American authoritarianism and ANZUS

Jul 12, 2022
Australia USA flags
Image: Flickr / Exchange Photos

Australia’s major ally, the United States, may soon cease to be a democracy. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade – a decision opposed by a majority of Americans – is just the latest example of a country hurtling towards minority rule. Today, it is abortion rights on the judicial chopping block. Tomorrow, it is voting rights.

Later this year, the court will decide whether or not state legislatures have an unfettered ability to set voting rules for federal elections. Gerrymandering, arbitrary voter roll purges, and the closing of polling stations in majority non-white areas will only increase. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election may have failed, but in 2024 they could very well succeed. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the 2022 November midterms may be the last free and fair elections in American history.

This places Australia in a very difficult position. Ever since John Curtain made it clear that “Australia looks to America” for security, our foreign policy has revolved around supporting and reinforcing American hegemony. Australia’s primary security interest is in maintaining a preponderance of American power in Asia. If this means going to war with China, then so be it. It is “inconceivable” that Australia would not support the United States in a war against China, according to former defence minister and now would-be Prime Minister Peter Dutton. This is not new. Dutton is simply saying the quiet part out loud. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser warned that Australia has bound itself so closely to the US Navy in Asia that were war to break out, Australia would immediately be implicated. We are truly, in Hugh White’s words, sleepwalking towards war.

For those incapable of digesting the cold hard realities of power politics, Australia’s alliance with the United States is usually justified in terms of “shared values”. The more bombastic one’s rhetoric is, the less likely it is to represent reality. This is how we should read Joe Biden’s claims that the United States is engaged in a global struggle against authoritarianism. There is a struggle against authoritarianism, but it is occurring within America, not between the United States and China. No one should wish for American democracy to fail. But we must not be shackled to it if and when it does. Australians must ask themselves: what values do we share with the United States? Is it their steadfast refusal to provide basic healthcare to their citizens? Or perhaps their inability to prevent mass shootings and curb gun violence? Or is it their slow march towards democratic self-annihilation? America is a changing society, and we should not like the direction in which it is headed. Our foreign policy must no longer be subjugated to the whims of a rogue, reactionary, right-wing superpower. Australia can, and must, end its alliance with the United States.

But what about China? Are they not a real threat? No, they are not, to put it bluntly. In his seminal 1986 Defence Review, eminent strategist Paul Dibb defined a threat as the combination of hostile intent and the capability to do harm. China has neither. Despite the recent strides made by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), projecting serious force against Australia remains incredibly difficult. Any aggressive force must resupply its navy over huge distances, all the while being vulnerable to Australian air, sea, and missile strikes. Compounding this is the fact that warfare has shifted in favour of defence over offence. Today, a small missile can take out an aircraft carrier, a warship, or tank. Ukraine is evidence of this devastating asymmetry. Why on earth would China expose its most prized military assets in a fool-hardy campaign against Australia? Short answer: it wouldn’t.

Okay, but how about intention? Surely through its punitive tariffs, so-called “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, and manoeuvres in both the South China Sea and South Pacific, China has demonstrated its hostile intent towards Australia. Well, no, not really. As Waleed Aly and Jack Corbett refreshingly remind us, China’s power plays in the region have nothing to do with us. We are a target only because we have made ourselves a target. We have declared loudly and proudly that our goal is to see America beat back China’s growing power in Asia. Regardless of what one thinks of this goal, it is almost certainly doomed to fail.

As China’s power grows, it will inevitably seek to challenge American primacy in the region. This may be over Taiwan or the South China Sea. Regardless, the point is the same: to force America to conclude that a war with China is not worth it and to back down and cede its power in the region to Beijing. Such is the argument made by Hugh White in his most recently Quarterly Essay. If this sounds extreme, once again, consider Ukraine. In the words of an American friend of mine: “Ukraine is far more important than Taiwan, and all we [America] are willing to do is throw money at the problem. If we won’t fight for Ukraine, we won’t fight for Taiwan.” Hard to argue with that, really. That will certainly be the calculus in Beijing.

The choices facing  are bleak, but that is the nature of international politics. We can continue shackling ourselves to the slowly capsizing ship that is America. If we do this, two outcomes are likely: we will find ourselves embroiled in the most devastating war since World War Two, or, we will be left high and dry as America decides that Asia is no longer worth the trouble. For America, Asia is a choice. For Australia, it is not. This will mean accommodating ourselves to a greater level of Chinese power. How we do this is up to us. Alternatively, we can unravel and ultimately rescind the ANZUS treaty – the document which birthed the American alliance. This idea has a home on both sides of Australian politics. Former Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser have both expressed their dismay at Australia’s subservient relationship to the United States. Perhaps surprisingly, Fraser went further than Keating: labelling America a “dangerous ally” and urging Australia to rethink the alliance.

America’s descent into minority rule means Australia must make a choice. Will we abandon our democratic rhetoric and simply side with the lesser of two authoritarian states? For the most part, this is the path we have already chosen. But Australians are a deeply pragmatic people. There is, and always has been, an alternative. Our cousins across the Tasman Sea have already shown us the way. Like New Zealand, Australia should suspend the ANZUS treaty. It’s time to end our alliance with the Disunited States of America.

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