The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Loyal to a Fault
Published on June 1, 2006

What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Suez Crisis. That dramatic episode constitutes a crucial marker in the history of Australian foreign policy: It was the last occasion on which an Australian government acutely and openly opposed the United States on a major international issue. That crisis demonstrated not only the power at Washington’s disposal, but its willingness to use that power ruthlessly if even its closest and most substantial allies—Britain and France—stepped out of line by pursuing too independent a course of action.

Australia, a less important ally, drew the appropriate conclusion. From that time on, Australia has never deviated significantly from the American position on any major issue. Indeed, apart from occasional rhetorical and pain-relieving complaints from members of Labour governments, it has cleaved scrupulously to that position. Thus did one Australian prime minister pledge to go “All The Way With LBJ”, while another promised a possibly bemused Richard Nixon that Australia would “Go a-Waltzing Matilda With You.” To be fair, Australian governments have usually acted out of conviction as well as expediency. But the interests and beliefs of politicians are rarely allowed to collide, and an awareness of the advantages of the alliance—they include favorable access to technology and intelligence, as well as the all-important security insurance policy—has certainly helped shape those convictions.

It is against this background that Australia’s reaction to the events of September 11, 2001 is best understood. As it happens, Australia’s Prime Minister, John Howard, was in Washington, D.C. on that very day. Undoubtedly, he was as shocked and horrified as anyone else who witnessed those events at first hand. But the nature of his immediate response represented more than shock and sympathy. It was entirely in accord with Australia’s mindset and behavior over previous decades.

“Australia”, Howard announced on September 12, “will provide all the support that might be requested of us by the United States in relation to any action that might be taken.” This astonishingly unqualified commitment—note the words “all” and “any”—was made at a time when the nature of the American response, and the demands on Australia it might involve, were completely unknown.

Despite the sweeping nature of Howard’s promise, and despite the radical direction that U.S. policy was to take, the Australian government has honored that commitment to an exceptional degree. Indeed, it has virtually marched in foreign policy lockstep with Washington over the past four years. It has gone to war with a country that was in no way threatening it (and which was a principal market for its wheat). In doing so it has set aside its usual concern to have UN authorization for a resort to force. It has given unqualified support to the Bush Doctrine, including its seriously extended conception of the preemptive use of force and its readiness to intervene in the internal affairs of states. It has not blanched at the setting aside of the Geneva Convention and habeas corpus. It has not disassociated itself firmly from the U.S. policy of “extraordinary rendition”, whereby detained suspects are exported to countries of dubious reputation for vigorous interrogation (a.k.a. torture). In one respect it has gone even further than America’s other principal ally in this venture, Britain, in that it has declined to insist on the right to a trial before an Australian court for an Australian citizen who has been held in Guantánamo for the last four years.

Militarily, Australia’s participation in Iraq and Afghanistan has been modest in size but high in quality: a 1,550-troop contingent to the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in 2001; 2,000 troops to the Iraq campaign in 2003, together with frigates and fighter aircraft in the Gulf. If these numbers appear modest, it should be borne in mind that the total strength of all Australia’s armed forces is 54,000, and that they are charged with defending a continent the size of the American mainland in a region that is far from being a model of stability. It should also be emphasized that the quality of Australia’s contribution has been exceptionally high, with its SAS force considered among the best in the world. Whether as a result of skill, luck or prudence—most probably a combination of all three—Australian forces have suffered remarkably few casualties in both combat zones; so far, one death in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

Australia’s undeviating support for the United States, during a period when many of America’s other allies have kept their distance or been openly critical, has received high praise in Washington. According to President Bush, “In times of trouble and danger, Australians are the first to step forward, to accept the hard duties, and to fight bravely until the fighting is done.” For Condoleezza Rice, Australia stands “side by side with America, as it has for over a century.” For Donald Rumsfeld, “In the war against terrorism, no leaders have been more stalwart than the leaders of Australia.” At a more practical level, a U.S.-Australian free trade agreement has been negotiated and signed in quick time.

