There’s a growing discord in international relations commentary about the merits of committing to alliances.
One prominent argument claims that alliances lead states to become entangled in military conflicts they would otherwise avoid. When this occurs, states forgo natural self-interest and respect loyalty (moral, legal or reputational). This, scholars say, creates a precarious security web that coerces states into joining conflicts of marginal strategic importance.
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser subscribed to this line of argument in his 2014 book, Dangerous Allies. In short, he argued that Australia’s alliance with the United States leads Australia to enter into foreign conflicts not directly (and sometimes barely indirectly) threatening Australia’s national security. As a result, he argues, ANZUS has dangerously entangled Australia into relatively non-essential US-led conflicts. But is this line of argument accurate?
A recent article published in International Security examines the “myth” surrounding entanglement. The author, Michael Beckley, finds five cases when the US became entangled in military conflicts due to alliance commitments; the 1954-55 and 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crises; US interventions in Indochina culminating in the Vietnam War; and the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Contrary to popular belief, Beckley found allies more commonly restrain the US from further intervention through a lack of support and/or preventing disputes from escalating to conflicts. Ultimately, he says debates over military interventions “will be more productive if they focus on domestic culprits rather than foreign friends”.
His article has special resonance for Australia, a state that has a security alliance with the US and has participated in multiple US conflicts. Since the ANZUS treaty was signed in 1951, Australia has fought alongside US troops in major military conflicts, including Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq War. And Australian leaders continually cite the US alliance as justification for joining the US in foreign conflicts. However, it should be mentioned that some commentators dispute whether the treaty requires an actual obligatory commitment to use force, as the treaty requires signatory parties to “consult together” (Article III) and “act to meet the common danger” (Article IV). Irrespective of that debate, only the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan qualifies as a clear-cut case of Australian entanglement. Following the 2001 September 11 attacks in the US, John Howard invoked the treaty, justifying Australia’s entry into the Afghanistan conflict. This was the first and only time the treaty has been invoked. All other major conflicts, while in support of the US alliance, are not strict cases of entanglement. This is where definitions have value.
One must not confuse strictly defined entanglement (via loyalty) with broadly interpreted entanglement (via national self-interest): the former being a duty and the latter a choice. Both seemingly smack of entanglement as the overall outcome. However, the distinction matters. Malcolm Fraser was right to highlight the dangers of an alliance with the United States. But the danger is not necessarily due to that alliance. The danger lies with Australia’s domestic political hawks, the decision-makers who choose to participate in US-led conflicts. It is true that ANZUS can cause Australia to become entangled in US conflicts (as the Afghanistan case illustrates). More often, however, Australia chooses to support the alliance, not through obligation, but through self-interest. And that is not entanglement.
Looking forward, Beckley’s article raises interesting questions about alliance obligations in non-traditional scenarios. For instance, the US web of alliances and strategic partnerships in the Pacific could entangle Australia into new conflicts it would otherwise avoid. A frequently cited case involves a hypothetical conflict between China and Taiwan. The US, through the Taiwan Relations Act, would likely come to the aid of Taiwan. If China decided to attack US forces in the Pacific, would Australia therefore be obligated under ANZUS to support the US (and by association Taiwan)? Or alternatively, if Taiwan were the initial aggressor – entrapping the US – would Australia still be obligated to support the US? These are important questions policymakers and strategists need to answer.
Beckley’s findings offer sage advice: the foreign entanglement claim is overblown. More often than not, entanglement starts not with foreign allies, but with domestic hawks. To blame foreign allies would be disloyal – to ignore faulty domestic decision-makers would be unpatriotic.
Heath Pickering is a freelance writer currently based in the Pacific. He holds a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne School of Government.
For more on the ANZUS alliance and the merits of the alliance between Australia and the US see AIIA President John McCarthy’s article – here.