It is Australia’s indispensable relationship, the core of our national security and the key enabler, that has allowed Australia to freely engage and prosper within the post-Second World War order. However, in an era of mounting great power competition and disruption, the US-Australia relationship will become ever more important, explains retired Army officer Jason Thomas.
In a recent Op-Ed in Defence Connect by the new US Ambassador, Arthur Culvahouse, he spoke of the unbreakable US-Australia alliance. So resilient, it endured a two-year vacancy of the ambassador’s position.
A quick scan of Ambassador Culvahouse’s CV indicates that, despite the delay in the appointment, it would be hard to find a better-qualified person. He was not only called on by President Trump but has served President Reagan and Senator John McCain – including involvement with that most disastrous of a security crisis, the Iran-Contra affair.
His unofficial visit conducted before accepting the appointment – to confirm in his mind that he was the right fit – is particularly praiseworthy.
It is a shame for a man of obviously great depth and insight that we are presented with a predictable set of reminders of the importance of the US-Australia relationship and the belligerence of China.
The Ambassador invokes the sacrifices of previous generations of service persons to form the bedrock on which both nations should meet the challenges of the 21st century. During his unofficial visit, the Ambassador visited the Australian War Memorial to lay a wreath in memory of Flight Sergeant Smith Forsyth of 460 Squadron; obviously, this invocation is sincere. However, as Oscar Wilde once put it, just because a man dies for a cause does not mean it is right. Prior sacrifice does not automatically legitimise present-day forfeiture.
Ambassador Culvahouse describes Australia as the crown jewel of alliances; however, we are not turned to first as this is a privilege the UK possesses, and while we might be a valuable gem, the alliance is not uniquely ironclad, a trait Japan enjoys.
Diplomatic platitudes aside, given the lack of compelling alternatives now or into the far future, a rupture in the US-Australia relationship similar to the separation from the UK that occurred in World War II is hard to imagine.
Alliances lose utility when the mutual benefit becomes imbalanced. There is no doubt the alliance will endure long into the foreseeable future, even if solely for a host of intelligence, geostrategic and technical capability reasons.
Defence Connect chose to categorise the Ambassador’s blog in the “key enablers” area of its’ website; they are more than an enabler; they are the critical defence and security partner. The scales are still very much in our favour.
Aside from these dependencies, as the Ambassador states, there is additionally the sharing of military knowledge and perspectives through exchanges and exercises. Both forces provide each other with unique opportunities and perspectives that simply could not be achieved alone.
There is genuine mutual respect and openness, the trust only increasing since 9/11 through strong Australian military performance and higher numbers of embedded Australian staff into US combined headquarters.
The value of such access and experience for a small defence force such as the ADF should not be underestimated, nor should the fine achievements of Australian service personnel in such roles.
Australia, however, should not buy into the myth that such access allows us to achieve disproportionate influence. The author Antony Beevor warns of the same delusions the UK held in 1944 as the minor partner to the US in his recent book on the Battle for Arnhem.
As he concludes in the first chapter: In fact, one could argue that September 1944 was the origin of that disastrous cliché which lingers on today about the country punching above its weight.
There have been many recent US security and defence capability decisions: the abandonment of the Kurdish alliance, withdrawal of strategic bombers from Guam, lowering of F-35 mission availability targets, postponement of an unattended maritime patrol aircraft project; where while it is nice to believe that Australia may have been warned or consulted, it had little effect on the outcome. It may be that such decisions will have a relatively light strategic impact for Australia, that is not the point. The lesson is minor partners only have minor influence.
The COVID-19 crisis response, pragmatic and science-led, by the Australian government, shows that hideous ideology-led policy and partisan bickering can refreshingly be put on hold in times of real crisis.
Such unity allows for greater effectiveness not just in dealing with the virus, but with other matters. Rory Medcalf of the ANU has made the astute observation that Chinese opposition to an inquiry into the cause of the pandemic has been overcome by combined middle power diplomacy.
In some instances, Australian-inspired or otherwise, such an approach can be effective. This method is not, however, the “new way”, as evidenced by Australia’s failure at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. It is also important to note that the US was also calling for such an inquiry, albeit in a more confrontational manner.
The Ambassador mentions the “C” (well CCP) word numerous times, legitimately deriding the unnecessary flashpoint that China has created in the South China Sea. No mention of the arguably more strategically powerful Belt and Road initiative or the oppression of ethnic groups within China. He misses the essential point; China is fundamentally failing to provide a viable and appealing alternative major power for other nations.
African states are refusing unreasonable Chinese loan terms, and the failure of China to influence the last APEC outcome indicates that economic power without respect only gets you so far. In Australia, the petulant Chinese diplomatic and economic bludgeoning continues, further weakening its position in this part of the world, regardless of economic might. When taking a pugnacious turn, China is, at the very least, reasonably predictable. The same can no longer be said of our major ally.
The great democratic experiment that is the United States is still carrying some of the world-shaking momenta that started in 1776. Still, the rest of the world is wondering if it is seriously faltering. The unique executive position of the President of the United States has long been drawing in more and more power, in many cases granted by the US Congress.
Besides, the house (Congress) itself is deeply divided, and its highest court ideologically imbalanced, further unshackling executive authority. US foreign policy by Twitter is at the very least confusing, aside from the more egregious sin of lacking any depth. The apparent publicly stated lack of concern within the Australian government around this issue cannot be excused by some necessary expedient of deference, that is not the sign of a robust alliance. Such deference is what an adversary seeks, not an ally.
There are deeper alliance issues with the USA than defence capability and concerns over aberrant artificial island construction that will effect Australia’s security in the next few decades. We have followed the US into two strategic quagmires in south-west Asia, and we are currently skirting on the edges of another bog with Iran. Australia is about to enter another cycle of security and defence reviews.
On both sides of the alliance, public government security discourse parallels the themes of the Ambassador’s Op-Ed: commemoration, recognition and narrow issue-based discussion. For what?
Important as those themes and topics may be, it would be nice to see some clarity, vision and breadth in both governments’ public statements alongside this reminder of “resolve”. Perhaps that is what we genuinely owe FSGT Forsyth. Welcome, sir, and I sincerely wish you all the best in your tenure.
Jason Thomas is a retired Australian Army officer who is currently contracting as a strategic planning and risk consultant.
He lives in Melbourne and is currently studying part-time, reading in a PhD dealing with the broader application of mission command beyond its present use in the military. Like everyone else, he is looking forward to the resumption of normal services with his life.