America’s “unique” relationship with Australia? Few countries are as gullible

Sep 11, 2023
American and Australian Handshake

Last week the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet released a brief press release about Mr. Albanese’s forthcoming trip to Washington from the 23rd to the 26th of October which will be his first such visit since becoming Prime Minister. The enthusiasm of the members of Albanese’s staff seems to have run away with them. They declared that ‘the Australian-United States relationship is unique in scale, scope and significance reflecting more than 100 years of partnership between our nations’. They are very large claims but are they true?

The belief that we have a unique relationship with America is strange indeed. It may be unique from our point of view but for Washington its one among a full portfolio of diplomatic relationships. Just to begin with there are the 31 members of NATO a far more important system of alliances than ANZUS with security guarantees which were deliberately not provided for Australia and New Zealand. But Washington has strong relationships with many other countries particularly in Latin America. What is more there are many States where people believe they have a special relationship with the United States. The ability to convey that impression is one of key aspects of Imperial statecraft although few countries are as easy to please or as gullible as Australia. But anyone who has spent time in America will quickly become aware of what a low profile we have in the media or in the mind of ordinary people. ANZUS must be one of the least known of America’s formal treaties or less formal partnerships.

What about the more than 100 years of partnership? Where does that idea come from? Is it true? It can be traced to a public relations campaign launched in America by then Ambassador Joe Hockey in 2018 commemorating the Battle of Hamel on the Western Front in July 1918. It was a rare and brief moment when Australian and American troops fought together. It was not repeated and left no significant legacy. During the interwar years relations between the two countries were marked by enmity rather than friendship. There were many causes of antagonism. America’s decision to not join the League of Nations was poorly received. So too was the 1924 decision to restrict immigration and to impose tight conditions on entry which were applied to Australian visitors and businessmen. There were diplomatic battles about American passenger ships competing for the trans-Tasman trade between Australia and New Zealand. Australia had no diplomatic representation in Washington until 1940 and depended on the British Embassy. But Britain had agendas of its own above all seeking to keep the Americans out of the Australian market. Trade was the single most important cause of tension with battles over tariffs and the overall balance of imports and exports. Australia stepped in with a dramatic intervention in trading relations with the 1936 Trade Diversion Policy which used tariff walls to switch trade from America and Japan in order to favour Great Britain. So, far from being partners with the United States, Australians in the years before the Second World War harboured considerable anti-American hostility. Writing about the trade diversion policy the American scholar Raymond Esthus noted how widespread resentment against the United States was although ‘ironically, the American public was so disinterested in Australian affairs that it was not even aware that Australians disliked them.’ Australian enmity, so far as the American public was concerned ‘remained unknown and unrequited.’

But the idea of a century long partnership endures despite such inconvenient facts. When Malcolm Turnbull went to Washington in 2018 he too referred to the 90 minute Battle of Hamel claiming it was ‘the start of an unbreakable alliance that would see Australia fighting alongside the U.S in every significant conflict in the hundred years that followed.’ The hyperbole was unrestrained. Australians and Americans were mates he said. And for the sake of his American audience he explained that mateship ‘meant a lot to Australians.’ It was reserved for those who shared ‘an unspoken bond of friendship, trust, commitment and shared values.’ That, he cried, was the relationship ‘Australians share with Americans.’

It is not clear how the idea of an unbreakable alliance stretching back a hundred years helps Australia’s diplomacy. Clearly it conveys the impression of deference and unquestioning complicity regardless of an ever changing strategic environment. More than anything else it helps explain why there has been, for at least the last twenty years, a ubiquitous, bi-partisan failure to turn even a mildly critical eye on the American alliance. Albanese and Marles brought nothing new with them when they settled into high office. When asked about this at a press conference the Prime Minister said that we had made our decision in 1951with the signing of the ANZUS Treaty and that was all there was to say.

It was a response of startling, almost childlike simplicity. Troubling enough on its own, doubly so because it is probably a view, which with more sophisticated phrasing, is widespread in the major political parties, the defence and security establishment and fellow travellers in the think tanks and the ANU’s Praetorian Guard. So while the history of our relations with the U.S between the World Wars has been rewritten to fit the chosen narrative so too has the history of the alliance since 1951. But was ANZUS a good idea? Given that it was initially designed in fear of a resurgent Japan it was redundant from the get go.

But there is a widespread consensus that the Alliance has been good for Australia providing a security overlay which allowed Australia to prosper. It is one of those lazy conflations which confuse correlation with causation. What, after all ,were the Americans protecting us from? Who would have threatened us if we stood alone in the world? The answer is clear. It was our geography which kept us safe—girt by sea, without hostile neighbours or irredentist minorities and far, far too large to invade. If we felt the need of another country with which we shared values we could have modelled our foreign policy and defence stance on Ireland rather than the United States. Would we have been worse off?

Clearly we would have not gone to what, for us, were a sequence of unnecessary wars. And it is here that we meet the intellectual deviousness of the pro-ANZUS brigade. Without a rigorous retrospective assessment of all our American led wars we cannot possibly advance a cogent case for the alliance. Where are the cost benefit analyses? What did we get from the effusion of blood and treasure? And then there is the moral accounting that is always left undone. How do we appease our conscience about the violence and destruction we took into societies that could never have threatened our homeland? How many hundreds if not thousands of families did we leave devastated? To say we did it all because we signed a treaty in 1951 or because the Americans were mates does not even begin our journey of atonement.

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