Trumping Australia’s American alliance
23 Jan 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user fshnextension.

Donald Trump will stress test America’s alliance with Australia. He’s going to pressure lots of other areas—the alliance will get its share. Australia will strive to confine disagreements. Canberra wants differences to be matters of degree, not division. Heaven forbid clashing core interests test alliance fundamentals. As ever, Australia will cling to the alliance. But Trumpism will push limits and unbalance assumptions. The 45th President promises to test purposes, and that might just go to questions of principle. Heaven forbid.

As the roller coaster is inaugurated, this is the perfect moment for a book entitled Australia’s American Alliance, the second in MUP’s Defence series from the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. The blurbage is strong with this one. John Howard calls it a ‘detailed analysis of a relationship of enduring importance’. One of Canberra’s wise owls, Allan Gyngell, goes bigger: ‘No book I know comes closer to illuminating the mysteries and identifying the challenges of Australia’s most important external relationship.’

Based on a treaty that had its 66th birthday in September, the alliance’s endurance is built on adaptability. Trump will test that resilience. Australia, though, has worried about US reliability and commitment for all 66 years. As Stephan Fruhling notes, Australia learned to live with a great ally that was ‘often fickle in its strategic attentions’. Today, the US focuses on where Australia lives. We got what we wished for. Fruhling summarises the new era’s challenges:

  • Can Australia be more successful than in the past in using its geographic position to influence the US?
  • Must Australia embrace greater political-military institutionalisation of the alliance?
  • Does Australia want to bind itself ever-closer to US strategic commitments in the region?

Australia once fretted that ANZUS didn’t match the commitments of NATO. The change in Canberra thinking long preceded Trump’s blasts at NATO free riders. Andrew Carr sees an alliance role reversal. The ‘open and informal structure of ANZUS’ was ‘created to preserve US freedom of action’. Today, it’s Australia that worries about ‘burdens and entanglement’.

The obsessive gaze Australia long bestowed on the US—the bilateral blinkers—broadens. Now, Canberra worries about what the alliance means for Australia in Asia. The endurance of the alliance, Carr states, will rest on Australia’s ‘ultimate judgement’ about the US as a ‘long-term Asia-Pacific power’.

Trump’s trashing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership shows the clashing orbits of economic world and security world—Ecworld versus SecWorld. Looking from EcWorld, Amy King starts with the insight of another Canberra wise owl, Stuart Harris. Since WW2 the US and Oz have agreed on the principles of the international economic order; in practice, they’ve ‘frequent bilateral conflict within those principles’. Hello, Donald!

King concludes that Australia can’t run an economic policy narrowly based on its alliance, and must seek EcWorld-SecWorld alignment:

  • Keeping the US engaged in Asia
  • Managing the ‘order transition’ of China’s economic rise
  • Maintaining the open, liberal, non-discriminatory order that most benefits Australian trade

These are among the six chapters in the book’s first two sections on strategic policy. Part III on ‘Mechanics of alliance cooperation’ illuminates the entrails, with John Blaxland (military cooperation), James Goldrick (interoperability), Michael Wesley (intelligence), and Richard Brabin-Smith (kit and capability).

Wesley on the ‘unprecedented intelligence intimacy’—intelligence as the ‘strategic essence’ of the alliance, as Des Ball put it—and Brab Smith on ‘the US command of the application of science and technology to warfare’, offer rich accounts of what Australia gets from the alliance. The science and the gear and the intelligence are as important as the Marines. The ties bind in myriad ways.

The final chapters—Part IV on ‘Managing trade-offs’—consist of Kim Beazley (what the alliance means for Oz sovereignty), Peter Dean (Oz strategic culture and way of war), and Brendan Taylor (Australia and the US in Asia). Each is strong; Beazley hits it out of the park.

Beazley starts with the paradox that the alliance today ‘involves a more intense relationship than it did when the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended’. He believes that ‘depth and robustness’ is based on a calculation of the alliance’s value to Australia’s ultimate security. Beazley’s analysis suggests the alliance is Trump-proof (my term, not his).

Beazley emphasises the 21st Century ‘development of a seamless interconnection’ between Australia–US military and intelligence services: ‘The depth of that connection has the capacity to endure through potentially sharp shifts in the orientation of future administrations. It is our version of a “deep state” without the sinister attributes applicable to the military and intelligence establishment in authoritarian regimes.’

Serving the deep state as Australia’s previous ambassador to Washington, Beazley records how the embassy manages 400 military purchase projects. Each working day Australia spends $13 million on American defence industry products. What that buys is displayed in the air defence system for Australia’s approaches: ‘the best we have had,’ Beazley argues, ‘and it is regionally decisive’.

Australia used to think about interoperability. Now, Beazley writes, the US talks force integration: ‘The trajectory of our mutual military collaboration will challenge thinking about Australian sovereignty.’

The challenge now has a president. Trump will force Australia to look hard at our prized possession.