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Fighting with America: Facing up to the unpredictable

The US Capitol dome, Washington    (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)
The US Capitol dome, Washington (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)
Published 9 Jan 2017 12:42    0 Comments

If anything has emerged in the time since Donald Trump’s election it is the near total absence of any kind of pattern to his decisions or acts as president-elect. In the words of analyst Mira Rapp-Hooper, Trump seems to have a ‘nearly doctrinal devotion to unpredictability’. To gaze into the crystal ball of his presidency is to glimpse a veritable whirlpool of populism, nativism, nationalism, conservatism and realism. That’s quite a brew.

Because this state of play is likely to continue as the new administration settles into the process of governing, there is all the more reason for Australia to approach its relationship with the US with a good deal of caution and prudence. Over the next four years, politicians and policymakers in Canberra may also have to step up to the plate and challenge US policies that run counter to the Australian national interest.

Since the publication of my Lowy paper, Fighting with America, Trump’s decision to accept a telephone call from the Taiwanese president has only confirmed the need for Australia to remain watchful. We don’t know if this represents a seismic shift in US China policy, a classic Trump transactional play, or simply a reflection of his naivety about the outside world.  What it does confirm is his propensity for the reckless and the impulsive.

The responses to my paper agree that the relationship with Washington will be harder to manage in the near term, and further that Trump represents what Nick Bryant calls a unique ‘stress test’ for the Australia-US alliance.

Nevertheless, there are some important points of difference.

Hugh White is right to eschew the limits of the bilateral lens and place the alliance in its global context. All of the best scholarship on the US-Australia relationship in recent years has indeed done just that. True enough, since the 1970s governments of both persuasions have had fewer hard choices to make when it came to supporting the US in the world. But this was also because Labor and Liberal leaders were as one on the goal of comprehensive engagement with Asia. The lack of hard choices was as much to do with the fact that prime ministers from Whitlam to Keating did not invest the US alliance with any kind of substantial content or meaning during that era as it was within the changing contours of American foreign policy.

Hugh surely cannot underplay, however, the significance of the Howard transition in 1996. That leader’s particular view of Australian history, culture and identity has far more compelling explanatory power than any post-Cold War context in understanding his desire to reinvigorate the alliance. There was an intensity to that move that cannot be attributed to international circumstances.  As I explain in the essay, when he came to office Howard took the view that his predecessors’ push into Asia had come at the expense of the American connection. This was no Holt-like ‘All the way with LBJ’ reflex, but Howard was determined to correct what he saw as an imbalance in the Australian global outlook; convinced, too, that such an approach would pay handsome domestic political dividends. The Americans did not request this reinvigoration of the alliance in 1996: it was driven entirely from the Australian side. And as Allan Gyngell notes, during this period a capital ‘A’ came to be affixed to ‘the Alliance’.

More contentious, however, is the near absolute confidence that Hugh, (and Paul Keating for that matter), bring to their predictions about Chinese intentions and American regional staying power. Notwithstanding developments in the South China Sea, where Beijing continues to aggressively define its sphere of influence, there remains a great deal of uncertainty about China’s rise. For one, the fiscal shine of its economic ascent is not quite as gleaming as in years past. And, as I stressed in the essay, China has yet to be tested by the boom and bust cycle: this, after all, is a country which has not endured a serious recession since its embrace of market capitalism. Along with its significant internal demographic and environmental challenges, there is every reason to view with a measure of scepticism the claims that the relentless progression from economic giant to regional strategic hegemon is assured.  Recently, a continued decline in the renminbi has seen Chinese financial regulators introduce new rules in an effort to stem the flow of capital out of the country. Meanwhile in the US, Federal Reserve officials expect faster economic growth in the US over the next few years, but have stopped short of predicting the kind of boom that Trump says will result from his policies. Still, even a slow and steady American economic revival may become starker over the next decade as some Asian economies, with the exception perhaps of India, record slower rates of growth.

Hugh argues too that we may also see a gradual withdrawal of the US from Asia, or that the US may be ‘stepping back from us’. But what is the evidence for these claims? Just before the US election, two key Trump advisers wrote an article in Foreign Policy that pushed a strong pro-US leadership line in Asia. That’s hardly a sign of coming retrenchment. Writing around the same time in the FT, Jamil Anderlin also pointed out that China’s magnetic economic force is losing some of its pull in ASEAN countries. Moreover, he pointed to the deep and enduring military ties that the Malaysians and the Thais, for example, continue to have with the US, concluding that ‘no one is cutting ties with America’. Even Duterte, for all his pungent rhetoric of ‘separation’, has still not cut one bilateral agreement with the US. The perception, Anderlin added, of a ‘triumphant China imposing its will on ASEAN is premature if not totally misguided’.

