Mateship of mongrels: seven decades of the US-Australia alliance

In a rare moment of clarity, Donald Trump tweeted after Scott Morrison became prime minister, “There are no greater friends than the United States and Australia”.

Coming from the bigot-in-chief, such endearment would turn the stomach of any decent human being. But it was a sweet serenade to the ears of Scott Morrison, who in turn waxed lyrical in a phone call to Trump about “the strength and depth of our alliance and the unbreakable friendship” between the two countries.

It’s a bipartisan love-in. Labor leader Bill Shorten may have described Donald Trump as “barking mad” and “entirely unsuitable to be leader of the free world” during the 2016 presidential elections. But once Trump was elected, Labor’s shadow minister for foreign affairs Penny Wong confirmed that “the US alliance remains critical to Australia” and she now boasts of plans for “both broadening and deepening our relationship with the US”.

After all, what’s a crazy president or two between friends? The US-Australia alliance is far too important to get hung up on trivialities.

Origins of the alliance

The alliance has its origins in the destruction of World War Two and Cold War paranoia. Previously, the Australian ruling class had looked to the British empire to guarantee its security in a region comfortably divided among European powers. Japanese imperialism smashed this old order, as France, Britain, the Netherlands and Australia were driven in short order from their colonial holdings.

Although initially losing its colony in the Philippines, the United States was able to regroup, and used Australia as a base from which to re-conquer south-east Asia. The USA’s victory established it as the main imperial power in the Asia-Pacific, and it replaced Britain as Australia’s “great and powerful friend”.

The alliance is formalised in the three-way ANZUS treaty, signed in 1951 with the participation of New Zealand. Australia had wanted to impose a “hard peace” on Japan, permanently deindustrialising its long time rival. But US strategists wanted to rehabilitate Japan as a friendly power to help contain the USSR and China. In exchange for Australia acquiescing to this plan, the United States signed ANZUS to placate ingrained Australian paranoia about the “Yellow Peril”.

On the face of it, the treaty wasn’t much of a payoff. It says very little, committing the parties only to consult one another in the event that the security of any one of them is threatened in the Pacific. Successful alliances, however, depend not on legal clauses, but on the material interests to which treaties merely give expression. And both Australia and the United States receive ample benefit to make the alliance worthwhile.

Australia: loyal ally of US imperialism

Most obviously, Australia has proved a loyal partner to US imperialism. Korea. Vietnam. Iraq. Afghanistan. Iraq again. Syria. These are the wars the United States has fought in Asia since World War Two, a roll-call of death and destruction. Uniquely among the USA’s allies, Australia has been present for each and every one.

While Australian contributions have been tokenistic from a military point of view, they are useful for propaganda depicting the USA as leading coalitions of democratic, freedom-loving countries against assorted dictators and evil doers.

More important to the USA is Australia’s primary strategic asset – its geography. Located adjacent to Asia but isolated enough to make enemy attacks nearly impossible, Australia is perfectly placed to serve as the southern anchor to the USA’s dominance in the Asia-Pacific, just as bases in Japan do in the north. Domestic political stability adds to the attraction.

During the Cold War, the United States established critical communications and intelligence infrastructure in Australia. Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, is jointly operated by the Australian military and US intelligence agencies including the CIA. The base is used to communicate with spy satellites above China, Russia and the Middle East. Intelligence processed at Pine Gap feeds directly into the US war machine, targeting drone strikes, for example, from intercepted mobile phone transmissions.

The North-West Cape base in Western Australia, which houses the most powerful low frequency radio transmitter in the southern hemisphere, is used to communicate with the US fleet of nuclear powered submarines.

Australia is once again also hosting US combat forces. Since 2012, a US Marine base has been established in Darwin, housing up to 2,500 personnel on rotation each year. US aircraft, including nuclear-capable strategic bombers, regularly rotate through Australian bases. These deployments are merely a foretaste of how the extensive network of naval and air force facilities in northern Australia could be used by the USA in any regional conflict.

Ruling class consensus

For decades, the US-Australia alliance has enjoyed near unanimous support from the Australian ruling class and its ideological representatives. It is seen as cornerstone of Australian policy within the senior ranks of the defence and foreign affairs bureaucracies, as well as by the bulk of intellectuals operating in the mainstream of the media and academia.

Occasionally, a rogue academic or think tank might voice disagreement, but such views have had zero impact on the policy debate. Or perhaps more accurately, there has been no debate. Successive governments, both Liberal-National and Labor, have without exception reiterated their fidelity to the alliance.

Some dissent has come from figures on Labor’s left when they are not in government. But it has always been understood that, once the ALP assumes office, the US alliance is not to be seriously questioned.

A case in point is the trajectory of Jim Cairns, leader of Labor’s left faction and a principled opponent of the war in Vietnam. When he became deputy prime minister in 1974, the USA was concerned that he might threaten the alliance because he had previously opposed the presence of the spy bases. 

