Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 06:38 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 06:38 | SYDNEY

The new Guam doctrine


Graeme Dobell

14 April 2010 13:54

The new Guam doctrine will mark a significant stepping-stone in the creation of Asia's concert of powers. This ranks as a 'brave' prediction, because we don't yet have an Asian concert, and Barack Obama hasn't yet set foot on Guam to unveil a new doctrine. But both are approaching.

If Obama had not tarried in Washington to deliver the health centrepiece of his first presidential term, we would by now have the new Guam doctrine on display. But for Obamacare, the president would have made his tour last month – Guam, Indonesia and Australia. That trip is now scheduled for June.

The Guam stopover will underline the point that the US is spending billions on the island as a fresh assertion of its continuing role as Asia's military guarantor. A previous column offered this translation of the doctrine that will be blessed when Obama makes his Guam touchdown: 'We're going to be here for a long time yet.'

But my translation sentence is deficient because it reflects only the military dimension of the new doctrine. The beauty of what Obama will offer is that it will have a second, multilateral (Concert of Powers) dimension, building on the military framework of the US bilateral alliance system in Asia.

A translation of both dimensions of the Obama doctrine would look like this: 'We're going to be here for a long time yet, but we are certainly ready to talk about new ways to  run the neighbourhood.' Or to put it more formally: the new doctrine will link a continuing assertion of US military capability to a willingness to think new thoughts about Asia's security architecture and a concert of powers.

A new Guam doctrine resonates in Canberra because Nixon's original version had such a profound impact on Australian defence thinking. Heading for the Vietnam exit door, Nixon used a stop-over press conference in Guam on 25 July, 1969, to float a thought bubble about US allies needing to take care of themselves. In dealing with non-nuclear threats, Nixon said, the US would 'look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for defence.'

The rough translation of that at the time in Asia and Australia went like this: We're getting out of Vietnam. Good luck, everybody. We suggest a Do It Yourself kit for defence.'

Sitting back in Washington, Kissinger later wrote of his 'amazement' that what had been private White House musings had suddenly been unveiled in an unscripted, impromptu pronouncement on Guam. The off-the-cuff announcement meant there'd been no briefing, consultation or forewarning for allies.

The strategic shift via press conference caused all sorts of frissons across the region, not least in Canberra. It didn't equal the magnitude of the Nixon-goes-to-China shock, but it certainly made an impression. Indeed, it was the reaction of allies as much as Nixon's words that turned the Guam presser into the Guam doctrine.

After Guam, Australia was on notice that forward defence and reliance on the great and powerful ally did not amount to a defence policy. And as the US exit from Vietnam gathered pace, the Guam doctrine grew in significance. Every Australian Defence White Paper since 1976 has been, in part, a post-Guam document. The argument ricochets, rebounds and recurs:  How much weight for the alliance versus spending on self reliance? Defend the continent or help the neighbourhood? Is it a regional capability or an expeditionary force?

The affirmation of the US commitment to its role as an Asian power has been a standard couple of paragraphs in most post-Cold War speeches by visiting US presidents and secretaries of State or Defence. Guam puts fresh dollars behind those words. The new superbase is a military statement of intent expressed in concrete. 

What Obama can do is define the meaning of a new Guam doctrine in ways that reach beyond the military dimension. The Obama version of the Guam doctrine can be about conversation as well as concrete.

 Photo by Flickr user TailspinT, used under a Creative cmmons license.