In the essay I also made the claim that in the event of a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan, the historical currents coursing through the country’s strategic bloodstream would point to Australia siding with Washington.  Of course, I did not go into the myriad complications and complexities – not to mention circumstances – involved in any such crisis, and how they would ultimately affect Australia’s decision.  The point here is that if Beijing provoked a conflict, it would be very difficult to see either a Liberal or Labor government refusing some kind of support to the US. But are Hugh White and Paul Keating saying that even if China sparks a crisis Australia should stay out?  The real issue here, too, is whether or not Australia can say ‘no’ given the extraordinary integration of Australian and US military forces.

Mike Green’s response rightly underlined that alliances are typically characterised by divergence and disagreement. He argued that Australia had won a lot of these fights in the past, and that Canberra had succeeded, for example, in pressing America into Vietnam in 1965 and Iraq in 2003.  Neither instance, however, stands particularly tall in the annals of Australian foreign policy. In both cases, Australia might have adopted a different view of its responsibilities as an ally and advised its great protector not to compound the folly of such adventures.

But Green’s suggestion of Australia playing a role in bringing ‘cohesion’ back to American foreign policy at its current time of drift is tantalising. This would, however, require a sea change in how Washington thinks about Australia and some kind of mechanism to do so.  As I showed in the essay, the view held in the White House and elsewhere that ‘you can always rely on Australia’ is not a recipe for being taken seriously. Whatever the means by this alteration in perception is achieved, there needs to be a wider, more systematic means of exchange – perhaps drawing on a broader range of officials, experts and analysts – than is currently the case.  It cannot all be left to the annual AUSMIN meetings. Or, for that matter, to the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue.

So there is a need for Australia to be a more critical and more discerning ally, and one that is not afraid to push back against a Trump administration that may well ride roughshod over some of the ‘values’ that are so often invoked as the cornerstone of the Australia-US relationship. As I have argued elsewhere, this is even more reason to approach the new president one step at a time.

Fighting with America: It's how we fight

Published 20 Dec 2016 11:15    0 Comments

Whatever its starting point, every conversation I’ve had about the state of the world over the past six weeks has quickly reverted to the question of Donald Trump and ended with some variation on a fatalistic 'We just don’t know what will happen'. The inchoate and contradictory policy positions Trump expressed during the campaign and the unprecedented lack of experience in his nominees for high office make any predictions impossible.

Except one: Australian policy makers are about to face some difficult foreign policy questions and most of them will revolve in some way around our relationship with the United States. So James Curran’s terrific new Lowy Paper Fighting with America couldn’t be more timely. 

Whatever the results of the 2016 American election, it was always going to get harder for Australia to manage the US relationship. China’s growing power and Australia’s very different set of economic interests made that certain. The period when successive Australian governments could insist that we did not have to choose between our security relationship with the United States and our economic ties with China has ended.

James’s argument for an Australia that can say no is grounded in his historical account of the way Australian leaders have thought about the ANZUS treaty and the obligations it imposes on us. He shows how it has shifted over time from an assurance about a resurgent Japan to a global alliance against salafi-jihadist terrorism centred on the Middle East. The way we talk about it has changed too. Some time after the turn of the century the alliance gained a capital letter – like the Almighty – in some official documents.

Through all the changes James  describes, one thing has remained constant: the assertion by every Australian government that the alliance is based on an alignment of shared interests and values.

That’s never been quite true. Our interests, as  he shows, have quite often differed in the past – over Indonesia, West New Guinea, East Timor and elsewhere. And you could add additional economic examples such as the sharp differences between Canberra and Washington over US economic policy towards Japan in the early 1990s.

But values - a common commitment to democracy, the rule of law, a rules-based international system - have been the building blocks of trust, on which the whole alliance has rested. The Trump administration may challenge that, however. The president-elect seems to have no particular commitment to democratic norms, certainly not in the international space. He has made clear his opposition to important elements of the open global trading system. And he came close at several points during his campaign to challenging the rule of law (by threatening to lock up Hillary Clinton, for example).  History can’t tell us much about how Australia handles a US Administration which diverges from us on questions of values.

So an additional question emerges from James’s research: not just whether Australia can fight with America, but how we should do so.

Of all the parts of the American policy establishment most damaged by the election results none was more battered than the foreign policy elite. Hugh White speculated about the reasons in a recent piece for The Atlantic.

