PAUL BARRATT. Managing ANZUS in the age of Trump. Quo vadis series.


Quo vadis – Australian foreign policy and ANZUS.

Summary.  Australia should do a ‘really deep stocktake of what is in our vital national interests and what we are prepared to sign up to’ .

The unexpected election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has led a number of commentators to call for a review of the ANZUS Treaty. This has provoked predictable responses to the effect that even entertaining a sceptical thought about ANZUS is tantamount to blasphemy.

I would argue from first principles that both responses are incorrect.

First, some definitions. I define “tactics” as the means by which we seek to deal most effectively with the world as we find it – whether that be structural (China is bigger than we are) or we are dealing with Harold Macmillan’s famous “events”.

“Strategy” is acting to shift the operating environment in our favour – which thereby enhances the effectiveness of our tactics. The Battle of the Atlantic during World War II was deeply strategic. Hitler’s aim was not to kill British merchant seamen – that was incidental. His aim was no less than to destroy Britain’s capacity to wage war.

The ANZUS Treaty has been the centrepiece of Australian strategic thinking (strategy) since it was signed in 1951. It shifts the environment in our favour by establishing a right to formal consultations with the United States whenever we consider our territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened, and providing in Article IV that in the event of an armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties, each of them would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes. As a consequence of being a US ally, Australia has access to intelligence and technology that would not otherwise be available.

ANZUS is not a guarantee that the US would take military action on our behalf –but it is not an arrangement to be thrown aside lightly.

The central question in relation to ANZUS is not whether or not the treaty itself is A Good Thing, but how to manage it (tactics!) so that it best serves the Australian national interest (strategy).

In order to determine that, we need a clear-eyed and unsentimental view of what we are entitled to expect, and can reasonably expect, of the US, and of what the US is entitled to expect of us.

To deal with the second question first, while ANZUS requires us to “act to meet the common danger” in the case of an armed attack on the US in the Pacific area, it does not require us to participate in military adventures like the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Indeed, the parties agree in Article 1 to seek to resolve all international disputes by peaceful means in accordance with the United Nations Charter.

Nor does ANZUS require us to provide facilities to support drone attacks on countries with which we are not at war (Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia), one of the concerns about Pine Gap expressed by Malcolm Fraser in his book Dangerous Allies.

As for our expectations of the US, we are entitled to expect that it will take seriously the Article 1 requirement to pursue through the UN Security Council the peaceful settlement of international disputes; that it will take our territorial integrity, political independence and security seriously; that it will continue to provide us with intelligence and technology and include us in appropriate military exercises; and that it will not seek via the provision of “dodgy” intelligence analyses to market to us spurious cases for military intervention, as occurred in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.

Upon a change of US Administration, an “alert but not alarmed” Australian Government would review the publicly and privately stated defence and foreign policies of the incoming Administration to identify areas that we would regard as risks to our interests, and/or approaches that we would regard as unacceptable, and it would communicate in good time, discreetly but firmly, what we are prepared to do and not prepared to do, so that there are no surprises or disappointed expectations. This should have happened when George W. Bush was elected in 2000 – the neo-con intention of procuring regime change in Iraq and using US military force to reshape the world was openly proclaimed with the establishment of the Project for a New American Century in 1998.

Make no mistake about it, I think that the Trump Administration will be a nightmare, not only because of the nature of the man, but the nature of the people he will appoint to positions of great power, the nature of the people they in turn will appoint, and the matters that a man of short attention span and a disturbing lack of curiosity will be prepared to leave in the hands of others. The correct response to this nightmare is not to rush screaming from the room, but to consider how best to manage our way through it.

Accordingly, I stand by my comment to The Sydney Morning Herald’s Deborah Snow that Australia should do a “really deep stocktake of what is in our vital national interests and what we are prepared to sign up to”. This approach is consistent with my colleague Allan Behm’s call in a recent ASPI piece that the Government adopt a transformational foreign policy, one in which we seek to shape events, rather than merely reacting to them as they occur. Abandoning ANZUS because of the advent of Trump would be reactive policy of the worst kind.

I further believe that the mature and considered approach I am advocating is more likely to be adopted if any decision to deploy the ADF into international armed conflict becomes a matter for Parliament rather than being left in the hands of the Prime Minister of the day, with all the manifest risks of the decision being handled on the basis of party political advantage rather than a sober assessment of where the national interest lies.

Paul Barratt AO is a former Secretary to the Department of Defence and is President of Australians for War Powers Reform.


Paul Barratt AO is the President, Australians for War Powers Reform; former Secretary, Department of Defence.

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1 Response to PAUL BARRATT. Managing ANZUS in the age of Trump. Quo vadis series.

  1. Dr John CARMODY says:

    I have no quarrel with the essentials of this considered piece.
    I do take exception, though, to Dr Barratt’s opening comment that the election of Donald Trump was “unexpected”. Other commentators have been equally in error — perhaps even more so — by describing it as “a surprise”.
    Electoral polling is more difficult in the USA than in Australia (the vastly greater population makes reliable sampling more nettlesome; the availability of “optional voting” makes polled “voting intentions” even more fraught than is the case here; and, finally, the Electoral College system — as with “targeted seats” strategies in Australian elections — adds a third layer of uncertainty for the polling organisations). Even so, the published polling data were so mercurial and so close that it ought to have been obvious that a Trump victory was a very REAL possibility. It might have been reasonable to think that a Clinton victory was a little more likely (and her slim margin in the “popular vote” would endorse that optimistic view), but it would have been folly to disregard those polls to the extent of thinking that a Trump victory would have been “unexpected” or surprising.
    Furthermore, if one looked at qualitative (or non-parametric) indicators and “measures”, an experienced electoral watcher might, reasonably, have concluded that Hillary Clinton was not a very good campaigner, but that Trump — for all his mendacity, rebarbative character traits and general waywardness — was far more effective, notably in the easy and “folksy” nature of his rhetoric. One hectored the electors; the other treated them as “equals”. Such indicators should not be disregarded: that path (as well as being too sanguine about polls) can all too often (as in this case) lead to errors and subsequent tears.

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