But Cairns now kept his criticisms to himself, failing even to exercise his right to a full briefing from the defence department about the bases, which at that time were operated in great secrecy and without any Australian involvement. So despite the huge political turmoil generated by the movement against the Vietnam War, Labor remained committed to the alliance, without any serious challenge from the left of the party.

Today, the Greens are the only mainstream political force with a sustained critique of the US alliance. Last year, leader Richard Di Natale went so far as to say: “It is crystal clear now that Australia must rip up the ANZUS treaty and renegotiate our relationship with the US. This is a relationship that is making us less safe, not more safe”. Greens policy calls for the closure of the US military bases and for “an independent Australian foreign policy”.

The demand to end “dependence” on the United States and for a stronger Australian policy has long been a staple of left-nationalist critiques of the alliance. But this analysis leads to some decidedly right wing conclusions.

First, it implies that “our own” military should be strengthened or used more frequently in “Australian interests”. Indeed, the need to use Australian forces to quell disorder in the South Pacific was repeatedly cited by then Greens leader Bob Brown as an argument against sending troops to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Second, the dependency critique remains at a shallow psychological level, in which every major party politician for more than 75 years has somehow lacked the intellectual fortitude to recognise and defend Australia’s true interests. It suggests that we need stronger Australian leaders, not a fundamental change in the operations of the Australian state. 

An insurance policy for Australian imperialism

A more substantial analysis of the US alliance needs to begin with some basic material realities. Australia is not a weak state, nor is it beholden to any foreign power. It is the largest economy in south-east Asia and the South Pacific, structured around high levels of capital investment and a skilled workforce. This in turn enables Australia to maintain the strongest military force in the region, with relatively few personnel but incorporating the latest in advanced weapons platforms.

In short, Australia is an imperialist country in its own right, with substantial capability to defend the interests of its ruling class in the international arena.

However, while it is a regional heavyweight, Australia is not a first rate power at the global level. In this context, the US alliance is an additional source of strength, with multiple benefits for Australian imperialism.

At a practical level, the US is a key supplier of high tech military hardware for Australia, such as fighter jets and advanced radar systems. Australia has not needed to develop nuclear weapons of its own, being implicitly protected by the United States’ arsenal. As part of the Five Eyes consortium, which also includes the USA, Britain, Canada and New Zealand, Australia has access to intelligence material which it could not collect via its own resources.

Perhaps most importantly, the alliance with the US serves as a sort of insurance policy. Other countries know that, in any conflict with Australia, they would run the risk of being drawn into confrontation with the most powerful military on the planet.

The premiums on this insurance policy come in the form of contributing to the USA’s endless wars. Australia has been more than willing to pay.

Contrary to the myth that it was forced to join the war in Vietnam, Australia from an early stage encouraged the US to commit troops to the defence of the South Vietnamese regime. Once full-scale war was underway, Australia demanded the right to send its own forces as well.

Such acts of conspicuous loyalty were rewarded in 1999, when East Timor won its independence from Indonesia and Australia deployed its military to the territory to ensure stability during the transition. The United States provided strong diplomatic support for its ally, and positioned naval assets and a detachment of marines off the coast of East Timor, in a clear warning to Indonesia about the consequences of any opposition to Australia’s intervention.

The US-Australia alliance and the rise of China

Today, China’s growing stature as an economic and military rival to the United States is creating a dilemma for the Australian ruling class.

China is Australia’s most important trading partner, providing the market for 34 percent of all Australian exports in 2017, compared with just 5 percent going to the United States. But China is also seen by the Australian state as a security threat, with the potential to overturn US regional dominance. 

Despite the potential economic cost of alienating China, Australia’s response has been to strengthen ties with the United States. Former US president Barack Obama’s policy of a “pivot to Asia”, a military build-up in the region aimed at containing China, was welcomed by Australia.

The stationing of US combat forces at Australian military bases is one concrete expression of this support. Another is vocal diplomatic backing for US “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea. China’s territorial claims in the area are a major concern to Australia, as they cut across important trade routes.

None of this results from blind, passive obedience to the alliance. Australian policy makers are actively encouraging the US to defend its position in the Asia-Pacific because they have calculated that this is in the best interests of the Australian capitalist class.

But the renewal of great power rivalries can be of no benefit to workers and students in Australia or indeed any other country. Even short of an actual war, we are the ones whose living standards will be sacrificed to pay for the military budget, not the bosses or the generals or the politicians.

The task for the left, therefore, is not to offer better strategies for the Australian state to pursue. It is to stand against the rising tide of militarism and anti-Chinese paranoia. 

This means we want to break the US alliance. Not so that Australia can finally be “strong” or “independent”, but on the contrary in order to weaken Australian imperialism.