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Fighting with America: Making the hard choices

The myth at the heart of the sentimentalist view of the alliance is it draws its strength and durability from the fundamental values and historical connections that we share rather than from a mere alignment of interests.

Fighting with America: Making the hard choices
Published 12 Dec 2016 

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







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