(Published on ‘The Drum’ 3 November 2010)
Australia’s alliance with the USA seems to be popular with the Australian electorate.
Polls by the Lowy Institute (LI) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) suggest strong support for the Australian-US alliance.
These polls tell us that most Australians regard the alliance as important “for Australia’s security”. But they do not tell us much about the level of understanding that the public has regarding our alliance obligations, or the range of views as to what those obligations should be.
We know for example that a majority of the Australian public was opposed to Australian participation in the war in Iraq – so how does this sit with the apparent widespread support for the alliance?
Widespread support for the alliance is not a good enough reason for Australian Governments to adopt a lackadaisical approach towards periodic, but nevertheless rigorous, review of the alliance as well as the way that it should operate in practice. There is a substantial gap between the formal terms of the alliance, as set out in the ANZUS treaty, and the way that many senior Australian politicians typically interpret our alliance obligations.
The most cursory examination of the ANZUS treaty reveals that its focus is maintenance of peace in the Pacific area. While it recognises that Australia has “military obligations outside of the Pacific” these obligations are couched as being a consequence of our membership of “the British Commonwealth of nations”. This would surely come as a surprise to most Australians. We might justify participation in war or peacekeeping as stemming from our national interest or obligations to the UN or as arising out of our alliance obligations to the US. But nowadays even the staunchest monarchist would likely regard as outdated the notion that any military obligations we have outside of the Pacific stem from our being part of the “British Commonwealth”.
And the simple fact is that the terms of the ANZUS treaty imposed absolutely no obligation on Australia to become involved in the war in Iraq. In fact, if anything Australian support for the US in Iraq arguably ran contrary to a reasonable construction of the terms of the ANZUS treaty.
Article I of the treaty says that the parties will “…refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.” Article IV says that any attack must be reported to the UN Security Council and any measures taken in response to an attack “shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”
The intervention in Iraq was a pre-emptive military action occurring outside of the Pacific where Security Council authorisation was, at best, ambiguous and in the view of many international lawyers, completely absent. But in any event, Australia’s participation in Iraq cannot credibly be sheeted home to any formal obligation arising from the text of the ANZUS treaty.
Yet at least some senior Australian politicians saw our involvement in Iraq as an inevitable consequence of the alliance. Former Howard Government Minister, and leader in the Senate, Nick Minchin, has recently stated that he thought the US decision to invade Iraq, while the war in Afghanistan was still raging, was a mistake. But once the US moved to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime, Senator Minchin says he knew Australia had to support the decision even though it would prove to affect the coalition campaign in Afghanistan in a “negative fashion”.
Clearly then, at least some Australian politicians consider that our alliance obligations go beyond obligations that arise from the treaty. This may be legitimate but it gives rise to some issues. If it is not the ANZUS treaty, what is the true source of our alliance obligations? Where are the principles that are to be applied in practice set out? Are we obliged to support any US action, in any part of the world, no matter how adventurous, no matter what the preponderance of international opinion and no matter what the position of the UN or the Security Council?
The national interest demands that the principles that underlie our alliance obligations be reviewed and properly articulated. Widespread support for the US alliance is no excuse to refrain from this review. There would likely be many Australians who, although generally supportive of an alliance with the US, would not agree that Australia should have participated in the intervention in Iraq if such participation was regarded by senior members of the government as a “mistake”.
There should be bi-partisan support for a review. Those who support the continuation of the alliance should want to see the principles underlying it better articulated. Those who do not support it, or want to see it applied in a more limited way, should welcome the opportunity to contribute their views. If nothing else the ANZUS treaty needs updating. For example, archaic references to the stationing of forces in and about Japan in order to secure peace require removal.
Some Australians are of the view that Australian forces should not be called to action other than for immediate self-defence in the absence of explicit authorisation of both houses of Parliament. Both major parties reject this view and support any decisions to go to war remaining the exclusive prerogative of the executive arm of government. The pros and cons of requiring Parliamentary imprimatur could be explored in a review.
But even if the prevailing view is that the decision should remain with the executive, this only strengthens the argument that if our alliance obligations go beyond the ANZUS treaty, the policy informing the obligations should be set out in clear and principled terms.
Benefits of the alliance that are often cited by its supporters include strategic cover, intelligence exchanges, and access to US weapons and technology. Opponents point to the cost of the alliance in terms of loss of Australian lives in wars that are considered to have lacked strategic or de jure merit including, but not limited to both Vietnam and Iraq. Opponents may also point to Australia’s increased economic reliance on China and may query the extent of the need for strategic cover following the end of the Cold War, as well as the value of intelligence exchanges that led to the conclusion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction when it did not. The quality of this “intelligence” was rendered even more questionable by the significant amount of information in the public domain suggesting that any threat Saddam posed had been effectively contained at the time when the invasion occurred. But whatever one’s view on these issues, a review of the alliance, its costs and benefits as well as its parameters, is in the nation’s interests.