The ANZUS Paradox

Simon Leitch*

Brisbane, June 3, 2015 (Alochonaa): Since the Second World War showed Australia’s imperial friends to be both too weak and too distant to defend Australia from a motivated aggressor state, successive Australian governments have aligned themselves with the United States to provide a veil of protection from larger neighbours.  The ANZUS Treaty, an extremely weak and ambiguous security treaty between Australia and the United States (and New Zealand), stands as one tangible sign of Australian-American security cooperation and it is often spoken of in terms of a formal alliance.  Undergraduate and graduate students and even their lecturers use the term “ANZUS” alliance, and the media and general public usually use the same term to describe the bedrock of US-Australian relations.

Yet ANZUS is not an alliance and never has been, at least not in the sense that most Australians assume.  After years of discussions with students and political pundits I have the sense that an alliance is generally understood to mean one of two things.  Either it is a commitment, tacit or formal, between two or parties to work towards some common objective, or it is a mutual defence pact, tacit or formal.  In other words, alliances are either defined by cooperative behaviour in some strategic field or strong commitments to assist some other party from some specified aggression.

Thus, we may say that Britain and the USSR were allies between June 1941 and May 1945 even without a mutual defence treaty.  Their cooperation to defeat Germany was enough to earn the label of ‘allies.’  On the other hand, NATO states are allies even though they share many competing goals and have different foreign policy objectives (their differences are currently laid bare by Russia’s attack on Ukraine).  For NATO, the mutual defence treaty is the alliance itself, irrespective of whether its participants are genuinely cooperative on any given day.  Of course, the study of alliances is a deep field and we may quibble much about the role and constitution of an alliance but the average person tends to see alliances in one or both of these two ways.

Yet ANZUS, for all its mystique in security studies and for all its visibility to the public, is not a mutual defence treaty.  It does not commit either party to declaring war or offering any tangible assistance if the other party is attacked.  ANZUS merely commits Australia and the USA to have feelings of concern if the other one’s security is at risk – hardly earthshattering levels of solidarity.  ANZUS is also not a strong treaty for facilitating strategic cooperation in the contemporary world.  That role falls to other treaties or organisations.  For instance, Washington’s labelling of Australia as a ‘major non-NATO ally’ is far more important in this regard, and opens the way to greater access to technology, training, weapons and consultation.  Likewise, the UKUSA Agreement, also known as ‘the Five Eyes’, is a forum separate to ANZUS which lays the ground rules for intelligence sharing between the USA and Australia.

These kinds of arrangements, the ones much more defined in scope and responsibility, constitute the real devices by which the US-Australia strategic relationship is managed.  Granted, we can argue that without ANZUS these other cooperative mechanisms would never have developed.  I am sceptical of that proposition, but it’s a fair point – frequently cooperation begets cooperation and allies can become more secure with each other and more willing to expand their relationship over time.

And so it is that we come to the first paradox of the ANZUS Treaty.  Whilst Australia and the United States, along with the general public, continue to talk about ANZUS as the core treaty of that trans-Pacific relationship the reality is that is has been superseded in many ways.  Indeed, it never really addressed even the basic nuts and bolts of how an alliance system works.  That shouldn’t be too surprising.  Broad, multilateral treaties like ANZUS are generally created as vague statements of concern to maintain flexibility, that is, to prevent each state from actually having to do anything inconvenient.  ANZUS was a visible sign that the USA and Australia considered each other to be essentially on the same team of the Cold War, but outside the casual emotion that neither wanted to see the other harmed by the Communist Bloc or a remilitarised Japan.  Such an outcome would be bad, but the political will for stronger commitments was lacking.  Consequently, ANZUS is mostly symbolism and other mechanisms are the substance, a state of affairs which is the inverse of the general public’s view.

The second ANZUS paradox is that the Australian and American militaries have been fighting on the same side in a large number of wars since the 20th century and since the signing of ANZUS, yet besides the tentative invocation of ANZUS by Prime Minister John Howard in the aftermath of 9/11, the Treaty has not been formally invoked.  It is a sign of both the extraordinary level of cooperation between the USA and Australia and the irrelevance of their security agreement that two countries can fight so often together without it being activated.  Some would call this a product of Australia’s slavish devotion to misguided strategic ideals, others would say it is liberal-democratic solidarity, a recognition of the benefits of inter-military cooperation, or a harmony of security interests a sense of global responsibility between the two countries – take your pick.  The point is, if a treaty of such public visibility can go unused in so many conflicts we must reconsider if the Treaty itself has anything to do with the strategic partnership it supposedly represents.

The third ANZUS paradox is that it was designed with conventional threats from Asia in mind, and strategic thinkers in Australia clung to it for generations whilst no such conventional threat existed. Yet today, incredible though it may seem, the key strategic thinkers in academia and public policy exhibit more and more reservations about the wisdom of ANZUS in the face of a rising Chinese military and economic arsenal.  To be clear, ANZUS was meant to be a deterrent device.  It was vague, but it wasn’t about anti-terrorism, dethroning dictators, preventing communist attacks on Southeast Asia or making the Middle East safe for the oil monarchies.  It was about deterring conventional attacks from some vague future source.  Now, with China building aircraft carriers and long-range strike weapons, we are seeing the arrival of the only nationalist, irredentist, illiberal dictatorship in our region that will have the capacity to badly damage Australia’s interests over the next thirty years, and it is precisely at this moment that academic opinion has swung against the idea of an American alliance.

Most of the academics and students I have spoken to over the last five years are extremely worried that ANZUS acts as a provocation to China and they wish Australia to disassociate itself from American alliance systems.  There are reasons for this, but those are for another article.  It will suffice to say that it is a paradox for ANZUS to exist for so long in an environment where Asian states were weak and Australia was relatively strong, only for it to be considered less prudent as China has overturned the balance of power in Asia.

Perhaps the antipathy many are now feeling towards the US-Australia strategic relationship comes from the fact that we have now been involved in numerous unsuccessful and demoralising wars in the name of that partnership, if not ANZUS itself.  Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the three most famous examples of post-ANZUS US-Australian cooperation, do not constitute badges of honour on the tacit alliance’s shoulder, and the public is weary and distrustful of American-led missions.  Therefore, we may find yet another bizarre paradox within ANZUS – it is precisely because Canberra and Washington have cooperated on so many fronts for so long that ANZUS looks increasingly less attractive to many people.  ANZUS has been stained by conflicts which were beyond its scope and for which it was not designed, and returning the US-Australian strategic relationship to a solid foundation of mutual defence appears to be rarely considered as a third way by policymakers seemingly stuck between the choice of supporting never ending American wars overseas or turning their back on Australia’s most important source of equipment, training and diplomatic support.

*DrSimon Leitch is the Editor in Chief,  Foreign Policy and International Affairs, Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University.  His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at  

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