The Australian Literary Review
By James Curran
In early May 1968 the White House was preparing to receive John Gorton for his first official visit to Washington as prime minister.
The stated purpose of Gorton's meeting with president Lyndon Johnson was to discuss the situation in Vietnam and future US and Australian policy in Asia, particularly given the forthcoming British military withdrawal from Malaysia and Singapore.
But it was also an opportunity for the two leaders to get to know each other. On that score the Americans were in receipt of a most unusual request from the Australian side. Aware that on Harold Holt's last visit to the White House in July 1967 the president had departed from the schedule to share an unceremonious sandwich with him, the Australians were hoping that the pattern would be repeated. Indeed they had even cancelled a lunch invitation from the US secretary of state - an extraordinary diplomatic faux pas - "just in case the president should wish to extend the meeting" beyond the allotted hour.
The Australian embassy in Washington had also apparently made it clear that Gorton's ego would be bruised if "he didn't get some of the Holt treatment". According to Walt Rostow, Johnson's special assistant for national security affairs, it was evident that the Australians were "hoping for another sandwich". Another adviser, tired of trying to resolve this Australian problem, confessed a certain annoyance at the antipodean exertion to extract from the president a "spontaneous show of instant fellowship".
In the end, the presidential sandwich eluded Gorton. But he was treated to dinner on the presidential yacht on the Potomac, an impromptu breakfast with Johnson and a weekend sojourn at the president's ranch alongside the Pedernales River in Texas. Still, that didn't stop Johnson bursting into a lunch with Australian journalists later that year to admit he was "furious" with Gorton's criticisms of the administration's Vietnam policies. According to one shocked guest, it was clear that the president had "not taken to Gorton one little bit".
This is the soft underbelly of the Australia-US alliance, the cosmetic contest to see who gets the best reception in Washington. It is a pastime that both sides of politics in Australia, with some exceptions, have indulged, cross-checking: whether a prime minister is invited to Blair House, the residence across from the White House reserved for visiting VIPs; how much time each leader spends in the Oval Office; how many touches of informality or spontaneity are provided; whether the visit extends to the president's private home. Sadly, in recent times some Australian commentators have treated the rhetorical and ceremonial syrup of a prime minister's Washington reception as the barometer of where Australia sits in the American pantheon of friends and allies.
This parsing of presidential protocol and sifting through visit schedules to divine the holy grail of access is ultimately a futile enterprise. It diminishes understanding of the alliance's history and fails to ask how or whether such treatment leads to a greater Australian say in the making of policy affecting its vital national interests. And it tends to cloud judgment about the challenges the alliance will confront in the future and the circumstances in which Australia may or may not be able to depend on American support.
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the ANZUS treaty, signed in San Francisco on September 1, 1951. No doubt alliance critics will bemoan a legacy of lost or thwarted independence in just the same way as unreflective alliance boosters will channel the warm inner glow of a supposedly resurgent "Anglosphere". Now is not the time to draw up a simplistic profit and loss account of the relationship since 1951. From the Australian perspective, however, there are three basic points about the ANZUS alliance that might be kept in mind as the speeches of commemoration flow.
The first is that since the signing of the treaty it has been the unquestioned first principle of Australian foreign policy. Although there have been disagreements about how it is to be interpreted and in what circumstances the treaty would come into force, there have never been any serious suggestions Australia should abrogate the treaty. Australia could not contemplate going down the path New Zealand took in the 1980s, when it risked its membership in the alliance by not allowing US nuclear armed or powered ships into its ports. Second, the alliance has attracted sustained bipartisan support over the past 60 years, under many different governments and through many different circumstances. Third, there is the undeniable deterrence factor that the alliance represents. In other words, if another power in the region is contemplating hostile action against Australia it at least has to keep the treaty in mind.
It is worth remembering, however, that neither side got what it originally wanted from the treaty. From the beginning, the US was quite clear that it saw no communist threat to Australia and was agreeing to enter into the treaty in order to persuade the Australians to accept a "soft peace" for Japan and perhaps to provide a framework for a more comprehensive containment alliance that would include the East Asian offshore island states. Given Australia's ongoing distrust of Japan and also Indonesia, that American vision of an island chain never came to fruition.
