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Trump era: Australia should rely less on the US

Published in The Australian, 2 October 2017

Australia’s alliance with the United States was not undervalued by the Hawke-Keating governments. But nor did we overvalue it, and we certainly did not accept that its care and maintenance demanded obeisance to all Washington’s whims and wishes.

Then, as today, there could be little doubt that the ANZUS alliance contributes hugely to our military capability, above all in the access it gives us to American intelligence and weapons systems. As self-reliant as we may be, we are by no means completely self-sufficient, certainly when it comes to really major threat contingencies. It has been credibly estimated that without the alliance, Australia would have to triple or quadruple its defence spending, at a budgetary cost of an additional $70 billion to $100bn a year. There is, moreover, the deterrent value against potential aggressors that a close alliance with a global superpower, on the face of it, seems clearly to provide.

But the issue of deterrent value needs closer scrutiny than it usually gets. The ANZUS Treaty formally provides only that each party “will consult together whenever in the opinion of any of them the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened in the Pacific” (Article III) and that in the event of an “armed attack in the Pacific Area on any of the Parties” each “would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes” (Article IV). That is in significant contrast to the language of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, whereby “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and commit to applying armed force as necessary in response.

The ANZUS Treaty was invoked by John Howard in 2001 when he undertook to consult with Washington in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and Australia subsequently sent forces to fight alongside America in Afghanistan. But there has been no interest shown by the US, before or since, in any reciprocal application in our direction.

Just as, in the 1960s, there was a negative response to Australia’s requests for US support in the context of Indonesia’s likely annexation of West New Guinea and its “Confrontation” with the new Malaysian federation, so too was Howard profoundly disappointed in 1999 by the reluctance of the US to commit ground troops to help the Australian-led force stop the bloodshed in East Timor in 1999, although some logistical support was eventually forthcoming.

Most analysts remain firmly convinced — and I have always shared this view — that, for all the sentimentality so often expressed on both sides about the importance and strength of the alliance, the US will only ever put itself in harm’s way under the ANZUS Treaty if it sees its own material interests directly threatened. Australian policymakers would be very wise to discount its deterrent value accordingly.

In the Hawke-Keating governments, the tone was set early by Bill Hayden, who preceded me as foreign minister, with his very sharp responses to the invasion of Grenada and the Iran-Contra affair, clearly articulated opposition to the Strategic Defence Initiative (“Star Wars”), and enthusiasm for a South Pacific nuclear-free zone treaty.

All of this left our American friends decidedly underwhelmed, although they were pleased by Hayden’s articulate defence of the Pine Gap facilities (which it was well understood exposed us to potential nuclear attack) as being essential for arms control monitoring, which defused the longstanding neuralgia on this issue of the party’s left.

I shared Bill’s instincts and continued his approach on all these issues, as I did on others as well where there were notable disagreements with Washington. The list of such differences is a long one, including sanctions against South Africa; ratification of the Geneva Protocol on the rules of war; the urgency of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; the banning of mining and oil drilling in the Antarctic; not extending the stay of Australian peacekeepers in Somalia; lifting trade sanctions against Libya; delinking China’s human rights performance from renewal of its most favoured nation (MFN) trade status; the application to Japan of quantitative trade targets; and a multitude of bilateral trade issues including sugar, beef, uranium and steel.

Bob Hawke was always much more instinctively pro-American than Paul Keating, and in the early years often winced at Hayden’s irreverence, which regularly left him and Kim Beazley as defence minister some quiet mopping up to do with their own high-level Washington contacts. But he never allowed that emotion to let him surrender an iota of Australian independence on issues of real substance.

Certainly his political mind was concentrated by the MX missile affair early in the life of the government. After the issue became public in January 1985, the weight of caucus opinion right across the factional spectrum forced him to rapidly backtrack on his earlier agreement to give the US logistical assistance in monitoring its Pacific testing of this deadly new addition to its nuclear weapons arsenal.

But I never had any doubt about the genuineness of Hawke’s position when he said at the time that “we are not an aligned country which had to agree, or did agree, with every single aspect of US policymaking … In the expression of those differences of opinion you do not militate against the alliance. They are a reflection of its basic strength.”

