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The Australia US Alliance under the microscope

By Michael Wesley - posted Wednesday, 6 October 2004

In a recent speech, Ambassador Robert Hutchings, Chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, posed a question that I think is crucial to thinking about the future of the Australia-US alliance. He asked, “Was the breakdown of international consensus over Iraq a temporary phenomenon or the beginning of a fundamental restructuring of the global order … in other words, was this episode attributable to personalities and domestic politics, or was something deeper at work?”  Hutchings answered his own question by suggesting that something much more profound is happening than a momentary clash over policy or poor personal chemistry between national leaders. He argued that a deep, structural rift was opening between the US and some of its long-time European allies long before 9/11, Iraq, or even the advent of the George W Bush administration.

I think he’s right, but for different reasons than those he gave in his speech. And I think that the forces at work here will have profound implications for the future of the Australia-US alliance. My argument has three parts. I’ll begin by discussing why I believe the US went to war in Iraq, and why Australia chose to support the US in that war. Then I’ll look at the factors that may affect the Australia-US alliance in two parts: first discussing the strategic considerations influencing Canberra-Washington ties in the years ahead; then looking at some of the political forces that may come into play to determine the nature of our alliance relationship.

The decision to go to war in Iraq

The American decision to go war in Iraq, and the Australian decision to support the United States, tells us some important things about the status of the alliance in 2003. While perhaps personalities, ideological dispositions and oil interests played some role in these decision processes, I think their role was marginal. The US went to war for hard strategic reasons and Australia followed for similarly hard-headed reasons. Before going further, I should point out that none of what follows draws on any of my experiences working at the Office of National Assessments during the Iraq War: the decision to go to war was indeed a policy decision and I had no more access to the thinking behind that decision than any member of the media-informed public.


The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 in pursuit of a regional policy that it has pursued consistently for over half a century. The US has long held two key strategic objectives in the Gulf region: to uphold global energy security and to protect Israel. Both global energy security and Israel were threatened by Saddam’s Iraq. These strategic interests in the Gulf required that something be done about Iraq. The War on Terror and the project of using the example of Iraq to transform the Middle East into a region of market democracies was, I think, a less important factor influencing the US decision to invade Iraq. If such neo-conservative motives had been the most important consideration, the US would have not only spent much more time thinking about what to do once Saddam had been deposed, it would have profoundly reshaped its whole Middle East policy. I think that the lack of planning about what to do after Saddam fell shows us what the key objective was: getting rid of Saddam.

Australia also had strategic and tactical reasons for participating in the invasion of Iraq. Australian governments of all persuasions have realised that it is in Australia’s overriding strategic interest to support the health and integrity of the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy. For the Howard government, then, supporting US strategic goals in the Gulf was a no-brainer. Australia also had tactical reasons for joining the coalition of the willing. I think John Howard, who was in the US on 11 September 2001 and watched the initial American reactions first-hand, realised that the period after 9/11 would indeed be, in the eyes of American policy makers, what a French journalist was later to call “a purifier of alliances”.  While Australia probably could have quietly declined to participate in the war in Iraq without doing too much damage to the substance of the alliance, I believe John Howard saw it as a chance not only to support US strategic interests (and therefore Australia’s strategic interests) but also to build even closer links to the US.

So what does all this tell us about the nature of the Australia-US alliance in 2003?

First, that the US is a status quo power, determined to protect, build and extend the current liberal world order, by force if necessary, from whatever threat presents itself. Some would argue that Iraq shows that the US is a revolutionary power, so intent on changing the status quo in the interests of spreading democracy and free markets that it is willing to risk international stability to do so. But I think you need to distinguish the apparent order from the structural order in order to think clearly about this question. In Iraq, the US saw the apparent state of affairs, if left to run their logical course, as potentially dangerous to the nature of the system itself. The invasion of Iraq was about shuffling one of the pieces on the chessboard in order to maintain the rules of chess; the utter lack of effort to facilitate regime change through the broader region shows what a status quo action this was.

Second, Australia is motivated by its self-interest in supporting the perpetuation of the American-guaranteed world order. In this sense, Australia is existentially a status quo state as well, perhaps even more so than the US is. If the neocons, or any other revolutionary creed gain control in Washington, it could be potentially dangerous to Australia’s interests.

Third, 9/11 ushered in an era of the trial by fire of US alliances. In an era where the old Cold War logic of comfortable alliances and friendly rhetoric went out the window, Canberra chose to cleave even closer to the alliance.


The Future of the Australia-US Alliance: Strategic Considerations

Despite Canberra’s and Washington’s closeness after the Iraq war, there are significant challenges ahead for the management of the Australia-US alliance. These challenges fall into two categories: strategic considerations and political dynamics. In discussing strategic considerations, there are three issues:

  • the function of alliances in the future;
  • impending changes to US force structure and their implications for allies; and
  • how future strategic challenges will affect US allies.

Allies of the United States derive a range of benefits from the relationship; Australia gains strategic cover, intelligence exchanges, and access to US weapons, technology and force doctrine. The US gains four advantages from alliances:

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About the Author

Professor Michael Wesley is the Director of the Griffith Asia Pacific Research Institute at Griffith University.

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