(Debate sponsored by the International Affairs Policy Committee, 2012, on the topic that "the time for Cold War alliances has long since passed". Background: http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2012/s3502765.htm.)


We are talking about cold war alliances, which means especially Australia’s supposed military alliance with the United States. We don’t want to argue about whether there ever was a time for cold war alliances: we are talking about the present and foreseeable future. Our team’s position is that we don’t have now, and won’t have in the foreseeable future, a real alliance with the US.

What is an alliance? It means reciprocal acceptance of costs or risks for the alliance partner’s sake, costs and risks that would not be accepted except for the alliance. In an alliance one partner sometimes does something that benefits the other, at some cost or risk to itself, in the expectation that the partner will reciprocate in future, or in return for something they’ve done already.

We say Australia does not have such a relationship with the US. Australian governments have often done things not directly in Australia’s interest, even contrary to Australia’s interest (e.g. in Iraq and Afghanistan), in the hope that the US will look after us in future. But the hope is a delusion. The insurance policy will never deliver. The US never will do anything for Australia that it wouldn’t have done anyway in the interest of the US.

Interest” is a tricky word. I don’t restrict it to “national interest” or “self-interest”. Thomas Hobbes was wrong when he wrote, “Every man is presumed to do all things to his own benefit” (Leviathan XV, ed. Macpherson p. 213). David Hume was right when he wrote, “the representations of this quality [selfishness] have been carried much too far... So far from thinking that men have no affection for anything beyond themselves, I am of opinion that… it is … rare to meet with one in whom all the kind affections, taken together, do not overbalance all the selfish.” (Treatise, pp. 486-7.) But the kind affections are graduated—family first, our own community next, distant strangers last. By the time we reach international relations, there’s not a lot of kind affection. Granted, national governments do sometimes care about the wellbeing of people who are not their nationals, at least a bit, and they should do so more. Even in international relations there are, besides material interests and self-interest, also what might be called “ideal interests”, such as a concern for world poverty, a concern for justice, a wish to help victims of natural disasters, a desire to contribute to world peace, and so on. Ideal interests are real.

However, we believe that the US government will not in fact be motivated much by altruistic concern for Australia’s wellbeing, nor by any calculation that it is in their future interest to benefit us now, nor by gratitude for what Australia has done for the US in the past.

There are several particular reasons for thinking this. First there is the great disparity in size and power. It is not likely the US will ever need or ever get any substantial benefit from Australia—more to the point, they don’t expect they will. Second, the US government is not well-unified. Australia would have to accumulate brownie points with many US agencies before it could expect significant US government support for Australia. Third, the US government has a short memory. The US president may not have been a member of congress (Clinton, GW Bush), need not have been involved in international relations, and cannot be president beyond two terms. Whatever benefit Australia confers on the US, it will be soon forgotten. Fourth, the US is a democracy, in the limited sense that its government is elected. (In both the US and Australia the constitution was drawn up by men who didn’t believe in democracy. They set out to make a “mixed government”, in which the currently ruling part of the oligarchy gets the legal powers of government through election.) So no US government will do anything for Australia that US electors won’t see as being directly in the interest of the United States.


Still, it might be said, US pursuit of its own interests is constrained to our benefit by the ANZUS treaty. But there are two problems with ANZUS: first, if we keep paying the insurance premium, we will get involved in conflicts we should avoid; and second, if it comes to the crunch the policy won’t perform.

First, ANZUS may draw us into world-wide conflict. ANZUS obliges each party to aid the other if there is any attack on its forces in the Pacific or on its national territory. The US is involved in many parts of the world, and its involvement often provokes hostility. Since 911 it seems to be accepted that ANZUS covers not only attack on US territory by a foreign government but also terrorist attacks. In the middle east the US pursues a policy of support for Israel that antagonises Muslims everywhere. This has given rise to a long-running and world-wide conflict between the US and Islamist militants (sometimes referred to as “the long war”). Australia should not get involved in that. We have no quarrel with the Muslim world. The country with the largest Muslim population of any country in the world is our nearest neighbour, Indonesia, with whom we are mostly on good terms. Let’s keep it that way.

Second, if it ever comes to the crunch, ANZUS will let us down. According to art. 4, if an attack occurs each party “would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes”. This looks harmless, until you take note of key differences between US constitutional processes and ours.

In Australia the constitutional position is simple. The government takes Australia to war by exercise of the royal prerogative. If the US invokes the ANZUS treaty, PM Plibersek can’t say she needs to consult Parliament and get authorisation or a declaration of war, because constitutionally she doesn’t need to. She may consult Parliament if she likes, but she is not bound by Parliament’s advice. Before the Iraq war Mr Howard consulted Parliament, the Senate said no, Howard went anyway. If the US is attacked and invokes the treaty (though why would they bother?), Australia’s obligation is inescapable.

On the other hand, the US President has an out. There are two relevant provisions of the US Constitution. According to Article 1, section 8, the power to declare war belongs to Congress; but according to Article 2, section 2, the Commander in Chief is the President, which some construe to mean that the President has power to wage war with or without a Congressional declaration of war. In fact, the US has many times gone to war without any declaration of war. In addition there are two relevant acts or resolutions of Congress, namely the War Powers resolution of 1973 and the Authorisation for the Use of Military Force of 2001. These also point in opposite directions. The first purports (unconstitutionally, some say) to restrict the action of the Commander in chief, the other seems to authorise anything that can be construed as part of the “long war”.

Given these conflicting authorities, the President can go either way. If Australia calls for US aid, and President Clinton sees it as being something in her administration’s interest and something the US electorate would support, she may take action, exercising her powers as Commander in Chief or under the Authorisation for the Use of Military Force. But if action seems likely to be unpopular with the electorate, the President can say she needs to go to Congress for authorisation, and Congress will say no.

