Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Fighting with America: Why Washington needs a more discerning ally

Hard thinking is needed, free of the emotional trammels that so often accompany the alliance debate.

Photo: Getty Images/Washington Post
Photo: Getty Images/Washington Post
Published 9 Dec 2016   Follow @j_b_curran

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’.

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