Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books.
When U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Canberra for the annual AUSMIN (Australia-US Ministerial) consultations earlier this year, 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 countries around the world, to expect less of the United States and do more themselves.
American security obligations are breathtaking. The U.S. government maintains 100,000 troops in western Europe, to defend populous and prosperous states from phantom security threats. Washington helps garrison the Balkans, an area never of strategic interest to the America people. That commitment continues to expand, with NATO recently introducing forces into Macedonia.
The Bush administration wants to further expand NATO, bringing U.S. security guarantees ever closer to Russia. Some analysts have even suggested bringing Russia into the alliance, turning Moscow, too, into an American security dependent. The U.S. government has conducted military exercises in the Caucasus, a region where American forces have never before been engaged.
Washington does its best to dictate affairs in Central America, having directly intervened in Grenada, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Panama in recent years. It shows occasional flashes of interest in Africa, blundering into Somalia, for instance. Washington’s support for Israel and demand for oil has led to multiple interventions in Lebanon, war against Iraq, and permanent garrisons in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Another 100,000 troops occupy East Asia. In the view of the Clinton administration, at least, they had to remain essentially forever, irrespective of changes in the region. Guarantees, treaties, and informal relationships litter the region. Among the most important are with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Australia.
Some people don’t seem to have noticed that the Cold War ended. The Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact are gone. Wretched Soviet Third World surrogates have turned into wretched isolated Third World states. Everywhere the threats have changed, and Western industrialized states are stronger than their potential antagonists.
Of course, a decision to change policy would be considered by some to be arrogant and “unilateral.” The latter is the newest term of opprobrium, seemingly replacing isolationist as the insult of choice.
What is really amazing is how seldom the U.S. government is ready to act unilaterally. It subsidizes every international aid agency, participates in almost every international organization, ratifies most all international treaties, and dominates all of the leading military alliances. Other governments routinely act unilaterally when they believe it to be in their interest. So, too, should the U.S. government when it is in the American people’s interest.
Ultimately, Washington owes loyalty to the citizens of America, not to those of Japan, Germany, Uzbekistan, Kosovo, or Australia. The lives of people abroad are no less valuable than those of Americans, but the primary duty of the U.S. government is to serve the latter. It is under no obligation to put the interests of other states or people first. Especially when they are able to advance their own interests.
So it is with AUSMIN. Washington has good reason to act unilaterally and transform the alliance into a much looser cooperative relationship.
For what purpose does the alliance exist?
The precursor to AUSMIN was ANZUS, the Australia-New Zealand-U.S. agreement. It was obsolete when it was signed, being directed at a Japan that had been thoroughly defeated.
Even during the Cold War the Soviets posed no threat in the south Pacific, lacking both the will and the capability to invade such isolated states. There are no more serious threats today.
The former Red Navy is rusting in port. Japan is a most unlikely repeat aggressor. China is far away from deploying a serious military capability, let alone one capable of threatening Australia. Indeed, invading nearby Taiwan is likely to remain beyond Beijing’s ability for years.
Vietnam and Malaysia make unlikely attackers. India’s reach may grow, but not in that way. There is only Indonesia, but it threatens a flotilla of refugees, not soldiers, if it implodes.
What Australia most needs, then, is not a superpower alliance, but a more robust military and stronger regional ties. Local organizations, such as ASEAN—the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—are better situated than the United States to handle a messy breakdown in Indonesia.
Cooperation with India and Japan, as well as the ASEAN states, could substitute for reliance on the U.S. government in forging a naval force to deter a future aggressive China from interfering with international navigation. Although the U.S. naval presence is more convenient, it will never be as reliable as that from countries that have more at stake in the region. In a crunch, Washington may—indeed, should—prefer to sacrifice allied interests than confront nuclear-armed China.
No doubt, it is easier for the Australian government, and many other nations as well, to rely on the U.S. government than to spend the money and take the effort to develop military forces and regional relationships. But a preference to be subsidized by Uncle Sam is no reason for him to oblige.
This latest meeting, like other AUSMIN consultations, was filled with the usual platitudes and terms of endearment. But the American and Australian people have divergent interests. The Australians’ 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 us.
Americans and Australians have many cultural, economic, and political ties that should form the bedrock of their relationship. But instead of maintaining a formal security arrangement based more on nostalgia than necessity, they should leave military ties to informal cooperation, such as intelligence sharing. Then Americans won’t be promising to defend yet another distant dependent, and Australians will begin moving on a more independent course that will provide the greatest long-term security.