Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:33 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:33 | SYDNEY

The Downer legacy (part 2): The US alliance


Graeme Dobell

30 January 2009 14:54

Ed. note: Here's part 1 of this series.

Australia’s leaders can be divided into two groups – those hot for the US alliance and those who are merely warm, or even lukewarm. In office, all Australian leaders publicly support the alliance. It’s the strength of the embrace that matters.

The hot versus lukewarm division crosses party lines. Leaders on the cooler side include Fraser, Gorton, Whitlam, Hayden and Latham. The hot group numbers members such as Holt, Howard, Downer, Hawke, Beazley and now Rudd.  Menzies started off cool and then warmed up.

On his retirement as Prime Minister, Menzies said ANZUS was the outstanding single achievement of his government. Yet Menzies was a cautious — even reluctatant — participant in the creation of the treaty in 1951. The Australian father of ANZUS was the External Affairs Minister, Percy Spender, who wrote that Menzies was ‘unenthusiastic’ and ‘poured cold water’ on the efforts to create a Pacific pact.

The Menzies view was that Australia did not need a formal alliance because the US was ‘already overwhelmingly friendly to us and Australia could rely on her’. Most memorably, Spender quoted Menzies as privately stating that the formal alliance would be ‘a superstructure on a foundation of jelly.’ The alliance issues of firmness versus jelly have been debated ever since.

The Howard Government took office pledging to put new life into the US alliance and, post-9/11, became the first Australian government to invoke the ANZUS treaty. On the alliance, Howard and Downer were true believers (a phrase used by Robert Garran in his excellent book on John Howard, George Bush and the American alliance).

Howard certainly found Bush a kindred spirit. But the strong display of loyalty to the alliance was just as evident in the Howard Government’s efforts with the less congenial administration of Bill Clinton. Within months of taking office in 1996, Howard and Downer engineered a ‘son of ANZUS’ security declaration with Washington. The grandly titled ‘Joint Security Declaration, Australia-United States: A Strategic Partnership for the 21st Century’, stated that the alliance would ‘remain central’ for both countries in the new century. The declaration said the importance of the alliance was that it consolidates ‘Australia’s capability for self-reliant defence and because it constitutes a crucial element in the US’s permanent presence in the Asia Pacific region.’

In August, 1997, Downer issued a White Paper on foreign policy which made explicit the view that Australia’s supreme relationship was with the US. The White Paper made the sensible point that ‘the Government does not ascribe a strict hierarchy of importance to Australia’s bilateral relationships’. Having made that disclaimer, the White Paper then set out an explicit order of importance. The denial of a hierarchy merely underlined the nature of the hierarchy.

By display and description, the US was at the top of the ranking. It was joined on the first tier by Japan, China and Indonesia. The policy document pointed to the US’s economic, military and technological dominance and in several places anointed the US as the ‘indispensable’ power. Australia needed the US for ‘peace, security and economic growth in the world’, but also described specific US influence on key Australian objectives ‘such as regional security, APEC and trade liberalisation, as well as on disarmament, refugees and many other issues.’ The White Paper reflected Howard’s personal belief that Australia’s most important relationship is with the US.

The centrality of the US was an expression of the worldview of Howard and Downer. Yet the position accorded the US was somewhat at variance with the analytical framework of the White Paper. The paper identified the ‘two most profound influences on Australia foreign and trade policy’ as globalisation and the continuing economic rise of East Asia.

The ranking exercise in the 1997 White Paper caused a range of headaches for Australian diplomacy. India, for instance, hadn’t been mentioned in the listing of ‘countries which most substantially engage Australia’s interests'. The second foreign policy White Paper of the Howard-Downer era in 2003 was careful not to describe any ‘hierarchy of importance’.

East Timor

The alliance lesson to draw from East Timor was not how well it ended but how dangerously it started. As East Timor spiralled into violence after the UN vote, the US was reluctant to respond. Yet the strength of the Howard-Downer belief in the alliance was not permanently shaken by the initial insouciance of the Clinton White House towards the 1999 crisis in East Timor.

The deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer, said the 'truth' was that Washington 'could not have been weaker in its initial response to Australia’s request assistance with East Timor during September, 1999.' The initial failure says as much about Australia's confusion leading up to the crisis as it does about lack of US attention. Yet East Timor serves as a standing reminder that however strong the language of the treaty, however long the association, an ally can always decide not to respond. Or to respond slowly or by half measure.

In the end, what the US provided for Timor was essential – logistics, transport and naval help – and not the least contribution was the way Washington was able to lean on Jakarta to force Indonesia to accept an international intervention led by Australia.

Australian policy makers should always be reminded of two images from the epicentre of the crisis, in the days when failure was still likely. One snapshot is the US President’s national security adviser, Sandy Berger, telling journalists that America had no more responsibility for solving East Timor than he did for cleaning the mess his daughter created in her apartment. The other image is John Howard sitting in a radio studio, almost pleading over the airwaves for American 'boots on the ground' in Timor. That failed Australian plea for US troops ignored the Vietnam trauma and the inclinations of the Clinton White House.

