The warmth of US-Australian ties since September 11, 2001 stands in stark contrast to the tension between Washington and some of its traditional transatlantic allies. Both Washington and Canberra have benefited from the upgraded relationship: Australia has gained influence over its superpower ally and has enhanced its prestige in Asia, while Washington has received what it most needs for its post-September 11 foreign policy--an imprimatur of legitimacy.
The contrast between the Australian alliance and the damaged alliances in Europe raises an essential question: are Canberra and Washington witnessing a fleeting moment of American-Australian convergence thanks to the close personal relationship between Prime Minister John Howard and President George W. Bush? Or, is there something inherent to the alliance’s raison d’etre that will sustain it over time?
It is useful to recall that after the 9/11 attacks America’s allies faced two challenges: responding to the terrorists and dealing with the wounded superpower that was now intent on using the full force of its national power to exact justice. In responding to both challenges, Prime Minister Howard decided to throw his weight behind the United States.
While many nations expressed support for America’s war on terror after the 9/11 attacks, Australia was one of the few to send troops to fight alongside Americans in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Howard shared President Bush’s strategic vision that the only way to defeat radical Islamic terrorism is to create a more liberal political order in the Middle East, by force if necessary. The Prime Minister also understood the need for decisive, and sometimes unilateral, action. Indeed, after the bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed 88 Australians, Howard embarked on his own aggressive counter-terrorism operations throughout Southeast Asia and on nation-building in Australia’s neighborhood. He showed a willingness to act unilaterally when he sent Australian troops to establish order in the Solomon Islands without waiting for a United Nations mandate.
Howard’s shared vision for defeating terrorists only partly explains his support for American strategy. The other reason is Australia’s dependence upon the American-led security order in Asia for its own regional security. Indeed, Australians recognize that America’s commitment to Asia is ever more important as the region remains in strategic flux, characterized by the uncertain strategic direction of an increasingly powerful China, Japan’s desire to act as a normal country in international security affairs, North Korea’s nuclear breakout, and ongoing instability in the young democracies of Southeast Asia. While Paris and Berlin can indulge in fantasies about the need to promote multi-polarity and constrain America’s ‘hyper-power,’ Canberra still lives in a very dangerous region. A strong, successful and hegemonic America, then, is in Australia’s interests.
Can the current era of mutual good feeling sustain and translate into an enduring alliance? Should Australians heed Charles de Gaulle’s warning that great powers are ‘cold monsters,’ unmoved by gratitude or long memories? The answer is that the alliance will endure and probably grow in importance. The reason is that America needs Australia as it begins to fashion an East Asian strategy in the face of so many challenges to the security order.
Australia is, in many ways, leading America when it comes to shaping the future of the Asia-Pacific. American foreign policy is still characterized by a Euro-centrism left over from its Cold War days, and more attention has been paid to the problematic transatlantic relationship than to the structure of security in a fast-changing Asia. Australia has urged Washington to broaden its engagement with Southeast Asians beyond the issue of terrorism. In addition, as American policymakers reconsider how to maintain the current security structure in Asia, they have been fortunate to find that Australia and Japan are willing partners for deeper security cooperation.
Since 9/11, both Japan and Australia have provided almost unconditional support to the United States, which has been met by efforts to upgrade ties with both countries. Tokyo and Washington are transforming their alliance by enhancing mutual responsibility and burden sharing, steps that will allow Japan to assert itself in allied decision-making.
Washington and Canberra have also taken concrete steps to build closer ties: in 2004, the two countries signed a Free Trade Agreement, a memorandum of understanding on missile defense cooperation, and a joint statement on interoperability and the establishment of a combined training facility. The latter two agreements will tie American and Australian armed forces closer together and help Australia meet its objective of forming a more expeditionary force capable of undertaking coalition operations. Not long after, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice upgraded the ongoing US-Japan-Australian trilateral security dialogue to the ministerial level.
The United States will continue to develop its relations with Australia and Japan because they provide essential support for its leadership in Asia and the world. Although America’s power in the region remains unmatched, the legitimacy of its leadership has come under increasing attack--a natural response by weaker countries to a sometimes bullying superpower. Collaborating with Australia in the region will help Washington formulate policies that will garner more support in Asia.
One area where Australia is clearly not ahead of America in its vision for Asia’s future is the challenge posed by the rise of China. Canberra takes the view that Sino-American relations have improved to the point where a clash could only occur as a result of diplomatic incompetence. In contrast, Americans look at Beijing’s rapidly increasing military power, its seeming acceptance of a nuclear North Korea, and its hostility toward Japan and Taiwan as indicators that there are fundamental disagreements on matters of vital national interest. Worse, this behavior indicates that China is working toward the day that it can supplant the American-led security order in the Asia Pacific. If these trends continue, the United States will ultimately have to shift its China policy toward a more assertive balancing posture, and Australia will be asked to play a key role. The newly launched trilateral security dialogue may be the place to begin that effort.
The Australian-American alliance will grow in importance because the two countries share an interest in the success of Washington’s National Security Strategy of creating a ‘balance of power that favors freedom.’ Unlike the French and German leadership, the Howard government believes that American hegemony is in its interest. For Canberra, then, alliance management is a question of securing as much leverage as possible. For America, having a democratic ally at its side confers upon it global and regional legitimacy and a trusted sounding board for its Asia policies. The irony of a closer alliance is that Australia will sooner or later be asked to do what it would rather avoid doing--joining Washington in constraining Beijing’s regional ambitions. Whether the alliance can survive that challenge is an open question, but the alliance’s endurance through a host of challenges is cause for optimism.
Dan Blumenthal is a resident fellow at AEI. This essay appeared in Alliance: The View from America, published by the Centre for Independent Studies.