But history has not ended with the election of Donald Trump. The temporary triumph of nativist sentiments doesn’t invalidate the aspirations of those American policy advisers who see the benefits of engaging creatively and constructively in support of a liberal and stable international order.

Australia needs to act in ways that will support a return to those American policy goals which, by any measure, are in our interests and those of the global system as a whole.

The first requirement is to know what we want and to be able to articulate it clearly. You can only signal effectively if you know what your message is.  What sort of posture do we want to encourage from the United States in Asia?  How do we want it to respond to Chinese behaviour? What do we see as the role of the US alliance system?

The second requirement is to keep our options open in the period ahead as we wait to see what US policy under Trump turns out to be and how others react to it. There’s no need for, or point in, heroic gestures at this stage. The ANZUS treaty, as James reminds us, has been around for a long time and can accommodate change.

Third, we  will need to work harder in Washington to reinforce our message and to strengthen those elements in the United States that share our interests.  Sometimes this will involve public diplomacy, sometimes quiet words behind closed doors.  We will need to engage all the branches of the US government and the broader policy world beyond it.

And fourth, it means remembering that Australian foreign policy involves more than the US alliance. We are ourselves an actor in the unfolding drama, with our own set of relationships, experiences and options. Building resilience in the region to cope with the shocks to come is not a function of the US -Chinese relationship alone and cannot be left to them. 

There will be diplomatic and possibly military costs to Australia in doing all this. But the costs of not doing so are rising by the day.

Allan Gyngell is an Adjunct Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU. His history of Australian foreign policy, Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942, will be published in April 2017 by La Trobe University Press.

Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Fighting with America: It's what good friends do

Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Published 14 Dec 2016 09:17    0 Comments

James Curran’s cleverly titled new monograph Fighting with America argues that, as leaders in Washington and Canberra have celebrated the shared sacrifice of the GIs and diggers who fought side-by-side throughout the years, the two governments have also repeatedly fought with each other to define the boundaries of their respective commitments to the alliance. Viewing this historical pattern and now the rise of China (and of Donald Trump), Curran concludes that Australia will be 'less of the willing partner that has marked the past two decades'. In other words, Australia is poised to fight America more.

Curran is an excellent historian who uses the momentum of the past to illuminate problems of the present without projecting modern circumstances retroactively or forcing the narrative agenda of either the right or the left. But I draw four lessons from his authoritative history of the alliance that might lead to different conclusions about the future than his.

First, allies do fight – a lot. The United States and Australia clashed over Vietnam, the MX missile, East Timor and other issues, as Curran demonstrates. Australia is hardly alone in this. The United States clashed with Britain over the Suez Crisis; with Japan over the FSX fighter jet; and with Korea over human rights and Jimmy Carter’s pledge to withdraw US troops from the peninsula. Although commentators predicted the demise of the pertinent alliance in every case, the alliances always adjusted and emerged significantly stronger within a few years. Allies fight, but the pattern is far more cyclical than linear because America’s core alliances are simply too important to fail – as our common adversaries continue to stubbornly remind us.

Second, Australia fights…and very often Australia wins. A Pentagon colleague working on cost-sharing for the Darwin plan recently described the Australians as being possibly easier to negotiate with than the North Koreans, but certainly harder than the Japanese or South Koreans. The flip side of the American expectation that Australia will be there for us in a fight, is that our own body politic would be shocked if Australia did not show up. And thus Robert Menzies had a key role in pushing Johnson to intervene in Vietnam in 1965; John Howard convinced George W Bush to pursue the authorisation of 15 UN Security Council Resolutions before finally resorting to force in Iraq; Paul Keating’s APEC proposal pushed Secretary of State Jim Baker and then Bill Clinton to embrace regional multilateralism; and Kevin Rudd’s Asia-Pacific Community concept helped get Barack Obama off his seat on the trans-Pacific Partnership. In every case Australia took a principled position and prevailed.  Importantly, in no case in history has Australia succeeded by visibly 'distancing' itself from the United States, as opposed to trying to shape US policy from within the alliance.

Third, the United States and Australia are so close that very often the real fight is not between Washington and Canberra, but within those two capital cities. Curran has an excellent account of the tensions introduced into US-Australia relations by Ronald Reagan’s plan for the MX missile, which triggered deep fears of entrapment in an American nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Yet the talking points used by the Australian Labor Party against the MX missile in the 1980s could easily have been used by Democratic opponents to Reagan’s proposal in the US Senate, who had more in common with Gareth Evans than they did with Ronald Reagan or Cap Weinberger. American and Australian politics rhyme, and more often than not, the alignments between conservatives or liberals across the Pacific have greater significance than the differences between allies. This problem becomes more acute – as it did in the 1980s - when the respective governments come from different ideologies. Yet even then, as Curran notes, Keating pulled his party back in favour of the alliance.

