Generational Divide Could Endanger Long-Term Australia-U.S. Relations

U.S. Presidential delegation attended the commemoration ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea in Australia. Image: Official U.S. Embassy, Canberra photo by Travis Longmore  Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of visiting The Australian National University (ANU). This trip provided me with an opportunity to present a new working paper at the Strategic & Defense Studies Centre of the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific. Additionally, I met with dozens of diplomats, think tank scholars, professors, and military officers. During these informal conversations, I heard what a wide range of Australian foreign policy experts thought about key foreign policy topics of the day. As we approach the sixty-second anniversary of the signing of the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security (ANZUS) Treaty, I wish to share some key takeaways from my trip.

As expected, most Australian foreign policy specialists agreed with one another that the Australia-U.S. strategic alliance remains a strong one. In fact, they pointed to signs that the partnership has only intensified in recent years, citing the particularly close relations between our countries’ political and military elites as evidence.

However, these experts displayed clear demographic divides in how they view the alliance. On average, I found that Australian foreign policy specialists over forty years of age tend to portray the alliance as an integral part of Australia’s national security strategy. They often assessed the alliance to be in Australia’s core national interests. They also placed considerable emphasis on the historical context of the relationship, digressing into stories about how “Australia has fought side-by-side with the United States in every major international conflict since WWII.” In many ways, this echoed the official line given by Australian politicians and diplomats when they visit Washington.

By no means were these opinions exclusively categorized by age. Political persuasions were also a factor. Among the experts I met and observed, those on the far left spectrum of Australian politics tended to harbor far more negative views on the alliance. On the contrary, those closely affiliated with the military and the defense industry were strong supporters of the alliance.

Nevertheless, the same could not be said of the average Australian foreign policy specialist under the age of forty working or studying in Canberra. Generally speaking, they were much less enthusiastic about the alliance and far more willing to voice their displeasure with current Australia-U.S. relations. In fact, when I asked almost every one of them, “What is the value of the alliance with the United States to Australia?” not a single person immediately responded with a positive answer. Instead, I received either the rhetorical question “Is there any value?” or an ambivalent statement that the alliance was both good and bad for Australians.

U.S. Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich and Australian Minister for Defense Stephen Smith signed the Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty in May 2013. Image: Official U.S. Embassy, Canberra photo by Travis Longmore

These young experts' lukewarm attitude towards the Australia-U.S. alliance appeared to have been shaped by a shared discourse. The notion that “Australia is being made the lapdog of the United States” was prevalent in their responses. They also tended to situate the alliance in a far narrower historical context than the older generations of foreign policy specialists did. The early Cold War years were not emphasized, but heavy references were made to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These were viewed through the lens of “America’s wars” and many of the young professionals in Australian foreign policy felt that Australia should not have been party to these “mistakes.” This led to deep cynicism toward any mention of “shared values” as the main driver of the alliance.

Furthermore, the China factor weighed heavily in every conversation with these Australian foreign policy specialists. Those over the age of forty tended to see the alliance as helping to reign in the threat posed by the rise of China. Those under the age of forty countered that Australia had a wider range of options in choosing how to deal with China until the Australia-U.S. alliance constrained their options. They endorsed alternative hedging and balancing strategies, and expressed the view that the United States was forcing Australia to choose between an ally and a major trading partner. They often cited Hugh White and other prominent Australian writers who have questioned where Australia should stand in relation to Washington and Beijing. This was not something that a single person over forty raised in conversation.

Of course, these casual observations are likely to remain as conjectures, unless they are validated by in-depth studies. However, if further research does result in upholding these findings, Washington should be concerned; both the United States and Australia have failed in their duty to convey the value of the alliance to the next generation of Australian foreign policy leaders.

Looking back on these conversations, one comment alarms me the most: “Australia cannot depend on the United States to come to its defense in times of crisis.” This is something that I heard from a number of Australians foreign policy specialists under the age of forty who seriously questioned their country’s reliance on American military assets based largely on strategic grounds. It harked of John Curtin’s criticism of the United Kingdom in “The Task Ahead.”

What is the value of an alliance if one country is not convinced that the other will uphold their end of the bargain in times of crisis? Do Australian foreign policy specialists under the age of forty even know the range of commitments made under the alliance?

As per the second question, I am not convinced that they do. Few were familiar with the cyber commitments made under the Australian-U.S. strategic partnership following the Estonia attacks. Moreover, when pressed to iterate two or three of the alliance commitments, many of the young experts were unable to do so. To be fair, as one young foreign policy specialist countered, these commitments are not always in the public domain, so it would be impossible for Australians outside of government to know what they are since “our leaders don’t communicate them to us.”

If the alliance is to endure, such lack of conversation between national leaders and foreign policy experts outside of government needs to change. The younger generations of Australian foreign policy specialists need to be convinced that the alliance is in their country’s national interests, irrespective of shared values. They must also be reassured that the United States will always be there for Australia in times of need throughout the next century. This will not happen anytime soon unless political and military elites in both countries make it their priority to engage in more open conversation about Australia-U.S. alliance with our next generation of foreign policy leaders.