We can say ‘no’ to the Americans

Dec 14, 2016

Other countries with which the US has very close relationships have not always supported or joined in with the United States in ventures which the US government of the day thought of as of the highest importance.


The question whether we can say ‘no’ to the Americans without imperilling the (ANZUS) alliance is not really for us to answer. If we declined to support an initiative or action which the US Administration at the time thought of as of vital importance, that could seriously affect the way that Administration thought of the Australian Government of the day, and perhaps of the alliance as well.

However it is worth noting that other countries with which the US has very close relationships have not always supported or joined in with the United States in ventures which the US government of the day thought of as of the highest importance; the absence of both the UK and Canada from the “Troop Contributing Countries” in the Vietnam War is a prime example. It’s also true that even having an alliance with the US, and being a reliable supporter of and participant in its causes does not ensure that it will support us in all eventualities, as the case of Indonesia shows, in regard to both West Irian and “Confrontation” of Malaysia. After all, the only commitment contained in the ANZUS Treaty is to consult.

So, it is certainly conceivable, and precedented, for a close friend and ally of the US to decline to join it in a particular course of action while remaining as a friend and ally. As Kim Beazley has pointed out, the ANZUS Treaty is a transactional arrangement, not a sentimental one, from which each side gains. The Joint Facilities are just one example.

So why are we even talking about saying ‘no’ to the US? I think there are three reasons: first, there are quite widespread concerns in the community about the degree of enmeshment of our armed forces with those of the US; that enmeshment undoubtedly brings advantages and access, but it would also make it more difficult for an Australian Government to opt out of military involvement in a US-led military operation when a situation had become critical and participation was an issue. Secondly, the situation in the Asia-Pacific, which is of the highest importance to us, is an area where it is possible to imagine differences of evaluation and opinion, particularly in regard to US-China relations, which are characterised in widely differing terms by different American officials. And thirdly, of course, there is Trump, whose actions and responses no-one can foresee. As Paul Kelly said in his article in ‘The Australian’ of 30 November, ‘How will he (Trump) react if Australia declines to follow counter-productive US regional policies?’ As of now no-one knows; we don’t even know who he’ll look to for advice on the region, or on foreign policy generally. We don’t know what Congress will do, though there are certainly grounds for concern if its recent action on Iran sanctions is any guide.

And, to be brutally frank, the existence of ‘counter-productive US regional policies’ is not impossible. The recent record of the use of military force in distant locales by the US has not been convincing. If we look at Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq there appears to be a pattern in which initially the US under-estimates the intensity of local nationalist feeling, wrongly believes that a carefully calibrated dose of US military power will resolve the situation, instead becomes involved in grinding and stalemated combat, and is eventually forced to withdraw because American public opinion will no longer support involvement in the conflict in question. The Trump Administration may not get involved in such situations, and of course we hope it won’t, but it’s possible. To the extent that such situations could involve China, concern would be all the greater, since China is so important, to Australia, to the region and indeed to the world.

As James Curran, writing in ‘The Weekend Australian’ of 3-4 December, said about China now: ‘This is not the same China that fed Australia’s strategic anxiety in the 60s. It is the China that has underwritten Australia’s economic prosperity for much of this century, the China whose appetite for Australian commodities enabled the Australian government to steer a much smoother path through the global financial crisis.’ It’s also a China with which we have a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

The concerns that have preoccupied Australians thinking about our region have for many years now centred on the relationship, and competition, between the US and China, two big countries of the greatest importance to us, and to each other. Remember the old joke about the rich? ‘The rich are different from us. Yes, they have more money.’ On the same lines, ‘Big countries are different from us. Yes, they’re larger.’ The US is much bigger than us, and other countries will always have to deal and come to terms with it, no matter what mistaken policies it follows. Australia doesn’t have that advantage of size.

In the ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ of 5 December ASPI’s Peter Jennings is reported as saying that ‘more would be expected (by the US) of allies, including Australia, in this new (Trump) era’. But our obligation is not to meet US expectations, or to avoid ‘imperilling the alliance’, but to consider issues, situations and possible courses of action ourselves, and reach conclusions and take decisions based on our lasting national interests, in which maintaining the alliance of course has its place.

Geoff Miller was formerly Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea and Australian Ambassador to Japan. He was also Director General of the Office of National Assessments.

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