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US-Australia alliance slowly develops new unity

By Don DeBats - posted Monday, 29 July 2019

The 2019 Lowy Institute annual poll provides new data on how Australians view this nation's most important international relationships, which includes the US/Australia Alliance. The pivot point for Lowy polls in recent years has been the US and China, contrasting Australian attitudes toward the nation's most important trading partner and its most important security guarantor. Public opinion data is, of course, always yesterday's news, and not necessarily reliable news, but the Lowy trend lines visible in the new data in respect of the US and China are interesting, perhaps suggesting a systemic change.

Allen and Unwin's decision in late 2017 to reject Clive Hamilton's manuscript detailing efforts of the Chinese central government to influence politics and culture in Australia, including the US alliance, for fear of retribution from China, may have been the apogee of a narrative that once appeared compelling. That trope was that Australia's economic dependence on China involved only interests. The Chinese regime was viewed as benign and Australia's economic interest would stifle critical responses to any of China's anti-democratic tendencies: interests would, and should trump, ideas.

Already the tide was turning. Julie Bishop, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, was perhaps the first, in early 2017, to enunciate a counter narrative that continued with Malcolm Turnbull's more critical statements on China and culminated in the forced resignation of ALP Senator Sam Dastyari at the end of 2017 over charges of improper Chinese connections. Irony was served as this occurred just as Allen and Unwin was making its decision not to publish Hamilton's book. The decision of Hardie Grant to publish the book (Silent Invasion: China's Influence in Australia)in late February 2018 reflected a dramatically different tone to Australian-China relations. The Lowy polling data appears to reflect this wider change in attitude.


The localized change that runs against convergence is of course the Trump Administration, which has weakened Australians' affinity with the US as the new Lowy data also shows. Donald Trump inspires even less confidence among Lowy respondents than Xi Jinping. Yet trust in China to act responsibly in the world fell to the lowest level (32%) in 15 years of Lowy polling. Trust in the US to act responsibly remained the same as last year, albeit not at an encouragingly high level (52%). Threat perceptions of foreign interference in Australian politics and culture rose from 41% in last year's poll to 49% in 2019. And despite President Trump and the anti-Americanism that has perennial appeal in Australia (especially when there is a president of whom elites strongly disapprove), seven out of ten Australians believe the alliance is either very or fairly important for Australia's security, not far different than the reading 15 years ago. Even Trump has not trumped this valuation.

For the US-Australia Alliance, a shared purpose, and a broad understanding of its purpose, may be coming into focus in Australia as it is in the US. Views change in both countries as evidence mounts of China's movement toward an authoritarian and autocratic political order directed against liberal democratic ideals. In much of Congress, the White House, and the US military this is more harshly set as part and parcel of an existential threat posed by autocratic societies (China and Russia) to replace the liberal international world order established after the Second World War.

Nowhere is this shared perspective more evident than the similar challenges faced by both Australia and the US as they confront the contested domain of cyberspace, a matter central to the their defence and security. In this there is a recognition that the cyber world has enabled autocracies (China and Russia) to exert control over their populations while simultaneously providing the tools to attack the openness of democratic societies.

A balanced alliance is based on strong economic, diplomatic, and military relationships. The Australia-US Alliance has all three. But who wants a hollowed-out alliance where every initiative comes from the highest level? As trust develops, links forged at every level: government, institutional, professional, individual become stronger. Strong multi-level links arise from mutual understanding and a shared purpose.

Like any relationship, the US/Australia relationship has shifted over time, moving, very slowly and far more recently than we might think, from shared interests to shared ideals. Trust across the multiple dimensions of the Australia-US relationship creates the stepping-stones along that path. Making that pathway difficult is the dichotomy between an Australian political culture rooted in a Benthamite focus on the primacy of interests and the American political culture arising from a Lockean political philosophy, in which interests certainly exist but ideals remain central.

The American approach to Chinese economic development rested on an ideational assumption: that a middle class would arise and would aspire to, and would gain, democratic rights and freedoms. The Australian approach was far more interest driven: that China's development was an economic boon for Australia. Over the past few years, the shifting perception of China in both nations has resulted in a diminution of that disconnect.


Instrumental in this are the web of complex relationships spawned by the two treaties that link Australia and the US: the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) of 1951 and the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) of 2005. As is so often the case, these treaties have generated a network of trusted sub-agreements even if the treaties themselves have major weakness and problems.

ANZUS is not NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), though they were created at almost the same time. NATO requires member nations to come to the aid of any other member; ANZUS requires the member states to consult about coming to the aid of another member. Nevertheless, the ANZUS Treaty has provided the framework for the increase in trust between Australia and the US and the movement from shared interests to shared ideals and values. The ANZUS treaty created the Australia US Ministerial talks (AUSMIN) to bring together the foreign and defense ministers on an annual basis: this has given rise to 250 additional bilateral legal agreements. Increasing levels of military interoperability have developed: Australia has preferred status in the purchase of US military equipment, which is not code for dependence: the Australian Defence Force could not be the force it is without access to external technology. And the other options are perhaps less palatable. Perhaps the most valuable spin off from the increasing place of trust in the Australia US relationship was the inclusion of Australia in 1956 as a member of Five Eyes, joining the foundation members (the US, UK).. .

Likewise, the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement has led to powerful sub-agreements. Economics, of course, is overwhelmingly a matter of interests and the clashes of interests were on full display in the development of the AUSFTA. Various Australian government-sponsored modelling programs produced fantastical predictions of massive trade expansion between the two nations. Some academics, on the other hand, predicted an economic disaster for Australia as imagined in How to Kill a Country: Australia's Devastating Trade Deal with the United States.The result after 24 years is indeed worsening trade deficits in Australia's trade with the US in both goods and services: up from 30% to 43% in goods and from 30% to 46% in services.

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About the Author

Don DeBats is Head of the Department of American Studies, Professor of American Studies and Professor of Politics and International Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide. His research focus is 19th century U.S. political history and he keeps a close watch on contemporary U.S. politics.

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