Commentary | 06 February 2017

Cracks in the US-Australia Relationship

Turnbull and subsequent Australian leaders may have to say no to Washington more often in future, writes James Curran for CFR's Asia Unbound blog on 6 February.

  • James Curran

Turnbull and subsequent Australian leaders may have to say no to Washington more often in future, writes James Curran for CFR's Asia Unbound blog on 6 February.

  • James Curran

Now that much of the tumult over the recent phone call between Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and U.S. President Donald Trump has abated, there remain some uncomfortable conclusions to be drawn from this drama in U.S.-Australia relations. And the conclusions are relevant not only for these two longstanding allies.

The first is that the episode provides more evidence—if more was in fact needed—that the president has brought into the Oval Office the volatility that characterized much of his election campaign. He now seems ready to honor the refugee deal with Australia negotiated with the Obama administration, under which around 1,200 asylum seekers currently in Australian detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru are to be resettled in the United States. But he did so apparently through gritted teeth. And to have such a tone in the first substantive exchange between Canberra and the new administration in Washington does not augur well for the alliance relationship in the short term—particularly if a serious international crisis erupts that requires substantial cooperation between the two countries in the next four years.

The U.S. president then chose to use Twitter to air his contempt for the deal. The treatment from the White House sends a clear message to Canberra—Trump’s approach will seemingly take little to no account of past ties and historical legacies, including Australia’s participation, alongside U.S. forces, in conflicts dating back more than seventy years. One likely effect is that Australian leaders will lower their expectations of what can be achieved with this administration.

The view of the long term, however, may be different. The second, perhaps more important lesson to be drawn from the tension of the past few days, however, is that the U.S.-Australia alliance is strong enough to endure these headwinds. In the past, there have been far more serious instances of disagreement and divergence in policy goals than the current spat. Indeed, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all had moments of substantial tension with Australian leaders.

Nixon in particular had very tense relations with Australian leaders. In reaction to strident Australian government criticism of the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam in December 1972—Labor government ministers in Canberra publicly denounced the White House as “maniacs” and “thugs”—President Nixon put the alliance into a deep freeze, refusing to invite Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to Washington for an official visit. That impasse was broken six months later, but Nixon continued to be so enraged by Whitlam that U.S. national security agencies were instructed to explore options for ending intelligence sharing with Canberra, stopping military exercises and, most crucially, withdrawing U.S. intelligence facilities from Australian soil. Cooler heads ultimately prevailed, but had Nixon’s directives been put into action, the U.S.-Australia alliance would have been left far weaker.

Then, in the 1980s, it was Australia that reneged on a bilateral deal entered into by a previous government in Canberra. When Robert Hawke became prime minister in 1983, he inherited a promise to the Reagan administration from his predecessor Malcolm Fraser to allow Australian airfields to be used by the United States in monitoring tests of the MX missile. Hawke agreed to honor the deal, but internal Labor Party criticism subsequently caused him to ask Secretary of State George Schultz that Australia be excused from involvement in the testing. Schultz agreed, minimizing Hawke’s embarrassment at having to withdraw Australian assistance.

In this latest fracas, Turnbull refused to return fire, trying to downplay any bilateral disagreements. But though he has been able to keep the U.S. president to the deal thus far, the Australian government may also need this shock to recognize that some of the assumptions that underpinned the relationship in the past—that the two countries’ history of military alliance will necessarily foster close ties for the future—will cut no ice with the Trump White House. Some harder thinking is required.

The new U.S. administration may still ask for something in return for honoring the refugee deal. This transaction might take the form of Canberra dispatching an Australian special forces unit to Iraq or authorizing an Australian freedom of navigation patrol through the South China Sea. But to date Turnbull has steadfastly refused to sanction such patrols, and another Australian deployment to the Middle East might well generate a strong public backlash.

Turnbull and subsequent Australian leaders may have to say no to Washington more often in future, and rediscover a rhetoric that emphasizes a greater degree of Australian self-reliance while maintaining the military alliance with the United States. Canberra’s deepening engagement with Japan, India and Southeast Asian nations is likely to continue—perhaps with a greater urgency as Australia, like other allies in the region, waits to see what kind of Asia policy this administration embraces.

A shifting Australian approach may also mean having to disabuse senior U. S. policymakers of the view that Australia’s support for Washington’s objectives is simply automatic. And it means too that Australia commits further to hedging between Washington and Beijing. Canberra has already begun hedging by granting a ninety-nine year lease on the port of Darwin to a Chinese company and showing circumspection as to whether the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty applies in the case of any U.S./China conflict in the East China Sea.