The Southern Special Relationship: Australian-American Relations since 1942

Aboard Queen Mary 2

An unanticipated effect of the American Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776 was the end of “transportation” of convicts from Britain to the American colonies – housing them on old Royal Navy “hulks” on the Thames – until the scandalous conditions on board led to another idea: That of transporting the prisoners to Botany Bay in Australia instead. (You know the rest of the story.)

There was very little physical contact between the two lands during the 19th century: An occasional visit by an American whale ship to Australia, perhaps. Herman Melville in Moby Dick called Australia “that great America on the other side of the sphere” – by which he meant another vast, sparsely-populated space. He didn’t mention any fond feelings between Americans and Australians; in fact, he said Sydney sailors were among the most treacherous he had found anywhere.

The first major and official contact between the US and the new Dominion of Australia was the visit in 1908 of Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, which circled the globe, calling at Sydney, Melbourne, and Albany. On that occasion, Roosevelt issued a statement, saying, “I have, as every American ought to have, a hearty admiration for, and fellow feeling with, Australia, and I believe that America should be ready to stand back of Australia in any serious emergency.”

He was far-sighted: One-third of a century later, in 1942, his distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent the US Navy to the Coral Sea just in time to help halt the potential Japanese advance on Australia. FDR sent something else: General Douglas MacArthur, who had just escaped from the island fortress of Corregidor in the Philippines.

MacArthur’s presence in Australia embodied the historic shift in Australia’s reliance on its strategic protection from Great Britain to the United States. Even before the general’s arrival, Prime Minister John Curtin had written an article in the Melbourne Herald, saying: “The Australian government regards the Pacific struggle as primarily one in which the United States and Australia must have the fullest say in the direction of the democracies’ fighting plan. Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs to our traditional links to the United Kingdom.”

Winston Churchill, in his war memoirs, said Curtin’s comments were “flaunted around the world by our enemies.” But after the fall of Singapore, in a secret cable to Roosevelt in March 1942, Churchill himself said that “It seems of the utmost importance that US naval forces should give increasing protection in the Anzac area, because this alone can meet the legitimate anxieties of the governments there and ensure the maintenance of our vital bases of re-entry.” FDR needed little persuasion, replying: “Australia must be held, and we are willing to undertake that.”

Prime Minister Curtin had such faith in America’ s commitment and in General MacArthur personally that he abolished his own Military Board and put MacArthur in sole charge of Australia’s defense. The two men bonded instantly. When they first met, MacArthur put his arm around Curtin’s shoulders and said, “Mr Prime Minister, you and I will see this thing through together.”

Eleanor Roosevelt travelled to Australia for her husband in 1943. In a memoir, she wrote: “The population of Australia is not very great, but though we were filling up many parts of the country and swamping many of the small towns and villages with GI’s, the hospitality of the Australians was proverbial. Boy after boy told me how kindly he had been treated in Australian homes, and that was equally true in New Zealand. However, Australia had a greater number of our men in proportion to her population. [The two countries] stood up under the strain in a remarkable manner.”

Incidentally, I can’t find whether MacArthur ever said to GI’s arriving in Australia anything akin to what British General Sir Archibald Wavell told Australian troops arriving in Cairo during World War II: “I look to you to show the Egyptians that their notions of Australians as rough, wild, undisciplined people given to strong drink are incorrect.”

After the war, the ties between the United States and its South Pacific allies became formal, with the so-called ANZUS and SEATO treaties of the early 1950’s. These were not as stringent as the NATO Treaty, which most famously provides that an attack on any one member is considered an attack on all. Rather, they required only “consultation” in the event of aggression within the Asia-Pacific region.

Whereas NATO is still a going concern today, SEATO was a casualty of the Vietnam War, and ANZUS died after the Labour government elected in New Zealand in 1984 barred port visits by any warships that were either nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed. Under its “neither confirm nor deny” policy, the US Navy stopped sending ships to New Zealand. With the subsequent crumbling of the ANZUS alliance, the United States proceeded to strengthen its defense ties with Australia. Even so, New Zealand is part of the so-called Five Eyes nations – the others being the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK – which today share their most sensitive intelligence.

With or without treaty obligations, Australian forces have fought alongside US troops in every conflict starting with the Second World War and continuing through Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently in northern Iraq and Syria against ISIS.

Even more than joint combat, the Australian-American relationship has been built on  the personal ties between Australian prime ministers and US presidents. Robert Menzies established these ties with four successive presidents: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and lastly Lyndon Johnson. But LBJ’s warmest tie was with Menzies’ successor Harold Holt, whom he called “my friend and ally” – that is, ally in the Vietnam War. When Holt died in 1967, Johnson flew halfway around the world to attend the funeral. Meeting with the Australian cabinet, LBJ compared the death of Holt with that of President Kennedy four years earlier, saying, “I know where you are this morning. In adversity, a family gets together. That is why I am here.”

After the Johnson-Holt relationship, no pairing of presidents and prime ministers was particularly strong until that of George W. Bush and John Howard in the first decade of the 21st century. Bush’s national security advisor and secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, said the two men were very much alike: “Tough, resolute, and not at all afraid of controversy”.  Bush himself called Howard a “man of steel” and presented him with the Medal of Freedom, America’s topmost civilian honor, given to few foreigners.

Because of the importance of Australia to the United States – and because it is considered a “plum” assignment – presidents have tended to send personal friends and longtime supporters as ambassador. For example, Lyndon Johnson sent Ed Clark, one of his oldest and most influential advisors dating back to his earliest days in Texas politics. Clark was (among other things) a banker, and when he was appointed inn 1965 he said he was inspired to start a new bank called the Kangaroo National Bank, whose slogan would be, “Put your money in our pouch.”

