Australia’s alliance addiction after Afghanistan
12 Nov 2013|

Australian Special Operations Task Group Soldiers patrol though snow peaked valleys in Northern Uruzgan.As with Vietnam, so with Iraq and Afghanistan; Australia is avoiding any alliance blowback over evident disasters and misjudgements. Here’s one of the advantages of being the small ally—usually only a small part of the blame sticks.

Australia’s alliance habit of going big on rhetoric while sending a small force seems to work well in the blame stakes. When the post-war recriminations arrive, it’s Australia’s small force that governs the size of its responsibility, not the size of the arguments Australia contributed to the initial alliance judgements.

During Vietnam, there were a few American remarks about the vehemence-versus-volume mismatch between the strength of Australia’s rhetoric on this vital war and the actual size of Australia’s military contribution. Post-Vietnam, though, the US post-mortem tended to be an American soliloquy. While allies complain that the US is often a world unto itself—doing international policy discussions as a domestic monologue—American self-absorption can be useful when blame’s being allocated.

The Australian aim after Afghanistan, as after Iraq, is to avoid too much negative responsibility and foster the alliance. We avoided any blame after Vietnam, even though we had been one of the prime urgers. This time, we can argue that we didn’t urge, merely followed; it doesn’t do much for Australia’s self-respect but it seems to be effective alliance management.

The downside, as Owen Harries noted on Iraq in 2006, is that it’s extremely dubious whether ‘uncritical, loyal support for a bad, failed America policy’ will enhance Australia’s standing as an ally. And then he delivered one of those masterful judgements which are his mark: ‘A reputation for being dumb but loyal and eager is not one to be sought’. Amen to that, but the alliance addiction is a powerful drug.

On Afghanistan, Australia can argue that it provided loyal support to a long and troubled US campaign that—at the moment of our withdrawal—isn’t a defeat. At great cost, the alliance emerges unscathed, even enhanced. This is a US alliance management equation that Canberra has followed with remarkable consistency through five wars since WWII—Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the key moments of decision and commitment, Australia always seeks to go through the sliding door right behind the US, while minimising the size of the military commitment entailed. Love the alliance but always check the cost. In the wonderful phrase Coral Bell made the title of a great book, being a ‘dependent ally’ is a complex affair full of ambivalence because of Australia’s

…persistent national addiction to a usually comfortable dependence, a conscious and even sometimes Machiavellian adoption by policy makers of the easiest and least costly way out of assumed strategic dilemmas.

Translation: embrace the alliance with passion and persistence but keep a firm hold on your wallet.

Coral Bell’s Dependent Ally is about to pass the 30th birthday of its first publication, yet if you want to think about the psychology as well as the strategy that drives Australia’s alliance addiction, this is a 200-page gem. It’s what you always got from Coral, combining the gentle manners of Miss Marple, a pen as fluent as Agatha Christie, and a mind as sharp as Henry Kissinger’s.

I thought of Coral’s explanation of the alliance addiction when reading Paul Kelly’s magisterial judgement that Australia had not the slightest influence on US policy in Afghanistan, while the bipartisanship overlaid a sense of disengagement from a war far away, in distance and emotion:

The Afghanistan war is the latest manifestation of the Australian way of war. It means fighting in coalitions, US-led or UN-sanctioned or both, that are political decisions where Australia makes a limited contribution, hopefully worthwhile in its own domain, as part of a large war effort based on a ruthless calculation to maximise political gain and minimise national cost. This reflects Australia’s identity as an allied nation, international citizen and apostle of realpolitik. There is no sign it will change.

The alliance addiction will endure but its terms are shifting in almost fundamental ways. As Australia heads home it finds the US pivoting in our direction; with all the similarities that can be drawn from Vietnam and Afghanistan, this post-war alliance effect is a huge difference between the two conflicts.

A study by the US Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments on the future of the alliance thinks this is one of the biggest shifts in American thinking about Oz since MacArthur came our way. The CSBA argument is that Australia is ideally placed to act as the gatekeeper to the Indo-Pacific commons:

Australia has moved from ‘down under’ to ‘top centre’ in terms of geopolitical import. For the first time since World War II, Australian and American areas of strategic priority overlap. The strength of this rekindled convergence suggests that the US-Australia relationship may well prove to be the most special relationship of the 21st century.

The CSBA reports sees Australia as a geographic ‘sweet spot’ in the search for potential operating locations outside the reach of China’s missile forces. After the Marines, here come the US Air Force and Navy. I confess that I attempted to answer that ‘sweet spot’ image with one based on Chinese sweet-and-sour, but had to admit that this was straying too close to the swamp where sports and culinary metaphors stick, struggle and sink.

But whether sweet spot or sweet-and-sour, this is a major new moment in the alliance. It’s not just about training in Australia’s backyard; it’s about the US basing and working from Australia. The alliance has gone from distant operations to playing on home ground. Turning away from Iraq and Afghanistan, we have suddenly become a sweet place to be for the US.

The ultimate purpose of the alliance for Australia has always been about defending the home; now the alliance is coming to work from home. This will take Australia’s alliance addiction to new levels and, ultimately, ask some close-to-home questions about what Australia will and won’t do for the sake of the alliance.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.