Of all American allies Australia is the most subservient. A problem is that we have harped on the loyal little ally theme to the Americans so much that they take us for granted but we have not always toed the line. Admittedly, Gough Whitlams’ relative independence caused ructions in Washington but there were special circumstances. In that case, the CIA apparently considered action but nothing was done.
It is worth noting that the American media seldom mentions us as one of their more important allies. We rank well after the UK, Japan, Korea and Israel for example. The UK did not follow the US into Vietnam and got away with it. While we criticised American mining of Nicaraguan harbours and accredited an ambassador to Cuba against American wishes, we have on the whole ignored American aggression against its neighbours. In our own region, we have shown some independence in our policy towards China, the trade arrangements being an obvious case.
Most importantly, ANZUS does not require us to follow the US automatically into anything but we tend to do so because of the insurance policy argument which requires us to believe that someone is going to attack us but not the USA and that the Americans will defend us in such a case. So we have no legal obligations towards the US, only policy decisions we are free to take.
In short, we have shown sparks of independent action but it is our proud boast that we have followed the Americans into all their major wars, most of them disasters. We did not, however, send troops to invade Grenada but possibly only because we were not asked to. We did withdraw Australian troops serving in UK units during the Falklands War but could we do the same if the US got into a war we did not want to become involved it? It would much harder logistically and the US is a more important ally than the UK.
The major problem we now face is the uncertainty of what Trump will demand. Will he put the pressure on us to do things we would be well advised not to do? Will we crumble as we usually do and go all the way with Donald J.? We simply do not know what he will do so we must wait. If he pulls out of the Middle East we will follow which would be good thing. If he makes peace with Putin we will have to change tack which would be a good thing. If he gets seriously offside with China that will not be a good thing for Australia and we may be faced with some difficult choices. If he continues to bully and bluster we may find it even harder than usual to stand up for ourselves. The basic approach taken by both parties is that we need the US presence, including its nuclear umbrella, to protect us from an unnamed aggressor and therefore we will do whatever it takes to gain that protection. Not a good sign.
So the answer is that we can be more independent within the Alliance but the attitude of our politicians, media and public suggest that we will remain too timid to rock the boat unless perhaps President Trump does something really outrageous which adversely affects major Australian interests.
Cavan Hogue was a former Australian diplomat, including ambassadorships in USSR and Russia.