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The US would not sacrifice the alliance with Australia over Iraq

By Gary Brown - posted Wednesday, 23 June 2004

The public disagreements over Iraq between the Bush administration in Washington and the Labor Opposition in Canberra highlight, not for the first time, the sometimes sensitive nature of relations between allied democracies. This becomes especially relevant when a great disparity of power and influence exists between them. The US President has described the Labor policy of withdrawing some defence personnel - not, it should be noted, the naval and RAAF elements on patrol in the Gulf maritime environment - from Iraq by Christmas as "disastrous."

US Secretary of State Powell, in an effort to minimise any backlash in Australia from those whose national sensibilities might have been offended by the interventions from Bush and others, has lately said that the future of the Australian-American alliance would not be at issue if Labor wins the next Federal election.

The nature of the relationship between the former Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact "allies" was always crystal clear. Though there were nuances in some cases (Ceacescu's Romania had a little more room to move, for example) their description as "satellite states" was largely accurate. With democracies, however, relationships are less clear cut.


Australia is a willing ally of the US. We were not forced into the relationship and force would not be used against us if we decided to terminate it. Nevertheless, experience shows that Washington will use what can be described as strenuous influence, amounting to strong political pressure, to achieve desired security policy outcomes in an allied state.

In 1982, the Labor Opposition adopted a policy against visits of nuclear-armed warships to Australia. The Reagan Administration reacted, in collaboration with the Fraser government, by launching a powerful attack on the Labor Party and its then leader, Bill Hayden. The 1982 ANZUS Council meeting was turned into a circus where Fraser Ministers and a senior US spokesperson alternated in denouncing the policy. Significantly, and unlike Secretary Powell recently, the Americans went so far as to hint that they could not work with a Hayden Labor government if one were elected in 1983. A much-chastened Hayden had to reverse his position, and the credibility loss was one factor in his overthrow by Hawke on the eve of that poll.

A not dissimilar, and equally successful, campaign was waged by the US in Britain during a mid-80s election during which the Kinnock Labour Opposition advocated scrapping the British nuclear force and banning nuclear weapons from the country.

Thus, it would seem the US has form when it comes to meddling in the security policies of its allies, especially where these policies are the subject of controversy approaching an election. But there is one other case to consider: that of New Zealand.

The New Zealand "nuclear ships" controversy of the 1980s is most instructive. Once the Lange Labour government enacted its famous "anti-nuclear" legislation, it seemed all over between Wellington and Washington. The preceding two to three years had seen increasingly acrimonious exchanges between the two countries, and finally Washington withdrew its alliance "guarantee" with New Zealand, terminated its exercise program with the New Zealand military and generally expressed its disapproval of New Zealand’s policy stance. Wellington, however, was unmoved and the policy has become a fixture on the Kiwi political landscape. Indeed, it appeared at the time that the perceived "bullying" from Washington actually strengthened Lange's hand at home, so that the US may have driven an ally away in the interests of preserving its then nuclear policy.

Interestingly, the United States did not cut New Zealand off from all military contacts. Indeed, it supplied technology for upgrades of New Zealand military aircraft. Still more significant, it supplied key technology for a New Zealand intelligence intercept station at Waihopai (South Island), similar to one built a little later near Geraldton in Western Australia - cooperating with this recalcitrant ex-ally in an area of great sensitivity. More recently, the US and New Zealand have each seemed content to bury their nuclear differences and get on with being non-allied states enjoying cordial relations. Ironically, post-Cold War under the elder President Bush, the US ceased to deploy the naval tactical nuclear weapons that were the initial subject of dispute.


Colin Powell at least seems to realise that what worked in Australia in 1982 may be dangerous in 2004. Though loyally echoing Bush's line, Powell has been careful to place limits on the extent of US disapproval of the Labor Party's Iraq policy. He knows that to be seen actually trying to influence an election result here would likely backfire.

He also understands, as many seem not to (though the government is partly to blame, as it is not given to publicising the fine print in the Labor policy), that the Latham policy is too small a thing on which to hang a major split. Australia's contribution inside Iraq is, in the overall scheme, miniscule and operationally insignificant. It is, in fact, purely symbolic and of political value only. Latham's willingness to maintain naval and air patrol activity in the Gulf shows that he is not, as the US might otherwise say, isolationist. If Labor wins the election and implements its Iraq policy, the US will doubtless express its regrets and disappointment (as it has with the recent Spanish post-election decision). More substantive negative reactions are unlikely: the US has too few allies as reliable as Australia to be alienating it as Reagan did New Zealand.

It will, however, be interesting to see if the restraint shown by Secretary Powell holds as elections in both countries draw near, and as the Coalition in Australia solicits ammunition from Washington to fire at Latham's Labor. Colin Powell has always been the most rational of the Bush Administration's top security officials; however, he has not always been able to control the agenda. If we get anti-Labor statements of a more inflammatory tone from the likes of Vice-President Cheney, or top Pentagon officials like Donald Rumsfeld or Richard Armitage, we will know that the international brotherhood of political conservatives has acted to protect its own here, and that at the end of the day the present US administration values not our country as a strategic ally but our government as a political friend.

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About the Author

Until June 2002 Gary Brown was a Defence Advisor with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service at Parliament House, Canberra, where he provided confidential advice and research at request to members and staffs of all parties and Parliamentary committees, and produced regular publications on a wide range of defence issues. Many are available at here.

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