Born in Ambiguity: The Historical Context of the U.S.-Australia Alliance

Born in Ambiguity
The Historical Context of the U.S.-Australia Alliance

by Donald A. DeBats
December 23, 2019

Donald A. DeBats analyzes the alliance’s historical context to increase understanding at a time when new degrees of gray-zone conflict with China could test affinities between the allies.

A balanced alliance arises from strong diplomatic, military, and economic relationships between partner nations. In the case of the U.S.-Australia alliance, each of these three dimensions is now based in a treaty framework and each has institutional expression. These agreements are products of the skills and perseverance of the professionals and define the formal relationship between the two countries. Their construction only became possible because trusted relationships were established in each sector. This process has been neither easy nor quick. Indeed, the final leg of the trifecta was put in place only in 2005.

Institutionalized relationships are strong, but they cannot prevail without broad public support. There is ample evidence of declining institutional trust in both Australia and the United States, and some evidence in Australia of decreasing faith in the importance and value of the U.S. alliance. The newness of institutionalized relationships, the difficulty of their construction, and the considerable cultural differences between Australia and the United States combine to make the dissolution of the alliance a more plausible scenario than one might imagine. This brief analyzes these dynamics to increase understanding of the alliance at a time when new degrees of gray-zone conflict with China could test affinities between the allies.


The first diplomatic encounter between the United States and Australia (the Victorian part) was an obscure event near the end of the American Civil War in January 1865 that encapsulated a century of broader antagonism between the United States and the United Kingdom and its colonies. While technically neutral in the American Civil War, British governments, at home and abroad, were still hostile to the American experiment; they supported the secession of the South and toyed with recognizing the southern cotton kingdom as a separate nation. Offshore appeared the CSS Shenandoah. To the alarm of the American counsel, William Blanchard, Melbourne’s city government allowed the Shenandoah to enter port, feted Captain Waddell and his crew, allowed provisioning and repairs, and tolerated the surreptitious recruitment of Australian crew members—a breach of neutrality.

The two countries did not establish diplomatic relations until 1940 when the United States recognized Australian independence from the UK. The exchange of ambassadors began a few years later in 1946, and Lyndon Johnson became the first U.S. president to travel to Australia in 1966. Conducted in the midst of the Vietnam War, his visit was a disaster. A quarter of a century passed before another U.S. president made the trip. Even after the institutionalization of relations, building a productive diplomatic relationship was a long and slow process.


Military relations also began poorly. The arrival in Sydney Harbor of the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet in August 1908 was a compelling display of naval strength—sixteen battleships (the ultimate instrument of force projection at the time) with support vessels and fourteen thousand sailors. President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the fleet, in its white peacetime colors, to demonstrate that U.S. naval power could be projected worldwide, a message primarily directed to Japan, which had recently destroyed the Russian fleet in the Russo-Japanese war. Although the invitation reflected anxiety about Japanese intentions and perhaps a subtle re-enforcement of the newly promulgated White Australia policy, the real purpose was to suggest alternative defense possibilities if Britain continued to ignore Australian dissatisfaction with the high cost and low quality of the meager British naval presence on which Australia’s security depended.[1] The continuing distance between the United States and Australia can be measured in the secret reports prepared by U.S. naval officers detailing Australian ports, facilities, and military strength.

The “100 years of mateship” celebration in 2018 commemorated the World War I battle at Hamel, in northern France, when U.S. and Australian troops first fought side by side under Australian command. However, the real change in the military dynamics between Australia and the United States came in the aftermath of World War II. Three weeks after the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, Prime Minister John Curtin had uttered those still famous words: “Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.” Australia and the United States were genuine allies in World War II and institutionalized military relationships began to emerge. The intelligence sharing treaty between the United States and the UK that began during the war continued in a secret treaty that expanded in 1956 to include Australian membership in Five Eyes.

That gain built upon the increased levels of trust generated from the Korean War. By the end of 1949, the United States had no diplomatic representation in South Korea and only five hundred troops. Australia had diplomatic representation and firsthand experience with the South Korean government that the United States lacked. The skills and knowledge of Australia’s key diplomatic officers were valuable to the United States during the Korean War.[2] This is the context in which the Australia, New Zealand, and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS Treaty) was created. The treaty was signed on September 1, 1951, one week before the Japanese Peace Treaty, Australia’s point of concern.

The persisting ambiguity at the core of the ANZUS Treaty reflects the conflicting Australian and U.S. objectives. The United States sought a hub-and-spoke system of regional anti-Communist alliances. It did not want a military alliance. Australia, by contrast, fearful of a rearmed Japan, did want a military alliance. Article 3—that Australia and the United States will consult in a crisis and decide whether to act—reflects that ambiguity. Unlike Article 5 of NATO, Article 3 does not say that an armed attack on one nation is an armed attack on the other. The difference was deliberate and, given the differences in national objectives, could not be negotiated otherwise.

Despite this weak and ambiguous formulation, the ANZUS Treaty has provided the institutional framework for trust-building initiatives in both the diplomatic and military spheres, including the annual Australia-U.S. ministerial talks (AUSMIN) initiated in 1985, which bring together the top foreign and defense officials of the two nations. Perhaps even more important are the over 250 bilateral legal agreements created under the ANZUS Treaty that have increased levels of military interoperability and ensured Australia’s preferred status in the purchase of U.S. military equipment. The resulting security alliance is remarkable for its extent, depth, and trust.


The Australia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) was signed in May 2004.The treaty facilitates deeper economic connections but was the slowest bilateral agreement to come to fruition. AUSFTA was controversial in Australia, with dire predictions of the end of economic independence.[3] After fifteen years, deficits for Australia’s trade with the United States in both goods and services are worse. On the other hand, investment flow (which is probably a better measure of trust than merchandise and services trade) has increased substantially.[4] The United States is now the largest home for Australian investment and is by far the largest investor in Australia.

