Australia’s American alliance in the aftermath of September 11

Henry S. Albinski, University of Sydney

Swift and unqualified was Australia’s support for the US-led effort to combat international terrorism and in particular to pursue those responsible for the September 11 attacks. In the context of these events, the dynamics of Australia's American alliance tell us much about this country's national interests and the shaping of foreign policy.

The Government has condemned the attacks on America as a virulent force, potentially threatening us all. Whether Australia’s clear alignment on the side of the Americans has in itself raised its exposure to terrorism’s hazards is problematic, but a few clues are in hand. Even before September 11, bin Laden demonised not only the US but its Western friends and allies, and spoke of their deserved punishment. Plots by terrorist elements have been uncovered in Europe and in Canada before and since September 11. New Zealand authorities have apprehended Afghans, believed to be associated with bin Laden, charged with planning to attack Sydney’s Lucas Heights nuclear reactor leading up to the 2000 Olympic Games. In other words, whatever domestic risks lie in store for Australia, they would not seem to derive from our having joined our American ally’s cause.

The Government responded to September 11 by invoking the ANZUS treaty alliance and pledged military and other assistance. The rationales were both symbolic and substantive. Since NATO’s partners immediately invoked their treaty in support of an assaulted fellow member, it would in itself have been surprising had Washington’s closest Pacific ally not turned to ANZUS as an expression of solidarity. The treaty had originally been framed to afford Australia American protection against direct threats or attacks. The alliance has over 50 years evolved into a close and multi-dimensional relationship. It became grounded in managing regional security, rather than threat-specific scenarios affecting either party.

America, the ultimate guarantor, must not be let down.

The formal activation of ANZUS in 2001 as reaction to an attack on the US as ‘dangerous to [Australia’s] own peace and safety’ was therefore resurrection of a document from another time. However, it was a natural step by Australia, an affirmation of an alliance in the broadest sense that Australia has consistently laboured to cultivate. In broad canvass, Australia has reasoned that a constructively engaged America, globally and regionally, is in this country’s direct interest. A weakened America, a lonely and disheartened America, would not serve this purpose. The ultimate guarantor must not be let down. The historical evidence is plentiful. It ranges from Australian involvement in the Vietnam conflict, to the Howard Government’s claim that a National Missile Defence system is desirable because if America thought itself vulnerable to rogue state nuclear attacks its will to behave as a confident international actor would be eroded.

The Labor Opposition has endorsed the Coalition’s wholehearted backing of the American response to terrorism, including military operations. Prevailing domestic political considerations aside, this crystallises the alliance’s reception in both capitals. In part too because the UN has pronounced its blessings, anti-war sentiment in Australia is for the time being marginalised and existing, proalliance public feeling confirmed. In the US, it reinforces the impression of a steadfast Australian alliance free from contentious Australian party politics.

The highlighting of ANZUS alliance bona fides also relates to this being an American partnership with the only nation in Asia-Pacific that combines shared values and ideals, a measure of regional standing in its own right, and a lengthy history of robust bilateral security cooperation. Australia’s participation in the anti-terrorist undertaking therefore stands out. It is broadly consonant with earlier Bush Administration expectations that Australia should be taking on special regional responsibilities, with the East Timor experience held up as an agreeable conjunction of lateral American support for an Australian initiative.

The post-September 11 response to terrorism is of a different scope than East Timor, but it signifies one alliance partner assisting the other in practical rather than simply rhetorical fashion. Moreover, it conforms de facto to Washington’s construction that the US would not engage in a foreseeable Asian conflict without some combination of friends and allies. An outbreak over Taiwan has been the usual hypothetical, and some American voices have intimated that, in part as payment on its alliance membership, Australia’s active cooperation would be sought. The point is not that the US would not have replied powerfully to September 11 if Australia had not come on side. Rather, it is indicative of what Australia has to offer and willingly provides. The facilities at Pine Gap and Geraldton are instrumental in the complex intelligence sweeps being carried out. The Coalition Government was not content to make these facilities Australia’s only ‘contribution’ to the anti-terrorist military campaign. It offered assets from all Australian Defence Force (ADF) services. Some weeks later, at Bush’s personal request to Howard, it raised its military commitment. However these ADF assets are employed, their acknowledged professionalism and well-honed interoperability with American forces is seen to validate the understandings that inform the alliance, as well as its practical capabilities.

