Contemporary Histories Blog – Professor David Lowe & Dr Filip Slaveski: ‘Good Deals, Bad Deals’

The Contemporary Histories Research Group is pleased to share our new series; a blog dedicated to exploring contemporary histories and history-making. Today’s blog is a discussion between Professor David Lowe and Dr Filip Slaveski:

Good Deals, Bad Deals: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Australian-US Relations in the Context of Russia and China in World Affairs

7 April 2017

Professor David Lowe:

‘Worst deal ever’ was the way in which Manus Island entered conversations between the new Trump Administration and the Turnbull Government. US President Trump used this phrase in his phone call to Prime Minister Turnbull in January, relating his dismay at inheriting an agreement made by the Obama Administration to accept a number of vetted refugees from Manus and Nauru. Nearly 70 years ago, Manus was also a focal point for Australian-US relations. ‘Manus Island will become one of the principal naval bases for the future defence of the Pacific’ was the Canberra Times headline from September 1947. On this occasion Australia’s Minister for External Affairs in 1947, Dr H.V. Evatt tried hard, and without success, to tie Manus to a broader security arrangement involving the Americans and New Zealanders in the Pacific. Its deep water harbour had drawn American attention and resources during the Second World War. Ultimately, this type of security deal would be consummated only later in the form of ANZUS, in 1951; and not before the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 paved the way for a new preparedness by the Americans to engage in security treaty talks.

Refugees on Manus Island – ABC News, 21 March 2017

The crucial shift in thinking in Washington was enabled by policy-makers’ consensus that, with the outbreak of the Korean War, the Cold War had come to Asia and the Pacific. There is with ANZUS, therefore, a certain echo to Trump’s doubts about treaties such as NATO (although his earlier scepticism has been modified more recently). ANZUS, often described as the keystone or foundation of Australia’s postwar defence and foreign policies, was also born of peculiar Cold War circumstances in which communism, and in particular the threat of a third world war fought against the Soviet Union and their allies, was very much in the minds of Western leaders.

So, in contemplating the current state of Australian-US relations, to what extent are ANZUS and the assumptions underpinning it rendered obsolete by the two great transformations of the Cold War’s end some 26 years ago and the new, seemingly cordial, or at least non-combative, relations between Presidents Putin and Trump?

Dr Filip Slaveski:

The difficulty of this contemplation, however, is that these two great transformations may not be as transformative as once thought. First, key structures of the western international order that emerged to combat the Soviet Union after the Second World War remained in place after the Union’s collapse in 1991. If the Cold War was over, then at least one army (NATO) remained in uniform as well as spate of anti-Communist defence treaties involving the US (ANZUS etc). 

For revisionists, it is exactly the survival of such Cold War structures that has promoted the continuation of anti-Russian practices in the international arena. Chief among them are NATO’s expansion into the former Soviet space and the European Union’s excursions into the Maidan revolution. These practices have encouraged Russian ‘countermeasures’ in Georgia in 2008 and in Ukraine in 2014, thus creating the tension required to justify both NATO’s existence and further anti-Russian practices (sanctions etc).  On the other hand, NATO supporters cite these examples as evidence of Russian aggression that demand the continuation and, indeed, strengthening of NATO and hardening of positions against Russia’s claim to great power status.  

These two arguments are dominant among the western and Russian political commentariat. This is less because of their veracity and more for their self-serving logic which can interpret any Russian/US action quickly and in prime-time to accord to their deeply held suspicions. This leaves little room for those seeking a middle ground in the media, and, indeed, even in the Academy.

What are well-meaning truth-seekers to do? Well, let’s do something dangerous and trust in President Trump just for a minute—okay, just for a second—and move to the second ‘great’ transformation and Australia’s place in this quickly changing landscape. 

The question is, if a Trump Presidency improves US relations with Russia in spite of mass anti-Russian sentiment in Washington, what will that mean for Australia? Well, it might not mean much at all. A drop or at least a reconfiguration of in US support for NATO as a bulwark against Russian influence is possible. This would complicate further Australia’s strange foreign policy stance toward Russia since the downing of MH17 in 2014. Tony Abbot’s much vaunted shirtfront of President Putin in response to Putin’s ‘responsibility for the murder of 38 Australians, (which transformed into a koala hugging photo opportunity between the leaders) pointed to the conflicting foreign policy parameters Australia faced even with an anti-Russian Obama Administration in place. 