When Australia did fall in behind the US in joining the military coalition against Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990, it was not because the cabinet felt that, as an ally, we had to follow Washington’s lead come what may. Rather it was because this was a UN-mandated operation which the overwhelming majority of us saw as an absolutely necessary international response to an outrageous breach of the UN Charter and the most fundamental principles of a rule-based international order.

The ability to maintain a healthy balance in our alliance relationship seems, unhappily, to have largely evaporated since the Hawke-Keating years. Initially, when Howard’s Coalition came into office in 1996, that seemed to be a reflection of Howard’s backward-looking attachment to the Anglosphere in all its manifestations, his nostalgia for the Cold War days when pro-Americanism was an unbeatable Coalition political asset, combined with his belief that Labor “had sacrificed the alliance on the altar of Asian engagement”.

But since 2001 it appears on both sides to have been driven overwhelmingly by 9/11 and its aftermath: the general enthusiasm for conducting military war on terrorism whenever or wherever that option arises, combined with — on the Labor side — an absolute determination, in an age of terror, not to be found wanting on any national security issue.

Gushing sentiment has become the norm — in the case of Julia Gillard’s address to the US congress in 2011, cringe-making even by the standards of Harold Holt’s “All the way with LBJ” in 1966.

And all pretence of objectivity seems to have been abandoned as we have rushed off to join a succession of American military crusades, most indefensibly in the case of Iraq in 2003.

I remember my friend and former colleague, US secretary of state James Baker, once saying to me, with his languid Texan drawl taking two beats over every syllable, “Well, Gareth, sometimes you just have to rise above principle”. The context, as I recall it, was nuclear disarmament, but it could well have been almost anything else.

Great powers will, ultimately, do their own thing, and there is not much that lesser mortals like Australia can do to stop them. But that does not mean that, as the price of winning such protection they may be prepared to give us, we always have to join them. To sanctify any relationship to the point of indifference to the dangers into which it might lead us is not smart. “Whither thou goest, there I goest” might be good theology, but it is not great foreign policy.

Sometimes we should just say no, and the experience of the Hawke-Keating governments is that we can do that — quite often, and including on matters of great sensitivity — without losing either respect or credibility in the halls of Washington power.

Periodic shows of healthy independence are much more likely to win Australia credibility, respect, and an appreciation of our utility to the US than tongue-lolling, pink-tummy-exposed, four-paws-waving subservience.

My experience with the US on the Chemical Weapons Convention issue is as clear an example as one could wish for. For more than 20 years, the UN’s Geneva Conference on Disarmament had wrestled with the development of a draft text for such a convention, but by 1989 agreement seemed as elusive as ever.

Not long after I became foreign minister, I received a phone call from Baker asking if Australia would be prepared to convene a global conference which would bring together all the key governmental and chemical industry players to try to cut through the impasse.

The way he put the case remains for me a classic example of how well and constructively an alliance relationship can work when it is based on healthy independence and mutual respect more than one-sided subservience.

He said to me, in more or less just these words as I recall them: “We really want to get this treaty done, as do you. But we’re carrying too much baggage to take the lead ourselves. We’re seen as too big and ugly, with too many interests at stake. You guys are knowledgeable and experienced on these issues. And you have a reputation for real independence of mind. So you won’t be seen as just carrying our water.”

Baker was pushing at an open door, we responded accordingly, and within three years we had a finalised treaty, one of the most important and far-reaching arms-control agreements ever reached.

The election of President Donald Trump has given a new urgency to restoring some real balance in the alliance relationship. We can only hope that enough cooler and wiser heads than his own will emerge to eventually dispel the worst fears generated during his campaign and in his first weeks in office. But we should have learned by now that the US, under administrations with far more prima facie credibility than his, is perfectly capable of making terrible mistakes, such as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

We now have to be ready for American blunders as bad as, or worse than, in the past. We will have to make our own judgments about how to react to events, based on our own national interests.

This does not mean that Australia should walk away from its alliance. But we will need to be more sceptical of American policies and actions than in recent decades, become much more self-consciously independent, and assign much higher priority not only to getting our relations with China on an even keel, but to building closer trade and security ties with Japan, South Korea, India, and especially our huge near-neighbour, Indonesia, and the countries of Southeast Asia. In short, Australian foreign and defence policy for the foreseeable future is going to have to be founded on three core principles: More self-reliance. More Asia. Less United States.

This is an edited extract published in The Australian from Gareth Evans: Incorrigible Optimist - A Political Memoir published by MUP