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Daily Media Quotation

America: The Cost Of Alliance

January 9, 2006

by John Langmore - The Age

When Australia was the only country to join the United States and Britain in the invasion of Iraq, many United Nations diplomats and staff were surprised and asked why. The answer begins, of course, with the trauma of near-invasion by the Japanese in 1941-42 and gratitude to America for protecting Australia.

Australians sometimes forget, though, that this action was a by-product of America's need for a base from which to organise its response to the Japanese. President F. D. Roosevelt told Richard Casey in 1941 that, while the US would go to the defence of Canada if it were attacked, Australia and New Zealand were so far away that they should not count on American help.

The treaties signed at the start of the Cold War are strong bonds. The ANZUS Treaty of 1951 was a formal expression of Australia's dependence on the US for protection and has been a central element of Australian defence and foreign policy ever since. All Australian governments for 60 years have, as Don Watson comments wryly, "thought it wise to be friends with them".

The view that shared values provide a strong basis for the alliance is misleading. There are similarities of language, ethnicity and political institutions but even those are declining.

Perhaps the Howard Government's claim of "shared values" is simply a less explicit way of noting the extent to which it has copied the market-fundamentalist economic ideology and complied with the neo-conservative foreign policies of the Bush Administration.

Crucial divergences are underlying the national purposes of the foreign policies of the two countries. Americans maintain their sense of being God's own country with a manifest destiny to lead the world to freedom and democracy. Australia has no global ambitions, and those related to the region are for stability and economic advancement rather than dominance.

Shared values are not the determining force for an alliance. The strength of a strategic partnership must be determined principally by strategic issues.

The central fact about the Australian-American alliance is that it does not mean much to the Americans. Australia's support has been of value to US administrations seeking to legitimise their actions in Korea, Vietnam and the Iraq wars but Australia's military contribution to those wars was marginal.

Has the closeness of the relationship added to Australia's security? The explicit mention of Australia in the US National Security Strategy is reassuring to some. Bush has been personally grateful for Howard's support. Australia has supported the US in five major wars, but what difference does that make?

Professors Stuart Harris and Amin Saikal of the Australian National University emphasise that: "The US has long made clear that the US national interest comes first in its actions. For Australia this was made very evident over its involvement in East Timor, where the US, while helpful, extended only limited assistance, emphasising the priority of its own national interests, including its relations with Indonesia."

A potential issue of greater importance is the possibility of conflict in the Taiwan Strait, in which Australian and American national interests could well be sharply different.

There are practical benefits from the American alliance. By increasing the community's sense of security, the existence of the alliance can probably keep Australian military expenditure lower than it might be otherwise. Kim Beazley claimed when defence minister that the US defence association saved Australia 1 per cent of national income.

A second benefit claimed by supporters of the alliance, readier access to American weaponry, means little. The US Administration is seeking to waive licensing rules for Australia to buy certain classified types of military equipment but Congress has opposed the proposal. Australian policies do not give congressional leaders sufficient confidence to relax controls on exports to Australia since this might play into the hands of terrorists.

Another benefit claimed for the alliance, the sharing of intelligence, is looking more like an impediment to well-judged policy. There were substantial costs from uncritically accepting the "intelligence" provided by the United States about Iraq.

There are major political, financial, and military costs from Howard's closeness to the Bush Administration and his Government's imitation of American ideology and policies. These positions restrict Australia's capacity to express its own international priorities, have weakened Australia's independence and its standing with regional neighbours and at the UN.

If it has any significance, Howard's obedience is reinforcing the aggressive, unilateral American policies. The likelihood of pressure to participate in further expeditions is increased.

Opportunities to act as a catalyst and supporter for conflict resolution, peacekeeping, and development are lost. Integration of defence force structure and procurement adds to defence costs, as do additional military expeditions. The risk of becoming a terrorist target increases.

The Lowy Institute poll published in March 2005 showed that two-thirds of Australians think too much notice is taken of the US in foreign policy. Australia will be more secure when there is an orderly multilateral system than in a world where the only superpower reserves the right to unilateral pre-emptive use of military force.

The issue is not whether to retain or renounce the US alliance. To abandon the American alliance would erode what little scope for influence is available to Australia, would lead to increasing defence expenditure and would probably be electorally unacceptable. Rather, the immediate issue is about the policies adopted and advocated by Australia within the alliance.

Australia should affirm the value of the multilateral framework and urge US multilateral engagement and adherence to international norms, treaties and law. Australians can also support the majority of Americans who want their country to be an honourable participant in the multilateral system.


Former Labor MP John Langmore was a director at the UN from 1997 to 2003 and is a professorial fellow in political science at Melbourne University. This is an edited extract from his Dealing with America: the UN, the US and Australia (UNSWP).

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