Has the ANZUS treaty ever been invoked and if so when, and by whom?
Answer: Yes. In 2001 by John Howard immediately following 9/11.
Howard who was visiting the US at the time, rushed back to Australia, and framed standing in front of the Australian flag, assured both the Australian electorate and the US population that the ant would rush to the aid of the elephant.
“I can’t think of a time in our shared history where we have been so close” he declared, a sentiment echoed by then US Assistant Secretary for Defence, Richard Armitage, who assured the government that, “Australia and the United States couldn’t be tighter, we’re joined at the hip.”
Whilst Howard was the first Australian prime minister to ever invoke the treaty, his response was typical of a nation with a long history of the fear of invasion.
Since colonization, Australia has in succession feared the French, the Russians, the Japanese, Chinese communists, Malaysian communists and Vietnamese communists.
The fear fueled the reliance on great powers such as Britain until the end of WWII, and then shifted to the United States; ‘our great and powerful friend’ as Menzies put it.
The alliance has been held in such high esteem by successive Australian governments that its response to requests by the US of military commitment to Vietnam in 1965 and the first Gulf War in 1990, were so rapid as to elicit debate about the extent to which the request was actively solicited before it was received.
In return for its willingness to commit troops to aid the US in its conflicts abroad, Australia has regarded itself as the recipient of an ‘insurance policy’ through which the fears of attack or invasion could be alleviated by the securing of a ‘great power’ guarantee of protection.
However, as critics such as Max Teichmann in 1966 (Australia; Armed and Neutral?) and more recently Malcolm Fraser, have pointed out, the US has no direct obligation to come to Australia’s aid in time of military attack and from a realist perspective, great powers act accordingly to their perceived interests from a global perspective.
Whether a great power will meet its obligations of its treaties is always dependent on the the calculus of interest at the time.
Howard’s declaration marked another cycle of dependence by Australia on US approval in the formulation of Australian regional strategic policy and brought it full circle to that of the early years of the Cold War.
If Richard Armitage could claim that the US and Australia were joined at the hip, then the Gillard and Abbott government have cemented relations to shoulder and thigh as well.
In its ongoing fear of ‘abandonment’ by its super power ally, Canberra has allowed itself to once more become ‘entrapped’ in US foreign policy making and as Teichmann and Fraser point out, allow Australia to become involved in a war not of our own choosing.
It should be remembered that the same level of dependency on the US for directions during the Holt era produced a moribund policy platform for the Gorton and McMahon governments which continued to support US involvement in Vietnam despite changing international opinion and also failed to recognize Nixon’s intentions toward China.
The Abbott government’s agreement to allow Australia to become a ‘pivot’ in Washingon’s plans to confront China are reminiscent of Harold Holt’s ‘all the way with LBJ’ stance during the Vietnam conflict, and similarly to Holt, Abbott is running the very real risk of losing any flexibility in its future policy making decisions.
Abbott’s decision appears to be based on the hubris that Pax Americana will be ongoing and unshakeable in Asia for the remainder of the 21st. century a view supported by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, who stated that that over the coming decades the United States ‘will remain the single most powerful state in the world.’
As the line from the song goes however, ‘it ain’t necessarily so’, and both Abbott and Bishop’s views fail to take into account the rise of not only China but also of Indonesia.
In it’s first six months in office, the Abbott government has displayed an attitude to both nations that maybe best described as aloof.
We’re happy to do business with you but otherwise keep your distance.
This outlook does not bode well for Australia and its role in the Asian Pacific region in the future. China could very easily suspend Free Trade Agreement talks as could Indonesia, leaving Australia isolated in the region.
The Abbott government should also remember that the abandonment or entrapment scenario inherent in alliances between mid-sized powers and their more powerful allies works both ways.
If for example, Australia should should find itself in tensions with Indonesia which flare into conflict, Washington may decide that it is not in its best interest to intervene and abandon Australia to its fate.
Should the reader feel that the above statement is fanciful, then they should familiarize themselves with the history of the alliance between the US and Taiwan during the first decades of the Cold War, when Taiwan’s ‘hip, shoulder and thigh’ dependency on the US raised the fear in Washington that the United States could become entrapped in a war with China on behalf of Taiwan.
As a footnote, Washington’s fears at the time were well founded.
Because geography makes Australia neighbours with Asia, the intelligent approach to foreign policy especially those related to defence, should rest on diplomacy and multi-lateral agreements.
In this manner Australia can play a significant role as an agent for stability as a non-aligned middle power which can make positive contributions to security, trade, economic cooperation and global security.
Any other approach, particularly one of entrapment in a alliance with a super power that can, and if necessary will ignore the ANZUS treaty should it threaten its own interests – is folly.