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Armed neutrality for Australia reconsidered

By Peter Stanley - posted Friday, 8 June 2012

Each year in Canberra on 11 November a small, discreet and very sad ceremony precedes the national Remembrance Day service at the Australian War Memorial. Families, comrades, officials and senior defence officers gather in the Memorial's cloisters. They dedicate a panel added to the cast bronze 'Roll of Honour', recording the names of members of the Australian Defence Force who died on active service over the previous year. For 2011 eight names were added to the 'Afghanistan' panel. It's a day when what the Memorial means becomes apparent, because the loved ones of those who had died months or even weeks before are present.

On Remembrance Day 2011 a story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald anticipating that when President Barak Obama visited Australia the following week he would announce that the United States would for the first time station a force of marines permanently in Australia.

The insensitivity of the leak – because it could not have been disclosed except by the connivance of officials in both nations – was staggering. On a day when Australia (and much of the western world) remembers the dead of all wars, Australians with any grasp of history must have seen this as a portent of wars to come. But no. The announcement, and its subsequent confirmation, passed without expressions of condemnation or alarm, or even debate.


Curiously, of all people, popular media personality Ray Martin was the only one to decry this significant change in Australia's relationships to both the United States and to our region. He saw that accepting the basing of foreign troops on Australian soil marked a decisive step in Australia's complicity in the strategy of its alliance partner, the United States.

Malcolm Fraser, in his recent Gough Whitlam address, lamented that 'we seem more and more than ever to be locked into the United States' purposes and objectives'. Deprecating the futility of the war in Afghanistan, he asked 'Why did we follow America without question …?'

Why should Anzus have aroused concern, you may ask? Australia and the United States have lived under the Anzus Treaty since 1951. The acceptance without public or parliamentary debate of a foreign task force permanently based in Darwin, suggests that Anzus is virtually a given. A recent Lowy Institute poll suggests that about two-thirds of Australians support the US alliance. That probably explains the spate of recent suggestions that include basing US vessels in Australian ports and conducting US drone operations from Australian territories. The alliance permeates every aspect of Australian defence planning; its absence unthinkable to many. But not, I suggest unimaginable.

Recently Michael McKinley, in his contribution to Anzac's Dirty Dozen, gave four reasons to think Anzus bad for Australia. First, alliances make war more rather than less likely. Second, Australia actually does not get the benefits Anzus promised to deliver. Third, the US is a bad alliance partner, prone to go to war and liable to use methods illegal under international law and even its own constitution. Finally, US policies promote conflict rather than peace in the world. This is not a relationship in which it is healthy for Australia to remain.

In a recent address to a Just Peace forum in Brisbane, I argued that Australia should instead embrace the idea of Armed Neutrality. Australia accepted the Anzus alliance because it sought a reassurance that Japanese militarism could never again imperil it. As the Second World War gave way to the Cold War, America wanted a strong Japan as a bulwark against communism in Asia. As part of its acceptance of a 'soft' treaty with Japan, Australia (and New Zealand) and the US contracted the Anzus treaty in 1951. Australia has ever since been an agent of American strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, and beyond. Despite much rhetoric about its maturity and independence, Australia has never seriously challenged the fundamentals of the Anzus relationship.

But if Anzus has kept Australia safe from overt foreign aggression – not that any power has attempted to invade since 1951 – then it has not kept Australia out of war. Australia has been drawn into overseas wars, in Vietnam, in the Persian Gulf, in Iraq and in Afghanistan as a direct result of the alliance.


Who knows where Australia's compliance may lead in the future: war against North Korean or Iran? Conflict with China over Taiwan? Who knows if the premium of the Anzus insurance policy may not be more costly than it justifies?

You might ask what the alternative might be. Surely, Australia needs the protection of a larger and more powerful friend. If not the United States then who? Perhaps no one.

About thirty years ago a far-sighted group founded an organisation called Armed Neutrality for Australia. Scholars of international relations and history, politicians, even the odd critical army officer, developed the idea that Australia ought to withdraw from foreign entanglements and adopt a self-reliant stance in defence. The idea arose during the Cold War, when Australia's alliance and especially the presence of US bases made Australia a Soviet nuclear target. The group produced a newsletter and in 1984 a book, Armed Neutrality for Australia, by the novelist David Martin. Until it dissolved over disagreements over Australia's involvement in the 1990 Gulf War, Armed Neutrality for Australia argued that Australia would do better to look after its own defence interests and to avoid foreign alliances and commitments – to anyone.

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Dr Peter Stanley addressed Just Peace, Brisbane, as a private individual.

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About the Author

Prof Peter Stanley, of the University of NSW, Canberra, is one of Australia’s most active military-social historians. His book Bad Characters jointly won the Prime Minister’s Prize for History in 2011.

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