Quo vadis – Australian foreign policy and ANZUS.
Summary. We need diplomacy of the highest order, not military interventions which, as we have seen, generally make conflict situations worse.
It is fair to ask what purpose will the ANZUS alliance serve for the next generation of Australians as a consequence of recent tectonic shifts in US public opinion and increasingly adverse pressures on the existing global order, and whether these must substantively alter our present understanding of its purpose. The answer will present both unprecedented challenges and opportunities for an Australia coming into its own as an independent and resilient actor in the Asia/Pacific region.
Domestic polemics in the past several days over ANZUS would suggest that because of deep seated electorate sensitivities we are still a long way from getting a thorough going review of the alliance by the major parties.
But when strategic circumstances change they cannot be denied without adverse consequences. How then might we respond?
In recent years there has not been much to quarrel about over ANZUS. Australia has seemed content with unspecified assurances of US protection in the event of an attack or threat of attack on our territory or forces. But the treaty itself only assures “consultation” on steps that might be taken to meet such threats or attack, not a commitment to take them. Hence since 1951 we have responded positively to all US requests for diplomatic and military support in a succession of military campaigns – in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq (twice or thrice if the 2014 re-entry is counted separately) – to lock the US into our security.
As much because of “mission creep” each of the above actions were effectively defeats or failures in terms of their stated objectives, and Australian casualties were relatively few. There have been no seriously adverse reactions by the general public to these military operations. We adhere routinely to the alliance as insurance while benefiting, it is said, from privileged access to US intelligence sources – in particular the “Five Eyes” sharing arrangement with the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand; and from participation in US operational activities on land, in the air and at sea. Indeed the Australian navy is the largest foreign collaborator with the US navy in this area, and our military personnel are routinely embedded in US naval manoeuvres which could of course implicate them and us if those actions were to provoke hostilities against other forces that were not in our interests.
Thus, taken in conjunction with US operations at Pine Gap (see below), it is not difficult to envisage how through US action alone Australia could become involved in a regional or wider conflict without the opportunity to decide, through deliberative processes, whether we should be in it or not.
There is a need for more clarity about these practices, and this offers a basis on which we could make a deal with a deal-maker like President-elect Trump. ANZUS as it stands is not a deal for us. It has not been called upon in all this time. The closest we came to that was in the 1960s during the period of Indonesia’s “Konfrontasi” of Malaya/Malaysia which the US made clear was an Australian/British responsibility, not that of the US. America did provide logistical support for Australian peacekeeping operations in East Timor’s struggle for independence – and in the light of that Australia’s force structure has since filled out to better support independent operations in closer regional areas. Avoiding being caught up in far flung adventures with the US would allow our force structure to develop further in line with regional needs and thereby enhance our capacity for effective peacekeeping operations in the South Pacific. A fair and useful division of labour with the US on these lines would meet Trump’s criteria.
What is known in that respect is that US allies will be expected to do more for their own defence and more for the US if they expect America to come to their aid in a military emergency. It can, as explained above, be said that Australia has over the years met these requirements, and would do so now. But what substantive guarantees would we receive in return? After the Pacific War of the 1940s there was a view that America had saved Australia. We did come close to being invaded by Japan in 1942 but by 1945 when some here saw fit to thank General Douglas MacArthur for saving Australia he retorted that he hadn’t come here to save Australia, he had come to save America. That was the reality then, and it continues to be the reality now.
So the bargain is that we allow the US to continue with its joint operations at Pine Gap – a core Order of Battle facility for controlling operations in the South China Sea and beyond, and essential too for the prevention of nuclear war in the Pacific. In return we would not be expected to heed calls whenever and wherever the US decides to intervene in far off conflicts that do not engage our direct national interests. Should we need serious US support ourselves in some wider area conflict we will get it because, as was the case in the Pacific War, it would be in the US’s interests to do so.
We do not know yet what policies a Trump Administration might seek to pursue internationally. It may retreat into a form of isolationism or withdrawal like in the 1930s. More likely, as suggested by one commentator recently, it may succumb to a form of solipsism (the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is what exists) where his policies would reflect a state of mental existentialism with no regard for existing orders, creating chaos and chaotic responses everywhere.
More likely it will seek aggressively to ‘reset’ certain military commitments and ‘rebalance’ trade arrangements (as with NAFTA) in line with notions of ‘fairer’ trade, against a global background of dissolving regional communities and resurgent nationalism. He may lessen US involvement substantively from parts of the world where its interests are considered to be secondary and therefor tradeable.
For our part, having settled a deal with Trump, we could conduct relations with individual Asia/Pacific nations more independently, and on their merits, a task that would be made less difficult by not being associated with any divisive policies promulgated by a Trump Administration. The politics of this region are becoming ever more complex with states pushing back from the US and edging towards China, and where Muslim sensitivities are becoming particularly strong (e.g. Indonesia). Regional enterprises supported or initiated by Australia over decades such as ASEAN and APEC are splitting at the seams, and democratic principles in some of our neighbours are acquiring strange mutations, not to mention widening corruption.
This calls for diplomacy of the highest order on our part, not military interventions which as we have seen generally make conflict situations worse.
In these circumstances, free of any notion of automaticity towards the alliance, Parliament would be free to assert its democratic function in deciding matters of war and peace on behalf of the Australian public with public support. The decision making process in relation to war and conflict would be more thorough, providing essential checks and balances, to ensure compliance with domestic and international law, and would not be susceptible to high-handed unilateralism on the part of any bull-headed Executive in questionable situations.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser, and former senior academic in public and international law