But the Americans were clear-headed about how they interpreted the alliance. As the US chief negotiator John Foster Dulles put it immediately after its terms had been settled: "the US can discharge its obligations . . . in any way and in any area that it sees fit". And it would seem clear that the Americans, understandably, subsequently acted in full accord with this spirit. Article IV of the ANZUS treaty never carried the same guarantee of US military action that was enshrined in the equivalent clause in the NATO treaty.
Similarly Australia's lead negotiator Percy Spender, who wanted access to the Pentagon's global planning processes, in the end had to accept that the Americans would never allow the presence of a junior ally at the centre of its global policy making. For Australian leaders, these disappointments provoked much anxiety and anguish over the scope of the treaty. It sowed seeds of doubt as to whether, in fact, the Americans would come to Australia's aid at a time of trouble.
In the 1950s and 60s, significant differences with Washington over Indonesia's desire to annex the Dutch-held territory of West New Guinea and Jakarta's subsequent policy of confrontation towards the Malaysian Federation gave practical expression to these doubts. Australians learned the hard way that professions of solidarity with the great and powerful friend did not necessarily equate to effective co-operation and substantive assistance. On these two vital regional issues, the Americans either left Australia out in the cold in the negotiations or committed themselves to help in such a way that more or less emptied their pledges of support of any meaning.
But instead of pushing Australia towards greater self-reliance these repeated rebuffs only served to increase the pleas for American reassurance. So much so that by 1970, upon his return from six years as Australian Ambassador to the US, Keith Waller could confide to an academic at the ANU that he had been constantly embarrassed in Washington by a stream of Australian ministers coming through and asking the Americans, in effect: "Does ANZUS still apply? Are you serious when you say you will help us?"
Where the US administration "kept reiterating its sincerity", Waller added, the Australians "never seemed to be entirely convinced". In all the most important decisions taken by the US relating to its withdrawal from Vietnam, the shape of its future policy in Asia and the transformation in its China policy under president Richard Nixon, the much-vaunted closeness of the alliance counted for little. Australians were informed after the decisions had been made or learned about them from the newspapers. In 1973 one foreign diplomat in Canberra, commenting on Australian exasperation at the difficulty in securing an
invitation for Gough Whitlam to visit the Nixon White House, observed that it was "hard for Australians to realise that there are many more important matters than American-Australian relations on the president's plate".
This is not to harp on the periodic divergence of respective national interests at the expense of the important benefits Australia obtains from its relationship with America, particularly in intelligence sharing. Nor is it intended to construct a gloomy history of the alliance, in which "little" Australia is inevitably betrayed or taken for granted by its great power protector.
As historian David McLean has argued, at the height of the Cold War Australians often did not follow the Americans blindly and were deft in trying to use the alliance to further the country's distinctive national interests. In the case of Vietnam, for example, far from being duped into fighting by its great power ally, the Australians encouraged American intervention and indeed pressed Washington to continue the fight.
Rather, the purpose is to inject a little more historical ballast to the debate over what role the alliance will play in Australia's strategic future. The lessons of history here are twofold: first, that in the past US and Australian interests have on occasion collided as well as coincided; and second, that it is not a new question therefore to ask what the alliance means for Australia.
Indeed, to ask such questions need not be perceived as questioning the enduring importance of the alliance. Granted, today's circumstances are very different to those that faced politicians in the 1960s and 70s, but it is pure folly to suggest that difficult times are not ahead for policymakers as they continue to ask what the rise of China means for the future of the alliance in Asia. This is not a time to be making absolute judgments. At a recent summit in Sydney hosted by the University of Sydney's US Studies Centre, the American journalist James Fallows observed that Australians were "improperly nervous" about the future of US policy in Asia. And former under-secretary of state Nicholas Burns, taking the point further, stated that the US could "dominate" Asia for the foreseeable future. Yet soothing though both statements may be, they should be treated with caution.
Australia has had similar alliance jitters before. Following the enunciation of the Nixon doctrine in July 1969, in which the US called for its Asian allies to assume the initial and main share of the burden for their own defence, many Australian leaders believed the US was pulling out of the region entirely. That didn't happen. But what it did do was prompt Australia to redefine the alliance for the new and more fluid, multi-polar world that was emerging at the time.