The postlude to September 11 raises alliance-related issues beyond the actual prosecution of an anti-terrorist campaign, or the warranting of the alliance’s security value. This essentially refers to Australia’s influence within Washington and in regional capitals.

Australia is an American ally in a cause the fundamentalists detest.

We should not imagine that, according to some scorecard, Australia is likely to move up on America’s most favourite list. It already enjoys admirable access, and general respect. The activation of ANZUS is unlikely in itself to yield a visibly more satisfactory consultative process with the US than alliance linkages have over time assembled. Britain is the key ally in the anti-terrorist campaign, and Canada has offered somewhat more military personnel than Australia. New Zealand has promised an SAS contingent, and could be the beneficiary of a rejuvenated defence relationship with the Americans. Such an outcome could relieve Australia of some of the resources it has been expending on its New Zealand defence relationship since Washington suspended the New Zealand leg of its ANZUS commitments fifteen years ago.

Diplomatically, Australia’s post-September 11 engagement on the American side raises some not altogether pleasant prospects. For instance, the urgent requirements of anti-terrorist coalition building have caused the US to withdraw various sanctions previously imposed on human rights, nuclear acquisition, and arms transfers violators. Australia accedes to such measures, but reluctantly, its own agenda to dissuade others from following wrong practices foreseeably compromised.

Australia’s regional position may also be diminished among Muslim majority countries. This applies particularly to Indonesia, which matters so conspicuously to Australia’s professed interests, and which the US has identified as inviting special Australian leadership. President Megawati has a delicate balancing act to perform. She needs to contain extremist Muslim outcries against coalition operations in Afghanistan. These outcries and threats of violence are increasingly directed at Australian as well as American official and commercial targets; collateral damage for Australia, as it were. It would be calamitous for Australia if Indonesia were to descend into disorder that halted the political and economic reconstruction hoped for it in the post-Suharto era. Australia’s attempts at seeking Indonesian cooperation in controlling the influx of unauthorised migrants could be frustrated. Encouragement of Jakarta’s even hand in dealing with secessionists in Aceh and West Papua could be neutralised.

Australia’s position is awkward. It tries to reassure Indonesia that the anti-terrorist campaign is not aimed at Muslims, is not an exercise in revenge, and so on. However, Australia is an American ally in a cause the fundamentalists detest. John Howard has chosen, publicly, to urge Indonesia not to soften its position on the war against terrorism: it would convey the wrong message if the world’s largest Muslim nation were to appear to appease terrorism. It remains to be seen whether Australia’s welcome in Indonesia, including effective spokesmanship on behalf of itself, its American ally, and the anti-terrorism cause, can be managed.

Australia has to date urged caution about carrying the anti-terrorist campaign beyond limited, Afghanistan-directed objectives. Anti-American uprisings in Muslim nations and widespread international violence would fragment the present American sponsored coalition and incriminate Western interests generally. In such event, it would presage a diminished, perhaps humbled America. Or, it could presage American determination to strike back with scarce concern for coalition and alliance niceties, Australian opinion notwithstanding.

Washington’s post-September 11 diplomacy, aimed at building a durable coalition against a worldwide threat, could however result in incubating a fresh sense of the virtues of multilateralism. That would suit Australia well, on various fronts. But conditions could turn in reverse, predisposing public and official American disenchantment with collective efforts to safeguard basic national interests. In light of the corrosive economic forces that have infected the US and nearly everyone else since September 11, an American inward retreat would be prejudicial to Australia. Among the consequences would be a diminution of the alliance itself.

Australia’s exertions in its alliancemanship role of pursuing anti-terrorism objectives should be equally aimed at the avoidance of dire, unintended consequences. Its standing as an American ally should in this respect be helpful.

Henry Albinski is Visiting Professor in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

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