Speakers: Ric Smith, Wilson Center Australia Scholar; Alan Gyngell, Executive Director, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney; Owen Harries, Visiting Fellow, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney

Australia's relationship with the United States has been the cornerstone of its security since the two nations, along with New Zealand, signed the ANZUS alliance agreement in 1951. Cold War tensions, including an erosion of multilateral defense arrangements in the region and a diplomatic crisis that worked to sever New Zealand's alliance ties to the United States, encouraged the deepening of bilateral relations between the United States and Australia. The end of the Cold War, the emergence of terrorism as a threat, and China's rapid rise to a more prominent role in one of the world's most dynamic regions raise new questions about the future of the bilateral relationship. These questions were the basis for a panel discussion at an April 15 event hosted by the Asia Program.

Owen Harries, now living in Sydney but for many years the Washington-based editor of The National Interest, described Australia as "a satisfied, status quo state." For Australia, aligning itself with leading status quo countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, has made "good strategic sense." The fact that most Australians share the political and cultural values of these Australian allies has made these partnerships all the more advantageous. In recent years, however, the "Bush doctrine," the global war on terror, and the Bush administration's "global project to use American power to reshape the world in its own image" have led some Australians to ask whether the United States can still be regarded as a status quo power. As Australia looks toward the future, this is a "first-order question." Particularly if the United States were to lose its "economic edge" and its political prestige and come to rely more on military muscle, Australia would find itself increasingly drawn to other international partners, including China.

Richard C. Smith, the Wilson Center's Australian scholar noted that the security agreement between the United States and Australia is embedded in the psyche of the Australian public. Despite negative views of the Bush Administration, some 78 percent of Australians value the relationship. However, Australia's focus is shifting away from the United States toward Asia and, in particular, China. In light of these developments, Smith made several proposals relating to the long-term maintenance of the bilateral relationship. Firstly, Australia needs to encourage the United States to keep all of its alliances strong so as to reassure allies in uncertain times. Secondly, the United States and Australia need to use the strategic architecture that already exists in the Asia-Pacific, including such multilateral institutions as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), in order to maintain stability in the region. Thirdly, the nations of the region must commit to keeping their economies open so as to avoid friction over trade. Finally, Australia and the United States must be committed to maintaining strong defense forces to deal with contingencies that might arise.

Allan Gyngell, executive director of the Lowy Institute, a prominent Australian think-tank, surveyed the prospects of the bilateral relationship under President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Obama and Rudd are both recently-elected national leaders with significantly different views on foreign policy from their predecessors. For example, according to Gyngell, Rudd recognizes that we now live in a "networked world in which power is derived from connectivity." Previously, the United States relied on allies like Australia to act as "validators" by attaching their flags to U.S. operations and policy positions. However, dealing with issues such as climate change, arms control, and financial reform no longer requires "validation," but the ability to persuade ambivalent nations to sign up to global regimes. Australia, a nation with fewer overseas posts than most developed nations, therefore needs to expand its diplomatic presence in the world. There is currently a gap, however, between Rudd's ambitious diplomatic objectives, U.S. expectations, and Australia's capacity to deliver. Nevertheless, Gyngell sees the shared language, values, and goals between the two allies, as well as the "faint aroma of the exotic and the desirable" that Australia as a nation presents to Americans, as factors that solidify the bilateral relationship.

Drafted by Bryce Wakefield, Asia Program Associate.
Robert M. Hathaway, Asia Program Director. Ph: (202) 691-4020