While all this has been suitably gratifying, however, some of the Bush Administration’s behavior has been less so. Canberra has been without an American ambassador for 18 months, this at a time when the two countries were allies in a war that the Bush Administration had insisted was of vital importance. And Secretary of State Rice found it necessary to cancel at short notice not one but two visits to Australia in order to attend to more urgent business elsewhere. (She finally did show up in mid-March.) No doubt, all this properly reflects American priorities. But it is a timely reminder that in dealing with a great democratic ally, the same axiom applies as in dealing with any other great power: Those who can be taken for granted will be taken for granted.

The pattern of Australian attitudes toward the Iraq war and the Bush Doctrine is not dissimilar to that prevailing in the United States.

While the government insists it will stay the course and that things are improving in Iraq, the opposition—the Australian Labour Party—vacillates and equivocates. Like the Democratic Party, its leadership is weak, divided and indecisive, torn between the desire to exploit evidence of gross incompetence and looming failure on the one hand, and concern to avoid charges of disloyalty both to Australian forces in the field and to a longstanding ally on the other.

Among professional analysts of international relations and foreign policy opinion has been divided. But many of those who have over the years been broadly and regularly supportive of American policy and of Australia’s acceptance of the American lead have found it very difficult to show any enthusiasm for the Bush Doctrine and the preemptive war in Iraq. Their ranks include the doyenne of Australian international studies, Coral Bell, as well as us ourselves.

More broadly, Australian intellectuals are sharply divided, again in a way that will be familiar to Americans. The great majority are temperamentally and ideologically hostile to the United States, and the events of the last few years have had the effect of strengthening their convictions in this respect. As they have done since the Vietnam War, they draw much of their polemical ammunition from radical American sources. As against this majority, there is a much smaller but equally vocal and dedicated group whose pro-American views are just as predictable and unqualified as the opposing group’s hostility. These two groups engage each other in a form of verbal combat that calls to mind the trench warfare of World War I: fixed, repetitive exchanges from deeply entrenched positions; no taste for maneuver or innovation; loyalty, stamina and attrition substituting for flair and insight.

Meanwhile the Australian public-at-large, which is not overly impressed by intellectuals, makes up its own mind by processes not always easy to fathom, but which in this instance have yielded some clear opinions. From the outset the Australian public has been opposed to the war in Iraq. In March 2003 a poll showed overwhelming opposition to sending troops without UN approval, and just 6 percent supporting Australian involvement in an otherwise unilateral U.S. strike. Currently, polls show that two-thirds of Australians think it was a mistake for the nation to go to war, and involving Australia in the Iraq war is by far the most commonly named “worst thing” that Howard has done in his ten years as prime minister. (By contrast, in the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War, 75 percent of Australians supported the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait.)

More generally, a poll published in 2005 by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia’s leading foreign policy think tank, showed a smaller percentage of Australians having a “positive feeling” toward the United States (58 percent) than toward Japan (84 percent), China (69 percent) and France (66 percent). Two-thirds of those polled (including half those with a positive view of America) agreed with the proposition that “we take too much notice of the views of the United States.” As many Australians professed concern about a threat to their country from U.S. foreign policy as expressed worry about a threat from Islam (57 percent in each case).

Whatever course events in Iraq take from here on, two things may be said with confidence about the U.S.-Australian alliance: first, it will endure; but, second, it will change.

It will endure not only because the advantages that accrue from it are real and substantial, but because the need for “great and powerful friends” (to use Sir Robert Menzies’ favorite phrase) is deeply embedded in the Australian psyche. From its birth as a state a century ago—and indeed before that when it was still a collection of colonies far removed from the rest of the Western world—Australia has always sought a close association with a great power with which it shares values and interests. For the first decades of its existence, a declining but still formidable Britain filled that role. Then for a decade or two it was shared by Britain and America. For the last half century it has been performed by the United States alone. On the American side, the alliance is of value because Australia is a stable, reliable and significant presence (the 14th largest economy in the world) in the international system—and in a part of the world where such partners do not exist in abundance.

The nature of the alliance will change for two reasons. First it will do so because the nature of American foreign policy has changed. When Australia first entered into alliance with the United States, both countries were concerned to protect an existing state of affairs against those—first Japan and Germany, then the Soviet Union and Mao’s China—who were determined to transform it radically. That compatibility lasted for several decades.

