For all the furore it generated, the prickly phone call between Donald Trump and Malcolm Turnbull was a blip in Australia’s alliance relations with the US.
In the mid-1950s Canberra and Washington differed over how to respond to the communist threat in Indochina. In the 60s we were at odds over Indonesia’s claim to Western New Guinea (now Papua), the struggle for independence in Laos and open versus preferential trade arrangements. The alliance was spectacularly imperilled when personal relations between Richard Nixon and Gough Whitlam broke down almost completely in 1973 over Australian criticisms of the “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong.
The alliance later experienced severe strains over Ronald Reagan’s response to Soviet missile deployments in Europe, the Labor left’s opposition to joint defence facilities, and the Hawke government’s rejection of a US request to support MX missile tests. With the end of the Cold War, Australia-US tensions again focused on trade.
Nor are periods of Australian doubt about US staying power and commitment to our region anything new.
Australian worries about US disengagement from the region have recurred periodically since 1945. They were pronounced in the aftermath of Vietnam and the bombshell announcement of the Guam Doctrine, when Nixon called on US allies in Asia to take more responsibility for their own defence, and again after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
It’s hardly a surprise, then, that doubts are resurfacing in the face of China’s rise and a shifting power balance in Asia, and following the election of a US president sceptical of the value of America’s alliance commitments. Opposition to the US alliance is a longstanding minority strand of Australian foreign policy opinion, often dormant but virulent nonetheless.
This often manifests in calls for Australia to adopt a more “independent” foreign policy — a vacuous slogan that was popular in the debate about Iraq in 2003 and is resurfacing today in the context of China.
This ignores the reality that working with the US on security issues has not only contributed materially to our security and to the stability and prosperity of our region but hasn’t held us back from pursuing our other interests, such as trade.
A second, related, argument is that maintaining a strong alliance with the US is inimical to nurturing close relationships in our region.
For all Labor’s mythologising, it was Robert Menzies who declared in 1939 that “in the Pacific we have primary responsibilities and primary risks … What Great Britain calls the Far East is to us the near north”, and it was Menzies’ brilliant foreign minister Percy Spender who not only negotiated the ANZUS Treaty but launched the Colombo Plan in Asia.
But even more than Menzies it was John Howard who demonstrated — by building closer ties with Japan, China, South Korea, India, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries as well as a deeper American alliance — that, far from jeopardising our relationships in Asia, a strong alliance with the US adds weight and value to Australia’s regional engagement.
A third argument that is frequently made is that the alliance may endanger our economic interests in China.
The national interest is our lodestar when it comes to weighing closer co-operation with our allies. But neither should we allow ourselves to be intimidated into compromising our fundamental national security choices or values through the threat of economic payback.
For one thing, China’s economic leverage over Australia is less than many Australians assume. The other key point, however, is that a strong alliance with the US strengthens Australia’s hand when it comes to confronting possible economic coercion.
For all its domestic dysfunction, America will remain the world’s richest and most powerful country for the foreseeable future. Even if one were to accept China’s inexorable rise, relative US decline and the emergence of a more multipolar world, what will matter most to Australia is how to shape our region and influence how other powers, particularly China, behave.
The notion that the best way to achieve this is to distance ourself from the US and to think that China will then respect and listen to us more flies in the face not only of logic and international theory but also of experience.
Nonetheless, the election of Trump as President has induced a rash of calls for Australia to do precisely that.
President Trump’s temperament, Twitter outbursts, “America first” rhetoric and track record of ambivalence about US international security commitments have given opponents of the alliance a free kick.
We are already seeing the Labor Party abandon its traditional support for Israel. Bill Shorten supports the US alliance, as does his party’s current policy. But we may be about to enter an era when bipartisan political support for the alliance can no longer be assumed.
Until now commentators have tended to worry about Australia being dragged into a war with China.
More recently, of course, it has been less “entrapment” in war between the US and China that has been in prospect than the risk of Australia being caught up in a conflict with North Korea.
To judge from much of the commentary you would think that President Trump’s supposed unsteadiness is the real threat, rather than Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and missile programs and brinkmanship.
In this context it is good to see the Australian government firmly supporting the Trump administration’s position and declaring that Australia would invoke ANZUS in the event of a North Korean attack on the US.
No matter who occupies the White House, it has always been in Australia’s national interest to build the strongest possible relationship with the US, and to maximise access and influence in Washington to help shape American policies in ways that support our national interests.
Andrew Shearer is a senior adviser on Asia-Pacific security at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, and is the CD Kemp Fellow of the Institute of Public Affairs. He was national security adviser to prime ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott. This is the edited text of an address he will deliver at the IPA in Sydney tonight.