Quo vadis – Australian foreign policy and ANZUS.
Summary. We have a unique moment to do something Australia has never done – make a rational distinction between our national interests and our enduring regard for the US.
When Penny Wong came out of the shadow Foreign Affairs closet and declared that as a result of the Trump election Australia is at a ‘change point’, the pent-up sigh of relief from many Australians was almost audible. Together with Paul Keating’s call for us to ‘cut the tag’ and Bill Shorten’s cautious endorsement, it seemed that we might at last be about (in Wong’s words) to ‘define an independent foreign policy’, even while that would be ‘within an alliance framework’.
The need for it is as old as Federation itself. Australia is so habituated to getting our foreign and defence policies first from London and then Washington that we have not developed the skills of identifying and promoting our own interests as other middle powers do. Our Asian neighbours know how to achieve their aims without fighting, and none of them gets dragged into – or volunteers for – their allies’ expeditionary wars as Australia has repeatedly done. If we don’t put and end to this habit, we will dig ourselves deeper into the Middle East hole we are in, and could find ourselves in new ones such as Iran or the South China Sea. And for what? To ensure that when we need it, the United States will defend us.
Any Australian who has paid attention knows that the United States is no more obliged to defend us than we are to fight for them. The ANZUS treaty of 1952 has been made by recent Australian governments into a guarantee and commitment which it is not. Successive American leaders have repeated that the United States only goes to war in its own interests: ‘your freedom is yours to defend’, as the Bush administration’s Richard Armitage made clear. So in spite of amazing events in Washington, nothing has really changed for Australia with the prospective incumbency of Donald and the Trumpettes.
Those who voted for him will have to cope with the domestic consequences, and the world will have to tackle him on climate change. But President Trump may achieve detente with Russia, which is no bad thing, and if the Trans Pacific Partnership wasn’t good enough for the Americans, it could well have been worse for Australia. If he demands that Japan and South Korea pay more for the dubious benefits of US bases on their territory than they already do, might they change their minds about needing them? If he discovers the US has bases in Australia too, might he tear up the recently-haggled agreement about who pays for what in Darwin and want us to pay for everything? In which case, might the Coalition reject Julia Gillard’s creation as overpriced? Might an Australian government, at last, instead of continuing to offer a military platform to a hegemony in decline, look to our future interests by building better relations in our region?
We have a unique moment to do something Australia has never done: make a rational distinction between our national interests and our enduring regard for the United States. Of course, this seems unthinkable to people whose working lives have been devoted to ‘keeping the US involved’ in our region – that is, defending Australia. The Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove wasted no time in reciting the mantra about the benefits Australia gets from the alliance – access in Washington, military equipment, intelligence. Penny Wong herself seemed to have second thoughts when she told the Australian Institute of International Affairs on 21 November that the ALP wasn’t interested in giving Parliament a say in decisions for war (as Westminster now has), Maybe pressure is already being applied to keep us in line. But if we let Wong’s ‘change point’ slip, we won’t see another like it for a long time.
Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform and Vice President of Honest History.