Amid all the campaign rhetoric, bombast and promises, two certainties await Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump next January.
First, the international situation will remain seemingly intractable and complex.
Second, despite hopes, promises and intentions, US foreign policy will largely be determined by, as Harold Macmillan said: “Events, dear boy, events.”
The US pivot to Asia, US-Chinese-Australian relations, the ongoing tensions on the Korean peninsula, and the fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership are four factors that will affect the Australian-US relationship.
Throughout its history, the Australian-US relationship has constantly evolved and is much more nuanced and resilient than commonly known, and bigger and stronger than presidents and prime ministers.
The multi-dimensional relationship which preceded the 1951 ANZUS Treaty has matured considerably and now encompasses strong and ever-growing educational and economic links.
Critics of the alliance focus on stereotypical perceptions of ANZUS while ignoring the much broader relationship.
As a small (middle) power, Australia has gained significant benefits from the alliance. It has a voice in Washington through regular access to US foreign and defence policy-makers and intelligence-sharing.
Critics of the alliance argue that the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts signify the price Australia has paid for ANZUS. Yet Australia was under no ANZUS obligations to participate in those wars; it chose to involve itself and must accept full responsibility for those decisions.
Present and future Australian governments need to ensure the alliance best serves Australia’s interests. The alliance will endure as long as it fulfils the similar, but not identical, US and Australian interests.
ANZUS mythology says the Americans reluctantly agreed to the Treaty as a quid pro quo for Australia’s Korean War contribution and acceptance of the US-sponsored soft Japanese peace treaty in 1951.
Actually, the US entered into ANZUS because of Australia’s geo-strategic importance to America’s Asia-Pacific strategy in the formative years of the Cold War. The US wanted Australia and New Zealand in a regional anti-communist security system that included Japan. ANZUS was a link in an alliance chain with Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.
The US-Australian relationship had tense moments during the Indonesian Confrontation crisis in the 1960s and following Nixon’s recognition of Communist China in 1972.
The alliance’s greatest crisis came next: James Curran’s revealing study, Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon at War, shows Nixon considered breaking the alliance following Whitlam’s criticism of the US “Christmas bombing” of North Vietnam in December 1972.
For almost 18 months, Nixon froze Australian access to US officials but contact between the State Department and the Australian Embassy continued. Without informing Nixon, Secretary of State William Rogers sanctioned meetings with the Australian Ambassador, James Plimsoll.
The alliance had enough resilience to survive the venom and distrust of a president. Indeed, ANZUS evolved and matured beyond Nixon and Whitlam.
In 1985, New Zealand was suspended from ANZUS because it refused to allow nuclear-armed ships into its waters.
The ANZUS Council was subsequently superseded by the annual Australian-US Ministerial (AUSMIN) meetings alternating between the US and Australia.
Together with the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue and other forums such as the Alliance 21 conferences, these face-to-face discussions facilitate personal connections and friendships that strengthen the relationship.
The Australia-US relationship has very strong economic and educational dimensions. Economic ties were formalised by the signing of the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) in 2004.
The US is the biggest investor in Australia. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade figures from December 2014 show 27.2 per cent ($758.2 billion) of Australia’s total foreign investments came from the US. In turn, most of Australia’s overseas investments, 30 per cent ($575.5 billion), went to the US.
Since 2015, the US has been Australia’s second-largest (China is first) two-way trading partner.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) figures from 2014-15 show the US was Australia’s third-largest two-way trading partner in goods and services ($64.5 billion). Australian goods exports to America totalled $13.4 billion. US imports to Australia were $44.1 billion. Australian services exports to the US were $7.1 billion and imports $13.7 billion.
Whatever its merits and/or limitations, the prospects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are very problematic.
Clinton and Trump both seemingly are opposed to this trade agreement which faces other US domestic and regional obstacles, too. But regardless of whether the TPP comes to fruition, the Australia-US economic relationship will continue to grow.
Educational links, notably the Australian-American Fulbright Program, have facilitated many exchanges between Australian and American scholars and their host institutions. The strong research and educational connections between the two countries are reflected by the sizeable number of Australian and American scholars and students working and studying in the US and Australia, respectively.
A Clinton presidency, with the US pivot to Asia, China’s assertiveness, the tensions on the Korean peninsula, and the problematic TPP, will likely see a strengthening of the Australia-US relationship given the mutual (but not identical) interests of both nations.
The vagaries of a Trump presidency may (will?) present challenges for the alliance but its history suggests US and Australian officials will collaborate to manage any turbulence. The alliance remains important to Australian and US interests, so officials on both sides will work assiduously to ensure it will endure.
Australian and US geo-strategic interests and the strength and depth of the economic and educational links between the two nations suggest the alliance and broader relationship will continue to grow.
The 19th-century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston said his country had “permanent interests but not permanent allies”.
Both Australia and the US need to manage the alliance to ensure it continues to serve their common interests.
Ultimately, it will be up to present and future Australian governments and policy-makers to ensure the US alliance and relationship best serve Australia’s interests throughout the Clinton or Trump presidency and beyond.
Daniel Fazio is a PhD candidate and Tutor in American Studies at Flinders University’s School of History and International Relations. His thesis examines the Australian-US Korean engagement, 1947-53, and the origins of ANZUS. He teaches and has expertise in the history of US foreign policy and the Australian-US relationship, and has a strong interest in American politics.
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