Fourth, an 'Asia first' policy in Canberra does not have to mean an 'alliance last' policy. It seems to be a cherished myth of the left in Australia that strong security ties to the United States will upset Australia’s ties with Asia. With China? Perhaps. But there is no evidence that US-Australian security cooperation or even the Iraq War set back Australian ties with countries like Indonesia or Malaysia. Elsewhere in Asia, a deliberate effort to distance Australia from the United States would be met with great unease. Mark Latham wasn’t popular with George W Bush, but Junichiro Koizumi and Singapore’s Goh Chok Tong didn’t think much of his anti-Americanism either. If Australians want to grow rich off China without accepting an authoritarian Sino-centric order in Asia, then they have a great deal in common with the rest of Asia, and with the United States. There is no inherent collision of interests over what kind of regional order we should all be building to work with Beijing while deterring coercive and revisionist Chinese behavior.

So perhaps Curran’s conclusion is right that Australia will fight more with the United States now. Since Americans are fighting with themselves, perhaps this is reasonable. But what does it mean exactly to 'fight' with America? A majority of Americans strongly disagreed with Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign, and now a majority want him to succeed as President. Though there was some bigotry at play, Trump won the votes of tens of millions of decent people because he was the best cudgel they could swing against Washington and the establishment. Their only real expectation is that he will do more to improve the economy and create jobs, and that task will consume him over the next four years if he cares about being re-elected. Meanwhile, polls show that American support for our Asian alliances and free trade remains high, despite the rhetoric of the campaign. Trump has chosen nominees for Secretary of Defense and Homeland Security who are experienced in alliance management and a nominee for State Department who is deeply internationalist. The Republican Congress and state governors are very much in the same mould. There will be some dramatic fireworks between the populists and the establishment in Washington over the coming year, but that makes it even more difficult to say what it means to 'fight' with America. 

It seems to me that an Australian policy of 'distancing' from the United States may satisfy some elites in both countries, but it will only weaken Australian and American influence in the Asia Pacific. The most effective thing Australia can do now is to lean in to the confused situation in Washington and help internationalists re-establish a basis for American leadership in the world as soon as possible. The history of ANZUS shows that America’s closest allies – the ones we know 'have our backs' - are well positioned to help bring cohesion back to American foreign policy at times of drift. If that is what it means to 'fight' America, then I am all for it.

Fighting with America: Trump is the biggest stress test for ANZUS yet

Published 13 Dec 2016 11:57    0 Comments

Just as modern-day Australia has something of an Anzac fixation, it also has an ANZUS obsession. Both play on national myths, exaggerated foundation stories and a misremembering of the past. Both betray a reluctance to challenge near-sacred shibboleths that in recent decades have become immutable pillars of national life. I well remember the furore in 2007 when US Ambassador Robert McCallum confessed to not having read the ANZUS treaty, the equivalent, you would think from the shocked reaction in Canberra, of his opposite number in Washington casually inquiring of his hosts: ‘what is the Gettysburg address?’

In his excellent new book Fighting with America, the historian James Curran says that Anzac and ANZUS have become flip sides of the same coinage, though he puts it more elegantly: ‘Support for the US alliance was woven into the Anzac fabric, the slouch hat folding into the nation’s strategic doctrine.’ Mistakenly, ‘the present moment is being sanctified as the norm,’ he observes. So pervasive has become this ‘narrative of common endeavour that it stifles discussion of alternative policy options for Australia’.

James Curran discards the red, white and blue-tinted spectacles that have produced a romanticised view of the US-Australian alliance, and offers a more clear-sighted assessment of how it might fare under President Donald Trump. History, rightly, is his guide, and it reminds us that for much of the post-war period this great pillar of Australian foreign policy looked decidedly wobbly. Turbulence is nothing new, and the alliance can withstand it. Remember Richard Nixon’s Guam declaration, Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada or Bill Clinton’s refusal to deploy US troops in East Timor, to name but a few awkward episodes that exposed tensions.

