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Labor’s Alliance Challenge

James Curran

A future Labor government’s foreign policy will inevitably confront the two defining issues of our time: China’s continued assertiveness and the question of political stability in the US.

Arguably, it is the latter which may prove the most difficult for the Australian strategic imagination to think through. The US alliance has become a way of life for a generation of politicians, policymakers and pundits. For a new Labor Cabinet, this will require delicacy and tact: how to maintain steadfast support for the alliance while grappling with an era in which American resolve continues to be tested – if not potentially crippled – by US domestic turmoil and division.

Australians are still not used to this America. At no point since the signing of the ANZUS treaty in 1951 has any government in Canberra had to take seriously the question of whether the US can find again its internal equilibrium. It does now.

Donald Trump was the first American president in the last century prepared to compromise and subvert his own country’s institutions for his own gain. Even Nixon broadly respected the norms of American political practice as the lethal drip of revelations over the Watergate break-in eroded his hold on the White House. Those same norms held amid the bitter legal tumult of the cliff-hanger 2000 presidential election between Democrat Vice President Al Gore and the Republican nominee George W. Bush.

But enough has happened in the last term under Trump to question whether the US will become unstable beyond a certain point. Although President Biden has made a start to American recovery with his “build back better” infrastructure bill, his capacity to implement further reforms may be dead on arrival after the November mid-term elections.

The possible return of Trump or another candidate faithful to the former president’s outlook, if not his modus operandi, complicates the alliance picture further, and not only for Australia. Spare a thought for Seoul and Tokyo: a US alliance system seriously undermined by erratic American policy only makes their proximity to North Korean unpredictability and Chinese sabre-rattling all the more acute.

What does this mean for how Australia positions itself in the world and the region?

Successive Australian governments have tended to avert their eyes from these American troubles. Since at least 2010 they have been willing Washington to rediscover its global purpose. Privately, the Morrison Government says that the coalitions it champions – especially the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – are a hedge against possible US retreat. Yet publicly, it locks Australia into US grand strategy in Asia and applies a Five Eyes framework to Australian foreign policy. It talks of “forever” partners. Some might even say that it is allowing hope to dictate to judgment.

The Australian response to an America preoccupied with decades of wage stagnation and socio-economic and racial division has been to offer America more; at times, to out-hawk even the most hawkish of American strategists. Worryingly, the Morrison Government now appears to measure its worth as an ally in terms of its capacity to be at the vanguard of “pushing back” against China. The Defence Minister now destroys whatever was left of “strategic ambiguity” even as Washington reaffirms it.

Does Washington want or need this kind of ally?

As President Biden avoids the stampede towards a “new Cold War”, looks to limited cooperation with Beijing and tries to avoid military conflict, the Morrison Government now has an investment in continuing bad relations between the US and China, and with it the risk of an inadvertent or deliberate outbreak of war. It willingly dials itself into Washington’s martial calculations against the Chinese state. Under this government, Canberra tumbles once more into an overexposed, lonely prominence.

Everything is now seen through a “China threat” prism. Relations with the Pacific, Southeast Asian countries and Japan cannot be viewed on their own terms. All are submerged beneath the politicking on “pushing back” against Beijing, on the apparent gratification of Australia being the model for “standing up” to China.

This is Labor’s opportunity, requiring nothing less than the revival of Australian diplomacy. If it is successful at the polls, some early and well-targeted set-piece speeches by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister will need to do a job similar to that which Whitlam faced in 1972: to “clear away the rubble and make a fresh start”. The watchwords of Labor’s foreign policy should be prudence, restraint and legality. And its first task will be to dial down some of the frightening rhetoric on China being employed by government ministers, backbenchers and even some high-profile officials.

On Taiwan, for example, Labor will need to reintroduce “strategic ambiguity” to the public debate, the very concept that one of its favourite sons, Kim Beazley, so breezily tossed aside in 2006 during private talks with the US Ambassador to Australia, subsequently revealed in the Wikileaks cables.

Labor’s thinking on Taiwan should start from a simple premise: that it requires abysmal ignorance and absolute arrogance for a small country to place itself on the cutting edge of a conflictual relationship between two groups of Chinese. Further, that it requires ignorance on a similar scale and utter irresponsibility for a small country – or in fact any third country – to talk and act as it could have any influence on two nuclear powers.

The task ahead will not be easy. For Labor, the question of US alliance management brings particular problems. Despite its claims to have founded the Australian-American relationship in the cauldron of WWII under John Curtin, or to have assuaged the concerns of its left faction over the question of the Australia/US joint facilities in the 1980s, Labor has been cast on the wrong side of trustworthiness on national security and the alliance twice before, and at great electoral cost.

First, at the height of the Cold War, when Menzies took Labor’s opposition to the establishment on Australian soil of US intelligence installations and the commitment of troops to Vietnam as proof that Labor could not be trusted on alliance management. Second, in the aftermath of 9/11, John Howard exploited a reasonable call by then Labor leader Mark Latham relating to the recall of Australian troops and depicted the party as cutting and running on America. Prime Minister Morrison and Defence Minister Dutton are reading from the same Coalition playbook now.

Penny Wong has already committed to appointing an ASEAN special envoy to forge closer relationships with key regional capitals. One of their first tasks will be to swiftly arrest the perception that Australia has re-prioritised the Anglosphere at the expense of fostering regional collaboration on balancing China’s rise. The second will be to listen to how these countries see Great Power rivalry and, as Wong made clear recently, how they want to “exercise their agency in how the region is being shaped”.

The Morrison government now talks almost incessantly of giving the Americans more: pre- positioning of logistics and possibly weapons on Australian soil, and home porting facilities for the US navy in Western Australia. What next? Will Labor continue to support the turning of Australia into a virtual aircraft carrier for the US in Asia?

It is notable that there has been virtually no public or parliamentary debate on this question. Labor will be loath to bring on such a debate, fearing that it would open itself to the charge that by so doing it weakens the alliance. But the need for transparency now could not be more pressing, especially as there are serious doubts among some influential players in Washington as to whether the transfer of nuclear technology under the AUKUS partnership is feasible.

Continuing American domestic churn surely makes the case, too, for appointing a career diplomat to the Washington post. This is no time to send a superannuated Labor grandee to Washington. The two most effective Ambassadors in recent decades have been Michael Thawley and Dennis Richardson, both long-serving diplomats who also had experience working in prime ministerial offices: Thawley for Howard, Richardson for Hawke. A career appointee would also be the clearest sign of Labor’s express commitment to rebuilding the ranks and reputation of Australian diplomacy.

Should it win government, Labor can take some comfort: that on the previous three occasions it has done so from Opposition – in 1972, 1983 and 2007 – it has made its distinctive mark on how Australia thinks about and acts in the world. It may need to move with even more alacrity this time, given not only the extent of the damage to Australia’s standing, but the continuing uncertainty swirling around its Great Power ally.


James Curran is Professor of Modern History at University of Sydney and a former official in PM&C and the Office of National Assessments. He is a foreign affairs columnist for the Australian Financial Review and the author of a number of works on Australian political and foreign affairs history. His next book, The Costs of Fear and Greed: A Modern History of Australia-China Relations is published by Newsouth Press in 2022.


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