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ANZUS: From jelly to cornerstone

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COMMENTS

2 September 2011 09:02

When ANZUS was being conceived, the colossus of Australian politics privately predicted it would be 'a superstructure on a foundation of jelly'.

As the alliance celebrates its 60th birthday, it's useful to recall that first fear, as expressed by Robert Menzies (pictured). The Australian who pushed hardest for the Pacific pact, Percy Spender, wrote in his memoirs that at the moment of creation, Menzies was 'unenthusiastic' and 'poured cold water' on the effort. Australia would probably have achieved a formal military relationship with the US through the 1950s or 1960s, but probabilities don't always come to pass. The fact that it happened in 1951 was due to extraordinary times and people.

The alliance may have had its roots in World War II, but it was formed amid the fire of the Korean War. To get Japan back into the game, the US had to reassure its putative allies about controlling Japan as much as about confronting communism. An outstanding US president and a great secretary of state seized the moment, as did Spender as one of Australia's best foreign (then external) affairs ministers and some fine Australian diplomats.

Not least among the achievements and conceptual leaps on the Australian side was the willingness to exclude Britain from new pact (one of the many reasons for Menzies' scepticism). By the time he stepped down as prime minister, 15 years after ANZUS was signed, Menzies called the alliance an outstanding achievement of his government. The progress from jelly to cornerstone was rapid.

Menzies used the alliance as a wonderful political sword, thrusting it deep into the Labor Party. In its first decades, ANZUS helped keep Labor in permanent opposition. Part of the achievement of a series of Labor leaders – particularly Whitlam and Hawke – was to convince Labor to embrace the pragmatic heritage of one of the great odd-couple relationships of Australian history: between the neutralist-anti-conscriptionist who became a war-time leader, John Curtin, and that American Caesar, General Douglas MacArthur.

Not least in this pragmatic judgment was that Labor had to join the Australian people in loving the alliance. Hawke showed Labor how to embrace the treaty and turn it to electoral advantage, even as a New Zealand Labor took the NZ out of ANZUS. Whitlam, with Vietnam, and Rudd, with Iraq, demonstrated that Labor could maintain the alliance while quietly departing from a US war.

Both sides of Australian politics have acquired a deep understanding of the domestic worth of ANZUS. Whatever it means militarily, the alliance has maintained a remarkable potency in its impact on politics. This potency explains much about why Australia keeps volunteering for US wars – the blood price is regularly paid. The payment is a product of current opinion polls and the continuing tithe set by history.

The US promise of aid (well, 'consultation') if Australia is attacked is at the centre of the ANZUS document, but remote compared to some of the recurring and day-to-day benefits. Yet that ultimate promise has shaped Australia's choices in many ways. The wonks debate the worth of the extended nuclear deterrence offered by the US. But that US nuclear guarantee – along with international efforts at non-proliferation — set the terms of the equation that saw Australia walk away from the nuclear weapons ambitions that so interested John Gorton when he was prime minister.

The alliance is vital for the access it gives to US military technology – and the promise of resupply if the shooting ever starts. But an even greater prize is intelligence and surveillance. The beating heart of the alliance is at Pine Gap, the joint facility outside Alice Springs, with hundreds of American personnel (from the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency) working alongside Australians.  The new cyber battlefield adds another layer to this intimate and intricate techno-embrace that puts the alliance deep into the workings of Canberra.

Politically, militarily and diplomatically, the alliance offers access and, in theory, the chance to influence. It opens doors in Washington at the most senior levels. And that provides flow-on benefits for Australian actions and options in Asia.

For a document that has been so often and deeply analysed for meaning and nuance by Australians, the treaty is a quick and simple read. Article II promises 'continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid'. Article III does it all in one sentence: 'The Parties will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific.' And Article IV is the pledge to meet the common danger posed by an attack on any of the parties.

The treaty is supposed to apply in the Pacific. But the only time has been formally invoked was by John Howard after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. A document written with Japan and Communism in mind has come a long way from its early, jelly stages.

The prediction Michael Wesley offers in his book on Australia and the rise of Asia is that 'the alliance will move from being a cornerstone of Australia's international politics to being a major supporting beam.' If that process took much of the next 60 years, it would suit the majority of the Australian populace and many in the polity.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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