Since the signing of the 1951 ANZUS Treaty, Australia’s relationship with the United States has been exceptionally close. So close in fact that some critics of this relationship, usually, but not exclusively from the political left, have suggested that Australia does not have an independent national interest. In their opinion, Australia’s national interest is wedded to that of the United States. That when the US picks a fight, America’s enemy becomes Australia’s enemy. When America goes to war, Australia sends a contingent in support of US objectives, no matter how small. The Australian flag is almost always raised wherever the American flag flies.
Since 1951, this has been a matter of pride among ‘security conservatives’ in Australia from whichever political persuasion.
It has also been a matter of deliberate strategic direction because the strategic narrative in Australia is that the country could not defend itself without access to US military technology, intelligence and combat support.
It is therefore in Canberra’s interest to ensure that the trans-Pacific relationship that has served Australia’s strategic interests for so long, remains in place. But within this thinking, complacency and a degree of arrogance festers. Nobody ever thought that the relationship would be in question. Nobody ever believed that a sitting US president would jeopardise that relationship.
And yet today, Australia is confronted by a Trump administration that thinks little if anything of long-standing alliances because the narrative of this administration is that all allies have been ‘free-riders’ on America’s coat tails. Far from an isolationist, Trump is a nationalist ridden, or so it seems, by the White House’s ‘arch-nationalist’, Steve Bannon.
‘America first’, ‘allies last’ is the catch-cry coming out of the White House. It is within this context that we find the Australian government in panic mode over the telephone ‘stoush’ between President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull.
This is the first shot across the bows of ANZUS, and by the hand of a US President.
We in Australia should have been shaken out of our complacency regarding our alliance with the United States, were it not for our simplistic understanding of the world. It is not enough to say that we have friends in Washington DC who appreciate Australia’s support for US strategic and diplomatic initiatives. Toadying to a big power is not foreign policy. It can only work when the political leadership of the big power is stable, marches to a conservative beat and has no interest in overturning long-standing relationships.
We do not live in such a world anymore.
Canberra does not have the required sophistication nor foreign policy skills necessary to navigate unchartered waters, and our political parties, save for the minority parties that sit on the fringes, are incapable of articulating what an independent Australian national interest is, because for so long we have been dependent on the decisions made in Washington DC.
In an ironic twist, our Canadian cousin, sitting right next door to the United States, has established a track record of saying ‘no’ to the US, when Ottawa considers there is a divergence of views with their American neighbours to the south. And let us not forget plucky New Zealand, our trans-Tasman neighbour who cold-shouldered the US during the 1980s over nuclear ship visits.
Perhaps it is the shock of Trump, which will force the Australian body politic to forge a new path regarding Australia’s strategic and diplomatic future.