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A world without ANZUS?

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COMMENTS

25 August 2011 09:21

In his recent paper on the ANZUS alliance, Andrew Shearer notes that Percy Spender's great achievement was no sure thing:

He (Spender) prevailed despite initial indifference on the part of his own prime minister and the US administration, interference by the British government and obstructionism by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff — badgering and manoeuvring until he got his own way.

So here's an interesting counter-factual: What if Spender had fallen short and Australia had accepted US offers of a 'non-binding presidential declaration that America would come to Australia's assistance', or a similar consultative agreement?

US policy in the Asia Pacific would probably have been near identical. Washington had interests in our region unrelated to Australian security. Australia at best helped shape these interests to better suit ourselves, but US desire for hegemony preceded its close relationship with Australia.

So, Australia's material security would likely have been near-identical. We just wouldn't have felt as secure. As such, we would likely have spent much more on our military, and probably been much more determined to obtain a nuclear weapon.

Assuming the only change was the documentation, it seems highly unlikely Australia would have moved to join the non-aligned movement, given our culture and fear of the Soviets. A New Zealand-like slip towards neutrality could have occurred post-1970s, but again, culture and geography suggest otherwise. 

As such, Australian governments may have been more willing (rather than less) to assist the US in places such as Vietnam, in order to maintain support. Whatever the politicians said, Australia has never gone 'all the way' with the US, often offering far more political support than hard resources over the years.

Shearer argues some of Australia's boldest foreign policy efforts, such as the 1957 Commerce Agreement with Japan, depended on the confidence we gained from the alliance. So assume a slower, more cautious Asian engagement by Australia. Even today, Australia is more often given credence in Southeast Asian conversations because of our close links to the US, rather than being kept out because of them.

Under such a scenario, East Timor might have been one of the casualties, with the US far less willing to insist on Indonesian restraint when Australia went in. I'm not sure Australia would have attempted such a mission without our close relationship and likely support from the US.

So perhaps not much would have changed in a world without the ANZUS alliance, since the alliance didn't change any of the great geopolitical factors that most impacted on Australia and our region. And yet, where change might have occurred, it would be in ways critics of the alliance wouldn't like: more defence spending, maybe nukes, more fervent support for the US, and a less bold and creative foreign policy.

There are several important criticisms that can be made about Australia's actions within the ANZUS alliance. But this exercise suggests that Australia is a more peaceful, independent and progressive place thanks to the ANZUS alliance than it would have been without it.

Photo of Percy Spender, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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