The Guardian • Issue #2072

Book Review

Fighting with America

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2072

In September 1951, during the Korean War, Australia and New Zealand, signed the ANZUS treaty. In Fighting with America James Curran, Professor of History at the University of Sydney, examines how Australia has viewed its relationship with the United States since then.

The treaty is not equivalent to the NATO agreement, in which an attack on one member is an attack on all. John Foster Dulles, US Secretary of State, saw ANZUS as the US coming to Australia’s defence only if it was in US interests. Today at a time of US hostility towards China, Australia is even closer to the US when it was during the Vietnam War, as witnessed by the AUKUS agreement in March 2023.

The ANZUS treaty reflected the supposedly strong ties Australia had with the US. On 8th January 1940 the White House announced bilateral diplomatic relations between the two countries and on 9th July 1946 the Australian and American legations were elevated to embassy status.

In October 1966 President L B Johnson privately addressed Cabinet ministers during his visit, the first time for a US president. Johnson warned that “if the United States were to pull out of Vietnam tomorrow, other countries of South East Asia would quickly fall. And the aggressor would get to Australia long before he got to San Francisco.” This ‘Domino Theory’ was believed by the Liberal Party at the time. They committed 8000 troops to the Vietnam conflict. In 1967 the US embassy in Canberra viewed Australia’s support as a “reaffirmed and nearly total commitment to the alliance.”

Change came in 1972 when Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced that “adherence to ANZUS does not constitute a foreign policy,” and a senior member of the Liberal frontbench, warned that the “days of sycophancy” with Washington were “finished.” Australia withdrew its troops from Vietnam on 18th August 1973.

By the 1980s Labor PM Bob Hawke and the ALP professed a more robust commitment to ANZUS. Hawke declared that Australia and the US would be “together forever,” however Cabinet noted that: “Australia has reservations about giving blanket expressions of support for US strategic perceptions and activities and would be reluctant to have the ANZUS treaty invoked as justification for such blanket support.” In 1983 the Australian government condemned the Reagan administration’s invasion of Grenada, and Australia did not support the US’s low intensity wars in Central America, causing irritation in Washington.

Curran argues that Liberal PM John Howard’s view of the US was “deeply rooted in a historical vision of US global leadership.” Howard invoked the ANZUS Treaty in response to the 11th September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC, and followed up by sending our military to Iraq and Afghanistan. Even so, in 2004 Foreign Minister Alexander Downer argued that this did not mean that there was any obligation under ANZUS to militarily support the US in a war with China over Taiwan.

In 2011 President Barack Obama told Labor PM Julia Gillard in parliament that Australia was to be a “pivot” to Asia, as US military personnel: will be rotated out of Darwin; use the Cocos Islands for surveillance and air patrols; and US navy vessels will use WA port facilities.

After an AUSMIN (Australia-US Ministerial Consultations) meeting in 2015, the Chinese company Landbridge took an 80 per cent stake in the Port of Darwin, much to the shock of President Obama. In August 2016, after much negotiation with the US, Liberal PM Malcolm Turnbull blocked Chinese and Hong Kong companies seeking the 50.4 per cent lease of the NSW electricity provider, Ausgrid. Treasurer Scott Morrison pointed to unspecified “national security concerns.”

In October 2016 Turnbull signed a Joint Statement on Defense Cooperation. Curran acknowledges that this did not mean that the Australian public would automatically guarantee support for future US conflict in Asia.

In 2021 the PM Scott Morrison announced that he had signed the AUKUS deal with the US and UK. According to the US State Department website, AUKUS will “develop and provide joint advanced military capabilities to promote security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Arms control and counter-proliferation is another area of close US-Australia cooperation.” Australia will be a depot for US and UK nuclear powered submarines and will eventually build nuclear submarines.

One thing Curran fails to consider is the role ANZUS has played in  trade agreements. The US had proposed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Australia in 1945, but it was not agreed upon until 1st January 2005 when the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) was signed. The US agricultural sector had lobbied strongly against the agreement, fearing cheap Australian imports. US pharmaceutical companies also lobbied against the agreement, concerned that the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme subsidised medications.

In recent years the US and Australia have agreed upon bilateral cooperation on trade issues and scientific research. In 2019-20, Australia’s goods and services exported to the US were $27.4 billion, while Australia imported $53.4 billion from the US.

Despite its limitations, Fighting With America is worth reading for anyone interested in questioning our relationship with the US, something more Australians should do.

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