Australia only moved towards becoming a ‘100% ally’ when John Howard became prime minister (although, even then, disagreements took a few points off that 100% score). The Howard years also produced a bipartisan consensus which reached it apotheosis when Julia Gillard, a one-time critic of the alliance, teared up on Capitol Hill as she recalled the moon landing. No wonder Jeffrey Bleich, the US ambassador under Barack Obama, described a ‘perfect relationship’.

But perfection has come at a price. ‘Washington has simply become used to Australia always agreeing,’ complains Curran. Indeed, a ‘collective amnesia’ about past disagreements has weakened the relationship. One of his main recommendations is that Canberra should ‘disabuse senior US policymakers of the view that Australia’s support is simply automatic’.

A special relationship need not be slavish and sycophantic, the trap that recent prime ministers have often fallen into. Rather, the Hawke years offer ‘something of a model for alliance management’. In those days, Washington and Canberra enjoyed a close relationship, but one that ‘did not necessarily stifle the projection of independent Australian interests.’ Disagreements actually strengthened the alliance, Curran argues persuasively, because they made it more mutually respectful and more heedful of prevailing domestic political pressures– in Hawke’s case, a restless party room, in which some MPs were instinctively anti-American.

Once Donald Trump is sworn in, says Curran, there will need to be ‘a smarter alliance, one less prone to sonorous declarations of support than hard thinking informed by a greater sense of history’. That said, this kind of moment is historically unprecedented. ‘The alliance has never seen anything like Donald Trump,’ writes Curran, and Hurricane Donald approaches as Australia is confronting ‘the most complex and fluid strategic culture’ since the end of the 1960s. Prepare then for a ‘degree of stress and strain that has been largely missing from the relationship over the last two decades’.

This new, more volatile climate will not lend itself to a ‘single, catch-all doctrine’. Rather, diplomatic dexterity will be the order of the day. Furthermore, there are likely to be moments when Australia and the USA ‘will differ over strategy, tactics and even interests’.

Fighting with America, as the title suggests, is no love story, and one of Curran’s many achievements is to de-romanticise the special relationship. In so doing, he makes the case for a rhetorical reset, one that ditches ‘dated stereotypes’ and ‘stale talking points’. By making history his main focus, he has also successfully weather-proofed the book against the latest Trump tweetstorms. It will remain essential reading long after 20 January.

Rather than historical amnesia, the problem Australian prime ministers will encounter with Donald Trump is historical illiteracy. He is an ‘in-the-moment’ sort of guy, interested more in personal narratives (not least his own) and personal relationships rather than national stories and national alliances. Doubtless, he will pay lip service to ANZUS if it appears on a teleprompter before him, but will that shared history influence his decision-making or moderate his behaviour? As his views on NATO have made clear, not even the most hallowed of treaties are sacrosanct.

What’s also become clear since the book went to press is that the ride will be even wilder than commentators supposed. His telephone call with the Taiwanese president demonstrated he is just as unworried about Chinese sensibilities as President-elect as he was as a candidate. That call, along with his renewed baiting of Beijing during his ‘Thank You’ tour, underscores one of Curran’s sharpest observations: that after years wondering about the implications of Chinese nationalism, policy makers in Canberra will have to think more deeply about Trump-style American nationalism.

During the transition, Trump’s treatment of allies has been just as intriguing, and disorientating. Just witness his suggestion that Nigel Farage would make an excellent UK ambassador to Washington, or his offhand invitation to Theresa May, who was placed a lowly tenth on his call list: ‘If you travel to the US, you should let me know.’ The fact that Malcolm Turnbull’s phone call was set up with the help of Greg Norman emphasises just how improvisational the diplomacy will have to become. Dexterity plus plus plus, to bastardise a Trumpism.

Much will depend, of course, on Trump’s choice of Secretary of State. Though not explicit, Curran’s book seems predicated on Trump being surrounded by foreign policy grown-ups, who will be more respectful of international norms and traditional diplomatic channels. But who knows? And Trump will not only have the nuclear codes in his suit pocket but also a smart phone with which he can easily override his chief diplomat, by tweet-shaming countries or leaders who have annoyed him or, perhaps, threatened his commercial interests.

As Curran points out, the alliance ‘has been able to weather periods of strain and stress in the past. It has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and cope with differing national interests.’ But in this highly unpredictable world, where Trump can eviscerate years of careful diplomacy, with a single, angry digital missive, it will surely face its biggest stress test yet.

Fighting with America: Making the hard choices

Published 12 Dec 2016 11:36    0 Comments

As he has done so often before, in his new book for the Lowy Institute James Curran has harnessed history to illuminate contemporary questions in a way that is unusual in contemporary Australian foreign and strategic policy debates. Fighting with America is a fine and timely work with an important message, and you should give it to yourself for Christmas. 