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin at G20 summit in 2014 – NBC News, 15 November 2014

Trump exacerbates these conflicting parameters, especially that of chastising the Russian government for its possible complicity in the tragedy while requiring its assistance to bring those responsible for MH17 to justice. The ham-fisted Australians could learn much for the Dutch about how to manage such conflict deftly. In a period of mass national mourning after the murder of 192 of their citizens on MH17, the Dutch government avoided blaming the Russian government immediately for the incident. They sought, but did not demand Russian assistance. This approach was helpful in securing Russian influence in providing access to the crash site and, though with significant reservations, some assistance to crash investigators in a thoroughly chaotic warzone beyond any one man’s (Putin’s) control.  Maintaining Dutch-Russian economic ties also played a (background) in Prime Ministers Ruttes’ careful response.

What is probably more important to the Australian relationship with the US and the future of ANZUS, is US manoeuvres in the Pacific. But Russia features here too. New commodities agreements between Russia and China and the clear strengthening of Sino-Russian relations in 2016 raised eyebrows in the Obama administration. Trump’s eyebrows might fly off his face given his anti-China rhetoric. This might be an opportunity for Australia reconfigure it position in the (possibly dwindling) US alliance. If the Australians can help convince the Trump Administration that China and Russia present inter-connected threats—say a Eurasian ‘gas axis’ from Moscow to Beijing via Astana (Kazakhstan)—then Australia might gain the US assistance it needs to help stave off this possible threat to its economic position in the Pacific and remain a key trading partner of the Chinese.

Balancing threats and partnerships in foreign policy is difficult, and we are yet to see how much of a threat the gas-axis poses to Australia’s economy, whose mining bust lessens our reliance on Chinese trade. But if our relationship with the US is important to striking this balance, what sort of US assistance would be needed?

Professor David Lowe:

Historically, one of the most persistent threads of concern in Australian foreign policy since the 1950s has been the fear of US withdrawal of forces (including multiple bases in Japan and South Korea) and weakening of will to intervene in Asia and the Pacific in the event of a sudden challenge to the status quo. The strange history of the ANZUS Treaty justifies such concern, even if US-Australian relations in the broader sense of alliance and partnership go some way to offset this – and I don’t underestimate the value of intelligence sharing, AusMin talks and other security-related dialogues between Australia and the US, partly facilitated by the existence of ANZUS.

But Canberra was particularly concerned about the limited ‘invocability’ of ANZUS during the great challenge to the creation of Malaysia posed by Indonesia during the period of so-called ‘Confrontation’ 1963-65. Then, the circumstances in which the Americans might ‘act in accordance with its constitutional processes’ and come to Australia’s aid, should Australian forces be attacked, were not at all clear. Two decades on, in the mid-1980s, New Zealand’s suspension from the ANZUS Treaty on the grounds of its opposition to nuclear-powered or armed vessels was a major jolt to all parties. And few would have predicted that the one occasion on which the treaty was invoked was by an Australian Prime Minister (Howard) in response to an attack on the United States in the form of the 9/11 events in 2001. This was the basis on which Australians joined in the ill-considered (in my view) invasion of Iraq.

The strongest justification for joining in the invasion of Iraq was that it served to strengthen Australia’s security relationship with the United States. In other words, the strongest justification was also a reminder of what we have long known – that ANZUS, with its much more watery commitment to act than the ‘attack on one is an attack on all’ commitment in NATO, and with all sorts of unknowns around its operability, needs constant supplementary work. I’d agree with you, Filip, that this situation for ANZUS has endured beyond the end of the Cold War and remains a factor in Australia’s relationships with the new Trump administration. Those who describe ANZUS as an insurance policy would be better advised to see it as an important component of a bigger alliance relationship defined less by tight wording than by the identification and constant recalibration of shared interests, shared experiences (especially military ones), practices and institutional tissue.

Not the kind of situation that lends easily to being called a ‘deal’, as is the wont of President Trump. It links more easily to the other important strand of Australian foreign policy that takes into account the ambition of China in the Pacific, namely the need for a rules-based order in which international law regulates behaviour. The need for rules is heard in particular in relation to disputes over South China Sea islands, but China’s growing influence as aid donor, investor and trader in the South Pacific, in a manner that challenges Australia’s influence, is an additional concern. 

US President Donald Trump – The Conversation, 21 January 2016

But ‘deals’ between the US and Russia or the US and other nation-states, have the potential to undermine the ‘alliance plus rules’ stance in a manner that has not happened before. The overriding national self-interest in Trump’s examples of deals that work signals that very clearly. So, might it simply be better for Australia to start striking its own ‘deals’ with China with little regard for historical understandings of the alliance with the US? It might have to push to stay ahead in the line, however, as Australia’s resource boom wobbles and other players sell gas and natural resources to the Chinese at cut-price rates, most notably, the Russians!

Catch up on last week’s blog from Professor Klaus Neumann, ‘Denmark’s Unfinished Business’.

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