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It's time to trade in, and trade up, the outdated ANZUS treaty

By Daniel Flitton - posted Thursday, 15 April 2004

The foundation of Australia's security relationship with the United States is the ANZUS Treaty. Signed in 1951, this concise pact of 800-odd words, made up of just 11 articles, remains "fundamental to our national security" - if you believe the current government. Most Australians do, according to the polls at least.

In a detailed public survey taken during the 2001 election, nearly 90 per cent of respondents rated the treaty "important" to Australia's security (many considered it "very important"). An overwhelming number of those people surveyed also believed that Australia could rely on US military support should the need ever arise.

An interesting question that the pollsters didn't ask is who has actually read the ANZUS Treaty. Show of hands? There might be more arms raised in Canberra than anywhere else but it still won't be many.


Assuming then that Australians are largely unaware of the treaty's contents, how is this positive regard for the alliance explained? One reason is that ANZUS is consistently and uncritically revered in public. For instance, in the lead-up to the agreement's 50th anniversary (observed just before the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US), media commentators formed together in a choir of acclaim, lauding "a crucial security partnership", "Australia's ultimate security blanket", "our priceless military alliance", "so valuable, even after half a century".

Most of these observers avoided mention of New Zealand, the lapsed alliance partner, because that might expose the absurdity of the celebration - though in one impressive display of mental agility, a visiting US naval commander had no problem resolving this cognitive dissonance.

He declared the "fact that it's a three-country treaty that's still in effect after 50 years speaks highly of the close ties that the United States has to Australia".

But sir, there are only two left ... oh, never mind.

Anyone who dares to question the benefits of ANZUS is instantly maligned. The Labor Party is routinely warned by venerable analysts that an open debate on the alliance amounts to "electoral poison". Consequently, in the absence of thoughtful and ongoing evaluation, it's little wonder that the treaty is so overwhelmingly approved.

The public hears only the sound of one needle knitting. Another reason for the popular affection toward the treaty is best explained by the Prime Minister. According to John Howard, "We should remember that in the end there is only one country that can help with us to guarantee our security and that is the United States". So, presumably, forget any opportunity Australia has to secure itself.


Again, this view is supported by opinion polls. Most Australians, almost two-thirds according to the survey at the last election, think we would be unable to successfully protect ourselves if ever attacked (and the country considered the most likely threat is Indonesia).

But if Australians en masse picked up and read over a copy of the ANZUS Treaty at their local library, would they be satisfied with the content? Probably not, especially if they accept the view of the Prime Minister.

Howard repeatedly argues that traditional concepts of security and defence, built to counter "war with armies rolling across borders", are outdated because of the threat of indiscriminate terrorism. The message? Forget Indonesia and focus on Jemaah Islamiyah. Australia must face up to this new reality in international politics.

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This article was first published in The Canberra Times on 12 April 2004.

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About the Author

Daniel Flitton is a Visiting Research Associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and works at the Australian National University, Canberra.

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