James’ key point is surely correct. The sentimentalised way we think and speak about our US alliance today is not, as most people assume, the way things have always been. It is a relatively recent and indeed somewhat aberrant shift in the way the alliance has traditionally been seen and discussed. And he is also surely correct to say that this rose-tinted view of the alliance is not going to help us navigate the challenges that the alliance will face over coming years.

But what has caused this swing to sentimentality?  James suggests that it mostly has been the result primarily of changes in Australia – shifts in politics, personalities, culture and identity. But I wonder if there isn’t more to it than that? It can be easy to see the alliance in narrowly bilateral terms, as something between America and Australia, not much affected by the wider international setting.

That view is indeed implicit in the idea that the alliance draws its strength and durability from the fundamental values and historical connections that we share, rather than from a mere alignment of interests which might prove more transitory. This is the myth at the heart of the sentimentalist view of the alliance.

But this has never been true. The alliance has always been profoundly shaped by developments in Asia and beyond, which have driven changes in the expectations and costs of the alliance to each side, and largely explains the shifts in attitudes that James so clearly documents.

Our rose-tinted view of the alliance today can be explained primarily by two major changes in the wider strategic environment over the past four decades, which have reduced US alliance expectations of Australia and reduced the costs to us of meeting them. The first was Nixon’s agreement with Mao in 1972, which launched a long era of uncontested US strategy primacy in Asia. This transformed our alliance with America, and especially US expectations of Australia.

Before then, the alliance was primarily about Australia supporting America in its strategic contest with China for primacy in Asia. Washington wanted a lot of support. That required difficult decisions for Canberra, carrying risks and costs – not just over Korea and Vietnam, but in repeated major crises over Laos, Taiwan and other flashpoints. We did not always say yes. It also meant difficult decisions for Washington, such as whether to risk driving Indonesia into China’s camp by support Australia over West New Guinea. 

These hard decisions for Australia drove hard debates about the alliance in the 1950s and 1960s. By contrast, after 1972, when challenges to America’s position in Asia largely disappeared, US expectations of Australian support dwindled too. There were fewer hard choices to make, and supporting the alliance became much easier.  

The few relatively hard choices that remained in the 1980s concerned the support that Australia should provide America in its global confrontation with the Soviets, and they became somewhat more acute as the détente of the 1970s gave way to the rapidly re-intensifying tensions of the early 1980s. Hence residual debate about the alliance at this time focused on joint facilities, nuclear-armed and -powered ship visits, and missile testing.

The second big shift that transformed views of the alliance was thus the end of the Cold War. In the post Cold War era, US expectations of Australia became focused narrowly on support for US operations in the Middle East which, as James notes, entailed relatively small costs and thus posed few tough choices for Australia. (Afghanistan might seem the exception here; it’s a subject for another time, but essentially that was not seen by most Australians primarily in alliance terms.)

This is why over the past few decades it has become easier and easier for Australian politicians, officials and commentators to view the alliance in idealised terms. What’s not to like?  It has cost Australia very little, while we have benefitted enormously from the regional and global order that US power has underpinned.

And this explains, perhaps a little more compellingly than James’ more domestically-focused account, why the rose-coloured view of the alliance is now so obviously out-of-date. The easy strategic circumstances of the past few decades are now gone. America is no longer uncontested in Asia: it faces a formidable strategic rival and it seeks Australia’s support in responding to it.

Meeting US expectations would impose real costs on us, both economic and strategic. We have some hard choices to make and that will, eventually, mean hard debate, based on hard-headed judgments about real national interests.

But this hasn’t happened yet, as James makes clear, and it is worth asking why. I think future historians looking back will be struck by three failures in the Australian political and policy community’s responses to the massive strategic changes now underway in Asia.

The first is the failure to recognise the reality and seriousness of China’s challenge to US primacy in Asia. Even James succumbs to this, when he writes somewhat evasively of ‘uncertainties’ about China’s future intentions. Are they really still uncertain? Or are we just reluctant to face up to the implications of the plain reality.

The second failure which I think will strike future historians is how slow we have been to recognise that we cannot simply assume that America knows how to handle China’s rise, and that our best interests will be served by following its lead wherever that might take us. Again, even James succumbs to this, when he asserts with great confidence on p97 that:

In the unlikely event of outright conflict between the United States and China, Australia’s choice would not be difficult. Its history, values and interests suggest that it would almost automatically side with the United States.