Thus in 1971 when the American intelligence community undertook a study of Australia's policy ferment, it concluded that Canberra was "reassessing the basic premises of its security in the light of fundamental changes in the Asian structure of power, above all, the declining US profile in Asia . . . All of this may prompt a reconsideration of alternatives to exclusive reliance upon the US guarantee as a source of security and has already provoked efforts to begin establishing a larger measure of diplomatic manoeuvrability."
That policy change and agility came most dramatically with the election of Gough Whitlam, who successfully redefined the relationship to give Australia more independence within and without the alliance. There's no doubt that Whitlam got under the American skin. Indeed, so concerned was Nixon with the ongoing divergence in Australian and American approaches to key regional policies that in July 1974, a month before his resignation over Watergate, he asked the National Security Council to explore options for removing US military installations from Australia and ending intelligence sharing.
The governments of Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, though keeping constant faith with the alliance as the core security arrangement for the nation, did not attempt to give it a more substantial content. As the Defence White Paper of 1987 put it - repeating the basic premise of Australian defence doctrine since the previous decade: "Our alliance with the US does not free us from the responsibility to make appropriate provision for our own security." During these years all governments were giving their creative energies to fostering relations with East Asia both for economic and security reasons. "Comprehensive engagement with Asia" was their overarching policy ambition.
With John Howard came a marked shift in how the alliance was framed in the public debate. In the post 9/11 era he argued that "the importance of national security issues now rivals the importance they occupied in the 1950s and 60s". And yet in Howard's halcyon days of the alliance - the Cold War - the Americans acted arbitrarily on matters that directly affected Australia's particular regional interests. For Howard however, Australia in the war on terror could depend, as it had supposedly done in the Cold War, on the projection of American global power.
Not only did he follow Bush into Iraq, he stated that Australia would apply the pre-emption doctrine to Southeast Asia if required. Howard showed a certain dexterity in his simultaneous handling of the alliance alongside a burgeoning economic relationship with China. But these two sides of the Howard doctrine were not equal. The relationship with China represented a pragmatic conjunction of interests, while the American alliance was based on shared values and culture.
Those values of language and literature, culture and character, history and heritage are indeed important and should never be lightly dismissed. But they cannot be the only prism through which the alliance is measured. Sentimentalism can only ever go so far.
The plain, cold hard facts of the matter are that it is always hard for Australia to get on the American radar. This is not to say that Australian access anxiety is a simple by-product of the current White House, run as it is like a tight-knit Chicago political machine. It is the simple reality that America is a superpower whose optic and interests are necessarily global. That has been the case for the life of the alliance: it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
It means that a romanticised history of the alliance cannot be the foundation for the future or the basis for policy. Paul Dibb has noted, for example, that Obama is the first American president in Australia's post-war history who has little memory or knowledge of alliance co-operation in the Cold War. But, it has to be asked, what difference would this historical picture make to Obama's Asia policy?
In similar vein there is the oft-expressed view that with the dissolution of the strategic rationale of the Cold War, the worldwide struggle against the Soviet Union, the bonds holding the alliance together have weakened. But again, such comments assume the Cold War was a period where Australians could rely on rock-solid support under the terms of the alliance.
Yet the documentary record, in all its colour and complexity, shows that such a view is difficult to sustain. In the Asian pecking order it remains the case that Japan, South Korea, The Philippines and Thailand will attract more of the Americans' attention. For the Americans, the Asian littoral is the real centre of regional gravity, as it has been since the inception of the alliance.
Just as in the 70s American diplomats noted the passing of the Coral Sea generation and the challenges this posed for managing a newly assertive and nationalistic Australia, so too do Australians today have to better understand the American world-view, especially the lingering shock of 9/11.
It is impossible, too, to underestimate the hand that was dealt Obama on his election in 2008: two wars and an economy on the slide. Even so, while the Middle East will continue to soak up most of the president's foreign policy agenda, it is also clear that this administration, much like its predecessor, is not taking its eye off Asia.
