AUSTRALIA and the U.S.A.



Australian Federal Governments, during the latter half of the 20th century and since, seem motivated in their relationships, with successive governments of the USA, by presumptions that :

  • Australia is a weak country, unable (in terms of both our economy, strategic intelligence, and war-fighting capabilities) to mount an effective sole defence against perceived or potential risks in our region;
  • the USA has superiority (compared to any other nations) including their economy, their intelligence capability, and their war-fighting strengths;
  • both nations have shared ethical & political values reflected in how they view the external world, and their foreign policies;
  • both these two nations may be expected to aid the other in the event of need against military threat - with the ANZUS treaty defining this expectation; this argues for a high conformity by Australia with US decisions for wars and compatible equipment and methods for these wars;
  • both nations share commercial interests, such that trading links may be expected to 'outrank' those with other nations, as well as conflicting domestic pressures.

In this paper, some of these points are challenged, and their validity argued as wrong or limited.


In founding the Australian federation by 1901 the American model was a major influence, as a nation whose founders had also been faced with a large country of widely dispersed population. Many features were adopted from the USA (central & state governments; bicameral national parliament of a senate representing states and house of representatives more directly reflecting the (eligible voter) population. However the roles of head of state and head of government were separated, partly due to the former role being vested in the British Crown.

This American model also influenced other later federated republics, such as Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, India, and Germany (after 1945).

The keystone events underlying what became the Australia-USA strategic relationship were the early Japanese victories in World War 2 Pacific campaigns, which expelled American and British forces from their Asian colonial territories - and particularly the sudden and unexpected defeat in 1942 by Japan of British forces in Singapore - which removed the British Imperial 'safety umbrella' and swept away the assumptions under which most of our national defence strategy had been planned until then.

Britain, by then focused on its own defence in Europe, was unable to provide any further assurances or substantial help.

The Australian government (then led by the ALP under John Curtin) sought help from the USA, in exchange for providing a land base for American forces (as well as New Zealand) in their counter-attacks on Japan from the South-West Pacific during 1942-45. It was symbolic how the American commander MacArthur, whose forces had also been defeated in the Philippines (then a colony of the USA), moved his strategic base to Melbourne during this period for the Pacific War.

Australian forces also supported in these actions, in some cases in the same land or sea battles with American (and other Allied) forces.

After the 1945 end of World War 2 the 'allied' relationship between the USA and the USSR (formed solely against their mutual enemies of the Axis powers (primarily Germany, Italy, and Japan) soon collapsed due to conflicting interests. Although these conflicts were strategic and economic they were reinforced by an ideologic slant, i.e. Communism versus Capitalism. Most attitudes of and actions by USA governments for the next fifty years were inspired by this ideology.

Australian governments during this time found common cause with the USA over the anti-Communist issue and related wars ... joining as an ally for wars in Korea and then Vietnam which in hindsight yielded no benefits for either country, yet caused massive destruction and suffering.

The "all the way with LBJ" slogan of Prime Minister Holt in 1968 was an explicit endorsement of this alliance, which has been maintained with limited critical analysis or review of how it benefits the Australian people.


By comparison, over this period Canada joined the USA in the Korean war, and the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, and the actions in Afghanistan from 2001 (after the 9/11 attacks, to resist Islamist insurgents and assure a new government) - but selectively not the war in Vietnam, nor the pre-emptive 'crusader' invasion and war on Iraq from 2003, with later occupation of that nation.

The relatively small population base of Australia, compared to many of its neighbours, has given concern since the 19th century ... a fear of being overwhelmed by 'the Asian masses' or the "yellow peril."

But with this should be considered some basic facts, e.g.

* this continent's physical size - with hostile living conditions and extreme distances in its northern and north-western parts - may also act as a defence

* Australia's own military resources are significant in the region, and have themselves caused fears or apprehension over our own intentions in regional countries

* diplomatic relations with our neighbours have been predominately good since 1945 - exceptions with Indonesia being periods when its Sukarno government's tried to subvert the new federation of Malaysia in the 1960s, at which Australia accepted Britain's request to join military defence of East Malaysia against Indonesian incursions - and varying and inconsistent responses from Australia to the Indonesian annexation of West New Guinea, a residual part of the former Dutch East Indies. Australia showed a passive and duplicit response to Indonesian invasion and annexation of the abandoned Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975 - then being more worried at the prospect of an independent socialist mini-state in the region. Neither East Timor nor West New Guinea territory shared religious or ethnic ties with Indonesia, but an attitude of realpolitik resulted in no demur from Australia to their takeover.

Australia's intervention during 1999 in the intra-communal violence arising from East Timor's later independence-push also followed from bungled pressure on the Habibie Jakarta government - and led to tensions in links with some neighbours, in particular with Indonesia (which came to lose a province) and Malaysia, another Muslim country. But these relationships seem to have suffered only a temporary handicap and have largely recovered. It's notable that Australian requests for American involvement in this action were declined - although US support was given with communications as well as diplomatic pressure on Indonesia.

In later regional interventions by Australia, in response to problems of other South-West Pacific nations, some signs are perceived by regional neighbours of a more aggressive stance by Australia - but vexations of similar co-religionist issues have not applied, so did not arouse them with neighbours.

Nevertheless, Australian international policies continue to reflect fears of being without a 'big brother' to stand behind it in future contingencies - whether regional in nature, or global - such as risks from North Korea, or Chinese resistance to independence of Taiwan.

Australian governments, particularly under conservative parties, continue to lean on the American relationship - and to 'keep warm' the ANZUS treaty as if this guaranteed some unconditional American protection of this country - which it does not. Partners are only obligated to consult and advise in the event of one seeking help from the other if attacked. The hasty Australian decisions made, following the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks , to join with any American adventure in 2003 (with United Nations endorsal preferred - but not mandated) have proven unsound.

During America's war in Vietnam the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident was a clear example of abuse of executive power and misinformation in US leadership ... but after 2001 the lessons from 1964 had been forgotten by both Australian and US leaders.

And further consequent mistakes are being made in the recasting of Australia's strategy away from its earlier continental defence focus, to one as part of a larger US force structure; and selection of resources now being biased towards workability in such a structure.

Such decisions have been motivated by fear, rather than courage. As stated by Owen Harries, writing for the Lowy Institute, 'Saying “no”, however politely, can get to be hard.' ... [link to read]

 This is explored in our next sections, with opinions which range from the 'pro alliance' views of some seeking to maintain a close alliance, to others seeking a friendly but cooler relationship - like those pursued with the USA by Canada and New Zealand ..... {NEXT}

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