I don’t agree with this. It would be an extraordinarily difficult choice, and it would very likely go the other way. And the third failure that will intrigue future historians is the failure to see the clear possibility that confronted with a powerful and ambitious China, the US might gradually withdraw from Asia, which would mark the end of the alliance whatever we did or said. And that is the possibility that this years’ election, and Mr Trump’s victory, have made much less remote.

Photo courtesy US Dept of Defense







Fighting with America: Why Washington needs a more discerning ally

Photo: Getty Images/Washington Post
Photo: Getty Images/Washington Post
Published 9 Dec 2016 17:13    0 Comments

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by James Curran at the 8 December launch of his Lowy Institute Paper, Fighting with America, at the National Press Club in Canberra. This post marks the beginning of a debate on the Paper.

Since the election of Donald Trump just over a month ago, questions of America’s future, its role in Asia and the nature of the US alliance has once again taken centre stage in Australian public debate. Only at the time of Vietnam and in the period leading up to the commitment of Australian troops to Iraq in 2003 has the relationship with Washington occupied so prominent a place in the national discourse.

Trump’s shock win has brought forth the full spectrum of views and opinions about Australia’s ties with the US. Among some, there has been understandable alarm and unease emanating from his lurid prescriptions for the Asian alliance system, the fear that his rise to power signals an irreversible American retrenchment from the region and, ultimately, abandonment.

From others has come the equally familiar call to ‘cut the tag’ with Washington and pursue an independent foreign policy in Asia, almost as if the country hasn’t been doing this before.

And then there’s been the somewhat slovenly retreat into cosy sentimentality, the reheating of stale slogans and the recycling of weary rhetoric about America knowing that Australia is its ‘best friend’ and ‘strongest ally’. Here is the wanton attempt to make the dramatic new circumstances fit the established pattern.

Just last weekend, we had one of the resident Archbishops of the Alliance writing in the national broadsheet that in fact Australia should give a Trump-led America much, much more: send a special forces unit to Syria, conduct a freedom of navigation patrol through the contested waters of the South China Sea, provide home porting facilities for the US Navy at HMAS Stirling on the West Australian coast, and offer up the nation as a regional maintenance hub for the Joint Strike Fighter. This from the very same commentator who only a matter of months ago, channelling 1969 and Nixon’s Guam doctrine, said Trump’s Asia policy would amount to the disengagement of the US from the whole area west of Hawaii.

It’s been that kind of debate. For every clarion call to ‘independence’, for every cry of shock and horror at the latest Trumpian atrocity, there’s been an Alliance sentimentalist penning an epistle to the Americans.

But some good has come of it: in truth, this was probably the kind of jolt the Alliance needed. Over the past two decades, as I argue in this book, the intense bipartisanship in the relationship has created an orthodoxy about how Australia behaves on the international stage, and about how it operates within the Alliance. In short, we’ve perhaps become too reliable, and while that might bring some kind of influence and access in Washington, it also means that America doesn’t study us closely enough, and can occasionally take us for granted. It’s a mixed blessing.

If nothing else, Trump’s election should highlight the limits of sentimentality in sustaining the US-Australia alliance.

This paper argues that the alliance will become harder to manage under a Trump presidency. It would have been harder to manage under Clinton as well, simply because the domestic grievances unleashed by the campaign, and which represent two decades of resentment towards the unevenly distributed rewards of globalisation, means Washington will be focused primarily on the homefront. It will look to its allies to do much more. Expectations of allies will rise accordingly, as will the scrutiny of what America extracts from its alliances. Trump’s transactional approach to these relationships simply demands it.

But for all these chill winds blowing through the international system it would be a grave mistake to ignore what has gone before. History is here to irritate the present and rattle the culture of immediacy.

And my argument here too is that we have forgotten about past disagreements with the Americans.

Even before this most recent election, Australians faced one of the most complex strategic environments since the end of the 1960s. China’s rise means different things for this country and for America. But Trump’s innate volatility and unpredictability, most recently manifest in the telephone conversation with the President of Taiwan, only adds to the prevailing climate of uncertainty.

Never has it been more relevant, then, to recall those moments when we’ve had a sharp difference of interest with Washington. This is not history for history’s sake. But it is a call for a greater historical sensibility. It is a call for a more authentic dialogue between the worlds of policy and the professional study of the past.

Part of the problem with nearly two decades of bipartisanship is that the current circumstances can often be cast as the orthodoxy, the norm. The Alliance has been fused with the Anzac legend, the slouch hat folded into the nation’s strategic doctrine. The narrative holds that we first fought together at Le Hamel on the Western front in 1917, and have been fighting alongside each other ever since – against German militarism, Japanese imperialism, expansionist communism, and now terrorism.