Much of the current debate is predicated on the US losing its strategic and military primacy in Asia. That doesn't look likely in the near future, and key US regional allies are not clamouring for the Americans to leave. Similarly the growing inter-dependence of the Chinese and US economies cannot be lightly dismissed in considering the so called inevitability of conflict between these two powers. In addition, the strong likelihood that China will remain focused largely on its internal economic, environmental and demographic challenges means that some of the more alarmist scenarios about the Chinese "threat" to Australia need revisiting.
What is also certain is that telling the Americans what they want to hear is not the answer to this strategic challenge. Thus Prime Minister Julia Gillard's statement in her speech to a joint session of the US Congress in March, that Australia is "an ally for all the years to come", while
spoken with the utmost sincerity, carried the faint whiff of uncritical obeisance. And it was not too dissimilar from Howard's statement in his memoirs that the Americans need a "100 per cent ally". Gillard's positioning of Australia in that speech as a southern "anchor" for the US in Asia repeated the language of US intelligence assessments from the early 1970s. Like Howard, Gillard enshrined values at the core of the alliance.
In sum, her message was a very simple one: the US must continue to lead the world and Australia will duly follow. And yet what the former US Ambassador to Australia Marshall Green said privately of the relationship in 1973 - that "over identification with another country can itself be a problem" - remains relevant today.
Nor can Australians allow false expectations to grow from its decisions to support American interventions abroad. Niche contributions to US military operations may have formed an astute means of alliance management in the past, but can they continue to do so in the future?
Phil Scanlan, the founder of the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, recently stated that the purpose of such a group was to ensure "there are no surprises on matters Australians deem to be our highest national priorities". In his own way he was reflecting the ongoing anxiety among Australians about being left out of the American loop. "Given the established importance of the Australian alliance with the US," he added, "it's important for Australians not to presume its permanence."
But such a view all too easily assumes that the most senior American policymakers would invest the dialogue with the gravity that befits a more formal policy-making body. That in effect it will solve the problem of consultation and co-ordination that so frustrated Spender at the time the treaty was signed. It is unlikely. Some seasoned US diplomats have in the past been known to criticise how loud Australians roar about the alliance: one even referred to Australia as simply "thriving" on being "the ally with the chest puffed out . . . glorifying in access". Another referred to the fact that during the second Bush administration, some Australian politicians spent perhaps a little too much time having their egos stroked at convivial Washington barbecues.
The great irony is that even as the US has begun to shift gears in Afghanistan Australia's prime minister, perhaps aware that in the eyes of some US officials she remains somewhat suspect on the alliance, continues to sound more hawkish than the Americans. Even after Obama's recent decision to start withdrawing those troops who formed his surge in Afghanistan, Gillard sounded more resolved to stay the course than the American commander-in-chief. This is a remarkable turnaround in Australian alliance management. During the Vietnam war, Australians were virtually paralysed by fear they would be left high and dry as the Americans scaled down their war effort. Now it is as if to even signal the likelihood of a future Australian withdrawal, even a gradual one, is to break faith with the alliance.
The government also needs to bring greater scrutiny to the proposal, first expressed officially at last years AUSMIN meeting, to pre-position US military equipment in Australia and conduct enhanced joint activities with US forces as part of the Pentagon's Global Force Posture Review.
This is not to mindlessly mime the Cold War flame-throwing of Labor's left wing towards a US military presence on Australian soil, be it in the form of intelligence installations or military exercises. Rather it is to think carefully about how such an arrangement forms part of Australia's broader strategic and economic agenda. Does it box Australia into a US-led hedging strategy against its main economic trading partner?
Unfortunately, the times are not propitious for the sort of sophisticated discussion that needs to be taking place in the parliament. The government's every waking moment is consumed by the carbon tax, and that is likely to be the case until the next election settles the matter.
Above all, what is needed is a realistic alliance policy, one that while not a conscript of history is nevertheless sensitive to it. And one that doesn't assume automatically following America will necessarily result in the protection or advancement of Australia's national interest. Now, more than ever, is the time to peer through the thick fog of sentimentality that too often clouds the rhetoric, and grasp that the real test of the alliance is not always to be found in the spontaneous presidential sandwich.
James Curran is a senior lecturer in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. His latest book is Curtin's Empire.