Recently things have altered. Australia is still the epitome of a satisfied, status quo state—well endowed, stable, not very powerful, but with its modest population enjoying an enviable share of the world’s wealth and advantages. It has every reason to assume that any radical change in the existing state of affairs will diminish rather than enhance its position. But since becoming the sole remaining superpower, and especially since 9/11, the foreign policy of the United States has changed. Far from being the principal defender of the existing order, it has become, according to its own rhetoric and recent behavior, a revolutionary force determined to use its great power—including, conspicuously, its military power—to reshape the world. No doubt part of this can be put down to rhetoric, and no doubt after Iraq there will be some adjustments and modifications. But it would be a serious error to doubt the momentum created by a combination of hegemonic power and the powerful sense of an historic—indeed, for many Americans, divine—mission (a sense that is entirely absent in the Australian people, who are by nature skeptical, modest and pragmatic, more inclined to settle for decency than to strive for the sublime). All of which means that reconciling Australian and American views of the world and finding mutually agreeable policies are likely to become increasingly difficult projects.

The second factor that will change the nature of the alliance is China. For the United States and Australia, the spectacular rise of that country means different things. For the former its main significance is the emergence of a potent geopolitical rival; for the latter it is the opportunity for a rewarding partnership, and that opportunity is being eagerly seized by Australia. China has recently overtaken the United States as Australia’s second largest trading partner after Japan. With Australian exports to and imports from China both growing at well over 20 percent a year, with negotiations for a free trade agreement about to begin, and with the compatibility that exists between Australia’s vast mineral and energy resources and the needs of the Chinese economy, it does not seem improbable that China will become Australia’s leading trading partner sooner rather than later. There are, of course, risks and uncertainties involved. But as China approaches the completion of three decades of growth at an annual rate of over 9 percent, these appear progressively less formidable than they once did.

Politically and strategically, fear of “the downward thrust of Communist China”, which for decades provided the unspoken rationale for the ANZUS alliance, no longer constitutes a major motivating force. One of Australia’s leading strategic thinkers, Hugh White, has recently observed that

China has had great success in converting economic opportunities into regional political influence. . . . It has adopted a moderate and reasonable tone and deftly exploited its substantial soft-power assets. . . . As a result, most of its neighbors are now more comfortable with the idea of China’s growing power—and so feel less dependent on America. This has deprived the U.S. of an important political asset.1White, “The Limits to Optimism: Australia and the Rise of China”, Australian Journal of International Affairs (December 2005).

The recent creation of a new piece of regional diplomatic architecture, the East Asia Summit, of which China and Australia are members but the United States is not, may be a significant sign of change to come.

None of this, however, means that Australia is faced with a hard, stark choice between the United States and China—not, at least, unless one or the other of them insists that such a choice be made. But it does mean that Australia must learn to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before, one that will on occasion involve the difficult feat of riding two horses simultaneously. And instead of the sturdy, straightforward virtues of dependability and unconditional loyalty that have served it well until recently, it will need to acquire and cultivate a range of new skills: discrimination, agility, qualified commitment, ambiguity.

There is nothing strange about these skills; they are among the basic tools of diplomacy. But the special conditions that have for much of its existence allowed Australia to dispense with their regular use are now ending. From now on, given the change, Australia will need to regard alliances not as a test of character (“Australia will be there!”) or a union of souls (“the Anglosphere”), but as pragmatic devices to be adjusted to changing conditions. Yes, Australia will stay on the American Bandwagon, but instead of always leading the cheer squad it will need to cultivate some of the skills of the helpful passenger. These include the encouraging of careful steering, some timely map reading, a judicious use of the brakes, and—not least—better road manners. As with all efforts at back-seat driving, it is unlikely that such advice will be gratefully received. But it would serve the best interests of both countries.

1 White, “The Limits to Optimism: Australia and the Rise of China”, Australian Journal of International Affairs (December 2005).

Owen Harries, founding editor of the National Interest, is a fellow of both the Centre for Independent Studies and the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney.
Tom Switzer is opinion page editor of The Australian.