An economic treaty, like a defense treaty, establishes a framework for the development of new areas of agreement. Just as the ANZUS Treaty made AUSMIN possible, so AUSFTA created a joint committee to encourage meetings between the U.S. trade representative and the Australian minister for trade. Their efforts have facilitated the modification of quarantine restrictions, mutual recognition of professional qualifications, provision of financial services, and opportunities for government procurement in both nations.


For 80 years, government officials in the three key policy domains slowly expanded their zones of trust to deliver a treaty-based framework for the U.S.-Australia alliance. This is a remarkable achievement. However, this powerful institutional structure rests on divergent cultural foundations with vulnerabilities readily exploitable by adversaries of the alliance, notably China. Australia’s political culture is utilitarian in nature, focused on interests, while the United States’ political culture is more ideational, revolving around abstract ideas.[5]

Over the past decade the United States has embarked on a profound re-evaluation of its relationship with China, described as under “extreme duress” but perhaps better understood as a relationship experiencing “extreme regret.” Gone are the chimeras of an emergent Chinese middle class created by the expansion of trade, particularly with the United States, as the agent to bring about a democratic China sharing liberal values.[6] That naiveté has been swept aside with increasing anger, replaced by a creeping recognition that with China, as with every autocratic regime, the autocrats seek above everything else the retention of their power. China has emerged not as a partner but as an antidemocratic rival intent on spreading its autocratic model.

The decoupling underway between the United States and China will provide new opportunities for China to promote its own goal of decoupling of the United States and Australia. The explicitness of the Chinese intent to achieve that outcome is remarkable, and the divergent political cultures of the two nations will provide many opportunities to widen disagreements.

The United States will surely present this fight as one of high principles, enduring liberal values, a rules-based world order, freedom of the press, and individual freedoms. In Australia, these appeals will ring hollow against telling examples of U.S. inconsistency and hypocrisy. Australia’s export-driven relationship with China is the opposite of the United States’ import-driven relationship with China. Australia’s well-being, its fundamental economic interest in retaining the Chinese market for its natural resources, is at stake in this realignment in a way that U.S. interests are not. The tension will encourage the restatement of that much-expressed assertion that Australia’s best role in the alliance is to ease the United States out of its hegemonic position in the region and to welcome the rise of the replacement power—autocratic China.

The institutional ties will work hard for policy convergence. Australia has shed its long-enunciated position that it could balance its relationships with the two countries. There is finally Australian legislation against foreign influence programs after powerful evidence of Chinese government influence, and Australia has taken a stronger position against contracting with China’s Huawei in the rollout of a 5G network than any other U.S. ally.[7]

In a 2019 Lowy Institute poll, Australian respondents of all ages expressed a profound suspicion of China’s infrastructure initiatives in the region. Respondents also stated that Australia should do more to pressure China on human rights, that Australia is too economically dependent on China, and that Australia should “resist China’s military activities in our region even if it affects our economic relationship.” On the other hand, the same Lowy poll found that 36% of Australian citizens between the ages of 18 and 29 trusted China, while only 28% said they trusted the United States. In 2017, the split was 60% and 52%, respectively, and in 2018, it was 51% and 43%. When asked whether the Australian government should prioritize building stronger relations with China “even if it might harm our relations with the United States,” 55% of respondents in this age group answered in the affirmative.[8]

In sum, the alliance rests on a foundation of both institutional and cultural trust. It was not inevitable, and it is not indestructible. The relationship that started with the Shenandoah in the Age of Sail will encounter strong headwinds in the “age of Huawei.”


[1] Russell Parkin and David Lee, Great White Fleet to Coral Sea: Naval Strategy and the Development of Australian-American Relations, 1900–1945 (Canberra: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2009); and Justine Greenwood, “The 1908 Visit of the Great White Fleet: Displaying Modern Sydney,” History Australia 5, no. 3 (2008): 1–18.

[2] For more information, see Daniel Fazio, Aligning Interests: Korea and the Evolution of the American-Australian Relationship, 1947–1953 (PhD diss., Flinders University, 2017), 264–324.

[3] See, for example, Linda Weiss, Elizabeth Thurbon, and John Mathews, How to Kill a Country: Australia’s Devastating Trade Deal with the United States (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2004).

[4] In the fifteen years since AUSFTA’s passage, Australian deficits have increased from 30% to 43% in goods and from 30% to 46% in services. See Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Australia), annual reports. For trade in goods, see “Trade in Goods with Australia,” U.S. Census Bureau, 2019, For investment data, see Trade and Investment Commission (Australia), “U.S. and Australia: An Investment Relationship Worth A$1.47 Trillion,”

[5] Hugh Collins, “Political Ideology in Australia: The Distinctiveness of a Benthamite Society,” Daedalus 114, no. 1 (1985): 147–69; and Seymour Martin Lipset, “The American Ideology,” in Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada, ed. Seymour Martin Lipset (New York: Routledge, 1990), 19–41.

[6] For a careful but forward-leaning analysis, see Alastair Iain Johnston, “Chinese Middle Class Attitudes toward International Affairs: Nascent Liberalization?” China Quarterly, no. 179 (2004): 603–28.

[7] Nicolas Botton and Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, “5G and National Security after Australia’s Telecom Sector Security Review,” European Centre for International Political Economy, August 2018,

[8] “Lowy Institute Poll 2019,” Lowy Institute, June 26, 2019,

Donald A. DeBats is Professor and Head of American Studies at Flinders University in Australia. His research appointments have included the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the National Humanities Center of the United States, and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia.