Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Fighting with America: It's what good friends do

The most effective thing Australia can do now is to lean in to the confused situation in Washington.

Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Photo by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Published 14 Dec 2016 

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.

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