Deeply ingrained into Australia’s collective psyche is the naïve conviction that the United States is the country’s most important, entirely reliable, and utterly benevolent ally. This obsequious sentimentalism was embarrassingly expressed in the words of former Prime Minister John Howard: “The relationship we have with the United States is the most important we have with any single country. This is not only because of the strategic, economic, and diplomatic power of the United States. But of equal, if not more significance, are the values and aspirations we share.”
In his Pearls and Irritations post on 17 June, Niall McLaren laid bare the true facts about the ANZUS alliance. ANZUS reflects everything that is bad about an alliance between a big power bully (the USA) and a small dependent state (Australia). To clarify that fact, some basic International Relations theory can help.
Alliance-making between a smaller state and a big power is generally negotiated in the belief that the alliance will guarantee the smaller state’s security and amplify its influence in regional and global forums. In fact, such alliances invariably end up turning the smaller states into dependent allies. Meanwhile, blindly confident in the belief that they accrue gravitas in world affairs because of the alliance with a big power, dependent states rarely acknowledge the fact that there are also high costs associated with just such an alliance.
First, as one of the high priests of American realism reminds us: ‘alliances are only temporary marriages of convenience: today’s alliance partners might be tomorrow’s enemy, and today’s enemy might be tomorrow’s alliance partner’ (John Mearsheimer, 2001, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 33). A defining feature of big powers is their focus – above all else – on their own economic and security concerns. If (or when) the big power decides that its interests are best served by limiting the alliance’s sphere of activity – or by backing away from it altogether – there is little the junior partner can do about it. Meanwhile, the junior partner may be pressured by the big power into allowing the establishment of military bases on the junior partner’s territory, with the junior partner having limited (or no) control over the use of those facilities. This makes those bases a potential target for attack by an enemy of the big power. Moreover, the junior partner will generally be expected to support the big power’s foreign and defence strategies, including going to war with it, without there necessarily being a quid pro quo.
In short, the asymmetry of the alliance means that the junior partner’s claim to middle power status is built on a foundation of sand. Inevitably it becomes a mendicant nation constantly obliged to beg its “great and powerful friend” to shore up its security and any other benefits associated with the alliance arrangements. What is overlooked by these states is that those benefits are often less real than imagined. All middle power dreaming by a mendicant nation is simply dreaming. Given its substantial security dependency on the United States, via the ANZUS treaty, Australia is a standout example of a mendicant nation, forever begging the USA to always remain as its big brother while failing to understand what such a relationship really means.
As Niall McLaren’s piece made clear, Australians are dreamers when it comes to the ANZUS alliance. They are sleepily oblivious to the huge economic and human costs the alliance imposes on the country. Consider the fact that Australia has been to every war that the United States has waged since the 1940s. This is a clear-cut case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. Wiser allies of America are far more cautious about leaping to America’s side whenever it goes to war. Where was Canada, for example, or Britain for that matter, during the Vietnam War? Unlike foolish Australia, Canada and Britain stayed well out of that conflict that ended in a bitter defeat. Where were Germany and France when President Bush went to war against Iraq. They too stayed out of that particularly ill-advised, crazy conflict – but good old Australia went in, boots and all.
The cost in human lives – troops killed, physically wounded, mentally devastated – by so enthusiastically and cravenly joining the USA’s wars has been horrendous for Australia. Simultaneously, the cost to the Australian economy extends into billions of dollars. Moreover, as former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, argued in his book, Dangerous Allies (2014: 257-8), the alliance has actually become a threat to Australia. He explained:
We have significantly diminished our capacity to act as a separate sovereign nation by the way we have committed ourselves to American purposes […] the most likely reason Australia would need to confront an aggressive foe is our strong alliance with the United States. We need America for defence from an attacker who is likely to attack us because we use America for defence. It’s not a sustainable policy.
Getting Australians to wake up from their dangerous dreaming is not going to be easy. It will not be easy to convince them that regarding America as a eternally benevolent “great and powerful friend” is to live in a fool’s paradise. However, it is now urgent for Australians to wake up to the fact that their status as a mendicant nation is especially problematic for their country’s security. Making this case to the people of Australia will require a lot of educating by wise and talented leaders who (unlike John Howard, for example) understand that it’s time for Australia to stand on its own feet.
The is a certain irony in the fact that, if he’s elected to a second term as President, Donald Trump will very likely provide the clearest rationale yet for Australia to tear up the ANZUS treaty – at long last.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based political scientist.