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AUKUS could help fill the gaps in ANZUS

Posted By on October 6, 2021 @ 15:00

What’s the essence of the US–Australia alliance? For the late Des Ball, it lay in close intelligence cooperation. Many would point to Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty, which commits both countries ‘to meet the common danger’ in case of ‘an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties’.

Most of the public debate on the implications of Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS pact indeed focuses on what it might say about Australia’s commitment to stand alongside the US in a conflict. Few, however, would see the essence of the US–Australia alliance in close institutional integration. The absence of institutionalised mechanisms for policy consultation, joint planning and joint capability development has been a notable difference of our US alliance from alliances in the northern hemisphere, notably NATO. But what the decision also demonstrates is the urgent need to have these mechanisms in place—and indeed they may well arise as a fortuitous, if challenging, consequence of it.

Australian debate on the ANZUS Treaty generally focuses on the much weaker language in its Article IV compared with Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, which famously declares an attack on one to be ‘an attack on them all’. What generally receives less attention is the commitment, almost identical in the two treaties, to ‘separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, ... maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack’.

For NATO, the treaty established a council with representatives from all parties and gave it the power to set up subsidiary bodies, one of which was a defence committee. The ANZUS treaty also established a council, ‘consisting of their Foreign Ministers or their Deputies, to consider matters concerning the implementation of this Treaty’. In 1952, the Pentagon was vigorously opposed to any military cooperation with Australia, so the ANZUS Treaty refers specifically to ‘Foreign Ministers’ and omits the references to ‘subsidiary bodies’ and a ‘defence committee’ to prepare for defence cooperation and collective defence.

So, it’s rather ironic that it’s in the ANZUS alliance, rather than in NATO, that the broader voice of and consideration of foreign affairs is so often eclipsed by the minutiae of defence cooperation. When the North Atlantic Council in Brussels doesn’t sit at the level of heads of state and government, foreign ministers or defence ministers, it is constituted by permanent (foreign affairs) ambassadors rather than uniformed or civilian defence representatives.

The consequences of the lack of such a systematic check in the US–Australia relationship, which would recognise that, at the end of the day, defence is but a means in the pursuit of foreign policy, are now on full display.

France’s reaction to the dumping of its submarines by Australia was predictable, because to a large extent it’s due to President Emmanuel Macron’s electoral considerations. One can but wonder, besides the economic cost to EU–Australia trade negotiations, how large a political debt Australia is running up with Washington, as President Joe Biden has to personally engage to repair relations with France and the EU.

The reasons for this state of affairs go beyond the chronic emaciation of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In Washington, institutional indifference about the easy ally Australia pervades senior levels of the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, where only problems make it to the top of the in-tray—or at least it did until Canberra caused a major rift at the most senior levels of the transatlantic relationship. There are many things that remain uncertain about the consequences of the submarine decision. That Washington will be far more alert to the political risk of not paying close attention to what Canberra does (or doesn’t do) in its defence department isn’t one of them.

Here, then, lies the kernel of a much more wide-reaching transformation of our alliance than a supposed ‘choice’ to stand with the US against China (if that was ever in doubt), or the significant, but still narrowly technical integration of US (and UK) personnel across Australia’s submarine enterprise. One reason the decision to acquire nuclear submarines is so encouraging is that the government wouldn’t have signed on to the financial, industrial and political cost if it hadn’t looked closely at the operational challenges that a conflict with China would actually entail. Defence advice will have reflected changing circumstances, but it’s still notable that both the cabinet and the Defence Department have obviously looked beyond what usually passed for force structure ‘analysis’ in justification for major capability programs.

In this context, the disciplining effect of an alliance that tests and challenges national assumptions, and that forces political attention on issues that otherwise would be far too easy to ignore, shouldn’t be underestimated. Again, for all the practical cooperation that does occur, in truth our alliance has in the past been too inconsequential to warrant US political attention in this regard, and Washington has never pushed Canberra beyond its political comfort zone.

After last month’s announcement in the White House, this will be different. With AUKUS, we have now bought into the benefits that close and highest-level political support to alliance defence cooperation can bring. We may never build a formal equivalent to the excruciatingly detailed NATO defence planning process through which Washington and London hold each other’s feet to the fire as NATO allies. However, we shouldn’t be surprised if both Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson bring the same expectations to AUKUS about transparency and accountability to one’s allies in national defence planning efforts that they and their predecessors have, for many decades, come to accept as normal in their own alliance relationship.

UK and US ‘advice’ about how to handle the integration of their nuclear reactors will serve as a much-needed counterbalance to the Australian inclination to measure defence effectiveness in terms of jobs created in Adelaide. Establishing a contestability division in the Defence Department in 2016 was obviously not enough to deal with the many shibboleths that survive in the capability investment program, despite being hard to reconcile with the world described in the 2020 defence strategic update. But insofar as Washington has now declared a more militarily capable Australia as its own policy objective, and at a much greater (at least short-term) political cost than it likely expected, it now also gets a say in what it thinks a militarily more capable Australia should entail in practice.

This doesn’t mean that Australia always needs to agree—if Defence can convince and equip its ministers to argue its case. Indeed Australia, too, would gain opportunities to challenge the merits of US defence preparations in a way that would have been impolitic in the past. The day that a minister, secretary or defence force chief feels sufficiently confident in Defence’s analytic and policy judgements to write to his or her US counterpart warning of ‘letting our strategic conceptions fall prey to wishful thinking’ in regard to core tenets of US strategy, as a German chief of staff once did, will be the day that AUKUS will have genuinely succeeded in raising the quality of Australia’s defence.

Through AUKUS, we have now invited Johnson and Biden to throw all the analytic weight of their own defence organisations to challenge us on our current plan to make the Australian Defence Force fit for the world to come. Ultimately, we will be better off for it.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/aukus-could-help-fill-the-gaps-in-anzus/

[1] Des Ball: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10357710120066920?journalCode=caji20

[2] ANZUS Treaty: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Completed_Inquiries/jfadt/usrelations/appendixb

[3] implications of Australia’s decision: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/does-the-aukus-submarine-deal-compromise-australias-sovereignty/

[4] absence: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00396338.2018.1518384

[5] North Atlantic Treaty: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_texts_17120.htm

[6] vigorously opposed: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10357718.2020.1721430

[7] running up: https://warontherocks.com/2021/09/the-biden-administration-needs-to-act-fast-to-reset-relations-with-france/

[8] NATO defence planning process: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_49202.htm

[9] contestability division: https://www.directory.gov.au/portfolios/defence/department-defence/strategy-policy-and-industry-group/contestability-division

[10] German chief of staff: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=fDoa8xSYLf8C&pg=PA49&lpg=PA49&dq=%22letting+our+strategic+conceptions+fall+prey+to+wishful+thinking%22&source=bl&ots=MLEk7uHi8B&sig=ACfU3U0Qro5-vwXT_sktLXrUAKUWATsU_g&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiS9q6R8ZTzAhULdCsKHbTRDDsQ6AF6BAgCEAM#v=onepage&q=%22letting%20our%20strategic%20conceptions%20fall%20prey%20to%20wishful%20thinking%22&f=false