Along the way, however, there has developed a kind of collective amnesia over differences of perspective with America and divergences of interest, especially in Asia, where Australian interests are more sharply focussed.

So who remembers now Menzies telling Vice President Nixon in 1953 of his concerns that America had ‘assumed responsibility with unprecedented power’?

Who remembers that Menzies, author of the very phrase ‘great and powerful’ friends, pursued a profitable trade with Communist China in non-strategic goods – in the face of stiff American opposition?

Who remembers John F Kennedy telling the Australian foreign minister in 1963 that the American people had ‘forgotten ANZUS’, and that America would provide no boots on the ground in the event of military conflict with Indonesia?

Who remembers US Ambassador to Australia Marshall Green welcoming a healthier spirit of Australian independence in the 1970s, conceding that ‘we don’t always need to be in lock step, marching against the forces of darkness’?

Or who remembers that Bob Hawke on entering office in 1983 commissioned a review of the alliance (a move which seems near unthinkable today) which judged that Australia had ‘reservations about giving blanket expressions of support for US strategic perceptions and activities’ and that it would be ‘reluctant to have the ANZUS treaty invoked as justification for such blanket support’?

Who recalls that Foreign Minister Bill Hayden lacerated the ‘craven and servile’ attitude of those who treated ‘ANZUS as though it were a kind of holy grail’? And that Hayden, writing in 1996, believed that with the end of the Cold War, ANZUS had 'quietly laid down and to all practical intents and purposes, expired'? Much like the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation, he went on to say, the alliance has 'slipped into ineffectiveness'.

Finally, who brings up John Howard’s lament over the lack of American troops for East Timor in 1999 as a ‘poor repayment of past loyalty and support’?

Let me be very clear: I am not suggesting here that the answer to the current circumstances is a lazy thumbing through the back catalogue of the alliance’s history over its past 65 years. Nor is the answer to be divined simply by going back to the Hawke-Keating years. There’s no magic formula for dealing with Donald J Trump. We haven’t seen a president like this, leading an America like this.

I’ve said elsewhere that Australia has to take Trump one step at a time (maybe one tweet at a time), and deal with him piecemeal and pragmatically. This is the best policymakers can hope for. History has unexpected surprises up its sleeve.

But as history also shows, Australian foreign policy has a tradition that can be adapted for this moment: a tradition of seeking greater independence within or at times without the alliance. And ultimately, this is what wins Washington’s respect. America needs a more discerning ally, and sometimes, an ally that can say 'no'.

The alliance is stronger and healthier for its disagreements. It might seem an obvious point, but it bears repeating. There is not one consistent story of the alliance since 1951: its history is conditional and contingent.

That said, we are rightly wary of Trump’s potential to overturn the post-war liberal international order under which Australia and other US allies have thrived. The past few weeks suggest that the fervent hopes that Congress, his advisers and the national security community in Washington might act as a kind of brake on Trrump's impulses may well prove to be forlorn.

Trump is clearly into provocation. This much we know. On present form, he’s one for the diplomatic needle, the throwing overboard of protocol, the giving of two fingers to convention. But he’s not yet president, so we don’t know what his form really looks like. Even more reason, then, to adopt prudence and caution as our watchwords, rather than rushing off to Washington laden with a basketful of strategic gifts for the new President.

Either way, Trump’s presence in the Oval Office is going to make our management of the alliance that much trickier, potentially more fraught. How comfortable will Australian leaders be in spruiking the common values we share as the araldite of the alliance?

Similarly, the US will undoubtedly keep a watchful eye on Australian policy towards China, studying the merits of each individual case on the one hand, and on the other assessing whether the aggregate of differences crosses a line where they judge Australia to be at risk of drifting into China’s orbit.

So the formula of maintaining the friendship with Beijing and the alliance with Washington may come to appear as a kind of luxury. Hard thinking is needed, free of the emotional trammels that so often accompany the alliance debate.

I can only stress again the timeless words of Australian historian Neville Meaney: ‘Though history repeats’, he once wrote, ‘it never does so exactly. But because of the way that history is built into the human psyche it will always be much more than a mere object of curiosity. It will be a focus of passion, a field for argument and a basis for judgement. All that the historian can do, in bringing the past to life, or in probing the alternatives out of which the present has emerged, is to mediate the passion, clarify the argument and enlighten the judgment’.