting to its 75th, regardless of who’s president in the US.