The United States and Australia have rarely disagreed on issues of strategy in the post-Cold War era. Generally, Australia reliably agrees with Washington’s assessment of threats and risks and supports America’s policy responses. In past examinations of the relationship some Australian analysts warned that a rising China would inevitably upset this happy status quo, while others insisted there was no dilemma and that Australia is not a “conflicted ally.”
The leaked details of President Trump’s phone call with Prime Minister Turnbull have reignited this debate in Australia. Some argue that Australia has little choice but to remain a “dependent ally.” They note the country’s human geography, tradition and regional circumstances dictate fidelity to the alliance, even under an American President willing to harangue and embarrass a long-standing ally. At the other extreme, Australia’s far-left party The Greens have called on Canberra to “junk” the alliance in response to President Trump’s Executive Order on refugees and visas.
Neither of these options is particularly appealing to the average Australian. Domestic support for the US-Australia alliance remains relatively healthy, though it has decreased somewhat in recent years. In 2016, 71% said the alliance is very or fairly important to Australia’s security. This same poll, however, found that 45% of Aussies thought that Australia should “distance itself from the United States if it elects a president like Donald Trump.”
The notion of Australia “distancing itself” from the US is vague; it might involve thinking more critically about where Australia’s interests diverge from America’s. Perhaps surprisingly, this instinct does not come naturally to Australian politicians. Since the end of the Cold War, both of Australia’s major political parties have adopted a reflexive enthusiasm for the alliance with neither wanting to appear “soft” on the matter.
When discussing the alliance, leaders of both political persuasions tend to favour shared values over strategic purpose. Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard described “shared values” as the “basis of our security alliance,” and current Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, once proclaimed that “America’s values are our values.” When Australian leaders talk about the military role of the alliance, they typically do so in the past tense, emphasizing that for “every major conflict since the First World War…Americans have fought beside Australians.”
These boilerplate speeches omit the many disagreements in the history of the US-Australia alliance. Common values notwithstanding, divergent interests have sometimes created alliance discord. Australia did not support America’s aggressive stance in the First Taiwan Straits Crisis (1954-1955), and did its best to reduce the likelihood of conflict with Communist China. Disagreements over strategy in the Vietnam War—combined with volatile personalities—also seriously endangered the alliance.
When considered against a full and unadulterated history of the alliance, the status quo in Australia—reflexive and uncritical bipartisan support for the alliance—is anomalous. The rise of China and uncertainty about U.S. policy in Asia has caused many to question the alliance’s intimacy in the coming years. In practice, Australia has recently adopted policies at odds with American preferences, even before the Trump-Turnbull phone call. Canberra signed on to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and has carefully declined America’s invitation to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea (despite very public encouragement to do so).
The reality is slowly changing politically as well. The Australian Labor Party’s Shadow Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, assessed that the election of President Trump was a “change point” in the bilateral relationship which required the nation to “dispassionately consider Australia’s foreign policy and global interests…and how best to effect these within the alliance framework.” Prime Minister Turnbull’s response was to hyperventilate, accusing Wong of putting “our nation's security at risk.” Tellingly this response—a reflexive attempt to paint a political adversary as “soft on the alliance”—would have worked well five or ten years ago but this time fell flat.
So what will the Trump-Turnbull phone call mean for the future of the alliance? Today, in the light of this Washington Post article, Wong’s analysis looks sober, prescient and sensible. Canberra’s decisions on the AIIB, and on operations in the South China Sea, show that Australia is already thinking far more carefully about where its interests may not align with Washington’s. Expect there to be more alliance disagreements in the future, as Australia more assertively questions where loyalty to the alliance undercuts Australia’s interests.
This won’t happen overnight. Many still cling to the hope that Trump’s presidency is an aberration to be corrected in four years (if not much sooner). One perceptive analyst noted that a recent speech by Australia’s Foreign Minister praising a “corresponding world view” shared by the allies, “seemed to treat the whole notion of the US-Australia alliance as if nothing had happened on the first Tuesday of November last year.”
To be fair, President Trump cannot be solely blamed for changes in the alliance; the underlying cause of discord will be gradual changes to national interests. But President Trump’s illiberal inclinations and the tone of the recent phone call have accelerated this process. Australian politicians will simply no longer be able to rely on the rhetoric of “shared values” to justify the alliance and will now have to speak convincingly about shared interests.
True, the Trump-Turnbull phone call has severely damaged the political intimacy of the alliance, but the fundamental threat to alliance unity is a disagreement over policy towards China. Steve Bannon, President Trump’s Chief Strategist, has recently said “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to 10 years … There’s no doubt about that.” While some Australian strategists support a more confrontational U.S. posture toward China, few if any welcome this sort of bellicose talk. These kinds of remarks make it harder for Canberra to trust, and support, any new China policy effort from Washington.
Both practically and politically, divergent interests will challenge the U.S.-Australia alliance in the years ahead. And the balm of “shared values,” which has often soothed fissures in the past, may not be available much longer.