Afghanistan and Iraq

Howard was in Washington on September 11, 2001, to mark the 50th anniversary of the ANZUS alliance. The psychological impact of that tragic day on Australia’s Prime Minister was nearly as deep as it was on the US psyche. Robert Garran judged that Howard aligned himself with Bush emotionally as well as intellectually:

Howard’s support for the US alliance reflected his own personal history, his own view of the international system. It also reflected his political pitch, his story to the public about the kind of nation he had built, and its place in the world. Howard was utterly convinced of the importance of the American alliance. This was not so much a rational calculation as a matter of profound belief. It led to his supporting a war that was wrong. The alliance is important to Australia – but not that important.

Flying back to Australia from Washington on a special flight – aboard the US Vice President’s plane – Howard rang Downer and told him that Australia would invoke the ANZUS alliance for the first time in its history. The Howard-Downer conversation set something of a pattern for some of the key alliance moments that followed. Major decisions would be taken by Ministers without asking for formal advice or options from the foreign affairs and defence bureaucracy.

ANZUS does not have the force of the NATO alliance. The only requirement of ANZUS is for the parties to ‘consult’. Thus, invoking ANZUS was a legal nonsense that had great symbolic value. And it began a close involvement with the Bush ‘war on terror’ which took Australia into Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Howard Government won some clear advantages from the Bush era. It is cynical – yet accurate – to see the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement as a return on alliance loyalty. Australia gained even greater access to the inner workings of the US military, intelligence community and defence industry.

Electorally, the alliance was a clear political plus for the Howard Government until its last year in office. Closeness to George W Bush and the alliance glow helped the Liberal-National Coalition win the 2001 and 2004 elections. By 2007, Bush was a burden.

In his 2006 book on the alliance, Greg Sheridan claimed that ‘Howard and Bush transformed the alliance from a predominantly regional affair to a truly global partnership’. Such an ambitious claim assumes that the personal closeness of one President and one Prime Minister translates into a permanent structural change in the alliance. The trauma of the Iraq experience will have more of an impact on the future of the alliance than any lingering glow between Bush and Howard.

Under Obama, the US will confront a post-Iraq moment with some similarities to the post-Vietnam era that it entered after 1975. This is where the Iraq-Vietnam analogy starts to matter for Australia: how will the US rethink its military obligations and aims under a new president, as America confronts the Iraq scars? Australia had to develop new thoughts about the alliance, defence policy and the region after Vietnam. The Iraq effect will be similar. A US less keen on global missions will, in turn, mean an Australia with a clearer regional focus.

Australia needs to look carefully at the sort of changes the Vietnam syndrome forced on America in the years after 1975, and prepare accordingly. Our fundamental aim will be to preserve the alliance. We avoided any blame after Vietnam, even though we had been one of the prime urgers. This time, we can argue that we didn’t urge, merely followed. There may be some alliance blowback, even if it is only as part of a general US review of the way it operates internationally.

The ultimate judgement on Howard and Downer will be whether unwavering support for the US strengthened the alliance or introduced some stress lines that may threaten its longevity. Downer said that:

the Iraq war was going to happen whatever we did...Some people say you could have gone and screamed in George Bush’s face and told him not to do it. It wouldn’t have mattered...Australia could not have stopped the Americans doing what they did in Iraq in 2003.

This is a fascinating assessment of what Australia — and perhaps even Britain — could achieve within the alliance, and is contradicted by one of the ‘wise owls’ of the US foreign policy establishment, Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser to Gerald Ford and George Bush snr. In February, 2008, Scowcroft told Peter Hartcher that the US might not have gone ahead with the Iraq invasion without the military support of Australia and Britain.

I don’t think the President would have done it absolutely alone...He needed some cover, and you [Australia] and the British gave it to him. If you and the Brits had said, “Sorry, Mr President, we can’t go along with you on that”, it wouldn’t have happened.

Scowcroft noted that Australia would have paid a price for defying a US request for help: ‘If you had said no, it would have been a serious blow.’

The logic of Downer’s analysis of Australia’s role in the decision to go to war is troubling, coming from a government that claimed to have put so much effort into building the alliance. Ultimately, on this Downer view, Australia would carry no weight if it had said no, but would be a useful ally if it said yes.

Australia had invoked the alliance and pledged to fight along side the US. Yet Australia could have no influence on the decision to attack Iraq – a military and geopolitical hinge point for this decade. The Downer assessment of any Australian attempt to say no – 'It wouldn’t have mattered' — will be more useful to future opponents of the US alliance than to supporters.

Photo by Flickr user Mugofevil, used under a Creative Commons license.