Robert Nesen was a southern California auto dealer and Republican Party official who drove Ronald Reagan to meetings when he was a candidate for governor of California in the mid-1960’s. When Reagan became president, Nesen yearned to become secretary of the Navy. In a close-fought, behind-the-scenes battle, the job went to John Lehman, who became one of the most powerful officials in the Pentagon. Reagan knew how he disappointed his friend Nesen was, so he sent him to Canberra – a not-bad consolation prize.

And George W. Bush sent his former business partner in the Texas Rangers baseball team, Tom Schieffer. After four years in Australia, Schieffer was appointed ambassador to another major country, Japan. Both nations knew the US ambassador was not a career diplomat, but that didn’t matter: They knew he could rapidly get the president of the United States on the phone if need be.

A distinguished former American ambassador (not to Australia) has written that, “Some [countries], such as Australia, have grumbled at times over the unsuitable choices [for ambassador] Washington has made, but the United States remains unruffled, assuming that nothing could possibly go wrong in our relations with Australia, no matter who our ambassador is.”

The Australian-American relationship goes beyond the personal to the institutional – that is, the two countries seem to work naturally together regardless who is president, prime minister, or ambassador. Of a visit she made to Canberra while US secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice said: “The relationship with the Aussies was so smooth that there seemed to be little real work to do…. Australia was taking on and solving conflicts in the South Pacific. Because the US secretary of State is the address for almost every issue, it was a relief to have an ally like Australia that was willing to fix problems, not just talk about them.”

General Mike Hayden, whom Bush put in charge of the CIA, told Prime Minister Kevin Rudd that theirs was “the most comfortable intelligence relationship we had, bar none. I don’t know if that devolved out of parallel immigrant histories, similar frontier experiences, or common pragmatic cultures. Whatever it was, it worked.” Hayden further noted that the Australian ambassador in Washington hosted a reception in 2014 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Canberra’s relationship with the CIA. “Not every country commemorates that sort of thing,” Hayden said.

If the long and close Australian-American relationship is like a successful marriage, then in recent years a third party has come on the scene that may or may not cause a divorce but certainly has created a triangle. That third party is, of course, China. Professor Hugh White of Australian National University in Canberra, wrote in 2013 how Australia is caught between the US, “its indispensable ally, and China, on which its economy overwhelmingly depends…. Most everyone in Australia wants both relationships to flourish, son that the USA can keep Australians safe while China makers them rich.”

This will be hard to do, because China is a demanding lover. It leaned hard on Australia during a confrontation with the US over Taiwan in 1996, and it got upset when Australia and the United Stated in 2011 announced the rotation of up to 2500 US Marines a year into a training area near Darwin. (When the Chinese consul general in Houston repeated his country’s objection to this arrangement, I told him that the Marines are really good, but China should not feel threatened by a mere 2500 of them temporarily stationed over 4000 km from its nearest territory.)

In a 2015 article, Bates Gill and Tom Switzer of the US Studies Center at the University of Sydney wrote: “Australia is not faced with a hard, stark choice between China and the US. [But] Canberra will need to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before, one that will occasionally involve the difficult feat of riding two horses simultaneously.” But Professor White of ANU has his doubts, saying, “Australians have little skill in this kind of essentially duplicitous diplomacy.”

What China wants in the world is known and predictable. What is unknown and unpredictable is the United States under Donald Trump. Australians got an early taste of this when, a few days after his inauguration in January 2017, President Trump had what was to be an hour-long, get-acquainted telephone conversation with then-PM Malcom Turnbull. The call ended abruptly after only 25 minutes when Trump attacked Turnbull over an agreement he had made with the Obama Administration over the settlement of refugees. He called it “a dumb deal”. To Trump, anything done at the hand of his predecessor is by definition dumb – including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which offered the United States and its economic partners, including Australia, a huge market to compete with China. The same week as his phone call to Turnbull, Trump pulled the US out of the TPP.

Undaunted, Australia and the other nations have gone ahead without the US and have created the third-largest trading union in the world, with 13% of global GDP and over $13 trillion US dollars worth of trade. The only thing bad about it seems to be its longer and clunkier name: The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.”

Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, has said that in Trump, Australia “faces a US president who is not liberal in his outlook, not international in his posture, nor orderly in his behavior” – in other words, unlike itself and unlike any previous US president.

A major question that extends beyond whatever number of years Donald Trump serves in the White House is whether the US Navy – stretched all over the globe and not even able to replace aging ships of the Reagan era – can successfully contend over the long term with a growing and technologically advanced, blue-water Chinese navy. As Prime Minister Tony Abbott observed in 2011, five years before the election of Donald Trump: “None of us want to find out the hard way what a shrunken United States looks like.”

Might an Australia economically dependent on China and lacking the solid assurance of American protection that has existed for over three-quarters of a century, become a South Pacific Finland – a free and democratic nation culturally connected to the West but economically and militarily in thrall to the East? The comparison is inexact: Finland had little choice in its fate; Australia does, without or (better) with the United States.

I am reminded of a scene in the 1992 Billy Crystal comedy Mr Saturday Night in which Crystal plays a television comedian. He’s talking with his brother, who has moved to Florida. What do you do down there? Crystal asks. The brother says that he and his wife often get together with their friends. “What – you have friends?” Crystal asks, and the brother replies evenly: “Yes. We had a choice between cable and friends, and we chose friends.”

And that is the wisdom for Australians and Americans alike, with which I close this talk: When given a choice, choose friends.

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