Even as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Canberra for the annual AUSMIN (Australia-U.S. Ministerial) consultations, talking of expanded security relations, mutterings of disappointment were heard. Peter Hartcher of the Australian Financial Review wrote of “a climate of deflated expectations.” But it is time for not just Australia, but U.S. allies around the world, to expect less of the United States and do more themselves.
American security obligations are breathtaking. The United States maintains 100,000 troops in Western Europe to defend against phantom security threats, and is talking about further expanding NATO. Washington helps garrison the Balkans, an area never of strategic interest to the United States. Washington routinely attempts to dictate affairs in Central America and occasionally blunders into Africa. Washington’s support for Israel and demand for oil have led to multiple interventions in Lebanon, war against Iraq, and permanent garrisons in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. An additional 100,000 troops are stationed in East Asia. Treaties, informal security guarantees and bases litter the region. U.S. and Australian officials suggested creating an informal JANZUS security group of America, Australia, Japan and maybe South Korea. It was one thing to carry such a global burden during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and its many surrogates threatened friendly nations that had been wrecked or weakened by World War II. But the threats have dissipated and the Western states are far stronger than their potential antagonists. Which means that Washington need not do as much.
Even changing its policy is considered by others to be arrogant and “unilateral” — the term of opprobrium, that seems to have replaced isolationist. In fact, it is amazing how seldom the United States acts unilaterally. Washington subsidizes every international aid agency, participates in almost every international organization, ratifies most international treaties and dominates all of the leading military alliances. Other countries routinely act unilaterally when they believe it to be in their interest. So, too, should the United States.
Ultimately, Washington owes loyalty to the citizens of the United States, not those of Japan, Germany, Uzbekistan, Kosovo or Australia. Although the United States cannot pursue its own interest without restraint, it is under no obligation to put the interest of other states first — especially when they are able to help themselves. So it is with AUSMIN.
Washington should act unilaterally and transform the alliance into a much looser cooperative relationship. For what purpose does AUSMIN exist? The former Red Navy is rusting in port. Japan is a most unlikely repeat aggressor. China is years away from possessing a serious offensive capability, let alone one able to threaten Australia. Vietnam and Malaysia make unlikely invaders. There is only Indonesia, which threatens a flotilla of refugees, not soldiers. What Australia most needs, then, is not a superpower alliance, but a more robust military and stronger regional ties.
ASEAN is better situated than the United States to handle a messy breakdown in Indonesia. Cooperative relationships with India and Japan could substitute for reliance on the United States in forging a naval force to deter a future aggressive China from interfering with international navigation. No doubt, Canberra might prefer to rely on the United States than to spend the money and take the effort to develop regional forces and relationships.
But a preference to be subsidized by Uncle Sam is no reason for Uncle Sam to do so. After all, having defended most of the known world for the last half century, Americans might suggest that it was time for, say, the British to man Alaskan radar stations, Japanese to patrol United States sea lanes, and Australians to maintain U.S. bases in Hawaii, Wake Island and Guam. Such requests likely would not meet with much favor anywhere, including in Canberra.
This latest AUSMIN consultation was filled with the usual platitudes and terms of endearment. But the United States and Australia have divergent interests. Canberra’s concerns are largely local. Instability in Indonesia, Fiji and Papua‐New Guinea could spill over. Hostility among ASEAN states could greet Australian activism. None of these issues matter much to Washington, which is more concerned about relations with past and potential future superpowers: Russia, China and India.
The United States cannot accept a rival hegemonic domination of Eurasia; little else poses significant worry. The relationship between the United States and Australia should be based on their many shared cultural, economic and political interests. Harmonizing trade relations is perhaps the most important issue now before them. Military ties should be left to informal cooperation, such as intelligence sharing. Then the United States won’t be promising to defend yet another distant dependent. And Australia will be focusing on building the kind of regional relationships that will provide it with the greatest long‐term security.