Some may suggest that ANZUS benefits us by intelligence sharing and special deals on military equipment. If these are benefits (after all, intelligence can be misleading, equipment can be unsuitable), they would come anyway, apart from ANZUS, since the US wants Australia to share its view of the world and wants Australia to buy from its arms industry.

Let’s stay in ANZUS, for what it’s worth, but we need an equivalent of the War Powers Act, so that our involvement if the US is attacked will depend on Parliament. This would not conflict with anything in our constitution and it would not need a constitutional amendment: ordinary legislation limits the royal prerogative. For many years the Democrats and then the Greens have advocated legislation to require Parliamentary approval of overseas deployments. Melissa Parke seems to be the only Labor MP to support the idea. The International Affairs Policy Committee has several times since 2004 argued for overseas deployment legislation, but we’ve got nowhere. The Australian government need to realise that it may strengthen their hand in dealing with the US to have their hands tied, so that they can say, “Sorry, Parliament won’t approve”. Likewise we need legislation to require Parliamentary approval of treaties.

Common values

Finally, it may be said that the alliance, Australia’s special relationship with the US, rests not only on a treaty but also on shared culture and values. We need some more realistic thinking on this topic also. Let’s not overestimate the extent to which the US and Australia have a common culture.

One of the most striking differences relates to capital punishment. The state of Texas recently carried out its 500th execution since 1982 (when executions resumed after a moratorium). American culture has a Manichean strand that encourages thinking in terms of good versus “absolute evil”. There are good guys and bad guys and the good guys must kill the bad guys to stop their evildoing and as retributive punishment. This has a major influence on their foreign and military policy. They demonise the enemy and then can’t negotiate or compromise. Iran is currently an object of this behaviour.  

Another difference is that Americans are much more religious than Australians are, and their religion is sometimes pretty irrational. Read the Wikipedia article on the Book of Mormon and reflect that a man who believes in that stuff was recently a serious candidate to be President of the United States. Religious Americans are sometimes hostile to science, which has a bearing, for example, on world attempts to deal with climate change. American religion has particular implications for international relations. According to a PEW opinion survey (July 2010), 40% of Americans believe that the second coming of Jesus will have occurred by the middle of this century. The end of the world is nigh, you will experience it—these are the end times. Many American Christians subscribe to an end-times theology developed in the 19th century by a member of the Plymouth Brethren, John Darby. Israel has a special place in their end-time story. In Genesis 12:3 God says, “And I will bless those that bless you and curse the one who curses you”. Many American Christians take this to mean that America will be cursed by God if the US government doesn’t back the Israeli government to the hilt. The opinions of Christian Zionists, or anyway their votes, have serious influence on US middle east policy.

You might think that our common belief in the Rule of Law, including the Rule of International Law in international relations, would be an important bond between our two countries. But in the US the rule of law is corroded by Presidential pardons and the non-prosecution of powerful people. See Glen Greenwald, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. [Another illustration.]

As for the rule of law in international relations, the idea of “American exceptionalism” (a term commonly used in the US) means, among other things, that the US sometimes ignores the UN Charter requirement that force not be used without security council authorisation except in case of self-defence. (“Self-defence” means defence against an imminent or ongoing attack—it does not mean preventive war or retaliation after an attack.) US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were violations of the UN Charter, in which Australia participated, because our governments, both Liberal and Labor, cultivate a special relationship with the US.

Military interventions as in Iraq and Afghanistan are currently out of favour with the US government. Counterinsurgency is a thing of the past. Assassination is a lot cheaper. Drone strikes are a blatant violation of the rule of law. According to the US Justice department, drone killings even of US citizens conform to the “due process” requirement of the US constitution because, although there is no court process, there is a process of deliberation within the executive government. According to President Obama’s attorney general, “The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.” (Also here.) Here is a summary by Rosa Brooks, professor of law at Georgetown university: “Given the secrecy shrouding U.S. targeted killings, the administration’s legal justifications amount to an assertion that the executive branch has the right to kill any person, anywhere, at any time, based on criteria that remain secret and evidence that remains secret, evaluated by unknown people in a process that also remains secret, without any external review to prevent or remedy mistakes or abuses.” So much for the rule of law.

In view of all this, do we Australians really want to present ourselves to the world as sharing American values? Let’s develop the good things in our own cultural and political traditions. The culture we share with the US is in fact European culture, going back through the middle ages into ancient times, which we have derived, and will continue to derive, directly from European sources, not only via the United States.


To sum up. We don’t say that Australia should not cooperate with the US, including occasionally military cooperation. An Australian military capable of defending remote parts of Australia will be capable of overseas deployment, and such deployment, in cooperation with other countries, including the US, may sometimes be in Australia’s interest. But we should not cooperate for the purpose of earning the gratitude of the US in the hope of future benefit.

We should cooperate also with many other countries, especially with other middle-sized countries, partly with the intention of forming relationships that may "check and balance" US power—many countries have a common interest in that. In particular we should do what we can to strengthen and reform the United Nations and other international organisations. In view of our interests, including our ideal interests, we should do anything we can to distance ourselves from US violations of the rule of law and should do what little we can do to influence them to live up to their own claimed ideals.


The time for an alliance with the US has passed, if there ever was a time. There is not now and won’t be in the foreseeable future a real alliance between Australia and the US. Australia may love the US, but they don’t love us, they hardly ever think of us, the attachment is one-sided. They don’t expect to need us enough to be willing ever to incur, for Australia’s sake, costs or risks they wouldn’t incur anyway in pursuit of their own interests.


See also

Mark Latham's speech, 7 April 2004, my comments

Julia Gillard's speech, 10 March 2011

Bill Shorten's speech 24 July 2014.

RETURN to johnkilcullen.net.au Politics, Academic.