When US officials talk about the US-Australia alliance, they almost always highlight, as President Obama did in hisNovember 2011 speech in Canberra, that Australians have fought alongside Americans 'in every single major conflict of the past hundred years.' This is a fact to be celebrated, but statements on both sides of the Pacific that Australia is America’s 'deputy sheriff' in Asia, compounded by the enduring concept of US-led 'hub-and-spoke' alliances in the region, have only reinforced perceptions of Australia as a dependable junior partner.
Australia’s own actions in recent years have portrayed a country reluctant to step out on its own. Canberra has often appeared unwilling to take a leadership role in the region or on the world stage, much less help to manage the US-China security competition in Asia. When Canberra does lead, it is too often on niche issues deemed more appropriate for a 'middle power.'
Through American eyes, this appears to be driven by a combination of factors, including an overly-modest self-assessment of Australia’s power and influence, the perception that Australia’s real national security challenges do not extend far beyond its periphery, and the belief that there is little to be gained by inserting itself politically between the world’s two largest economies, both of which have an outsized effect on Australia’s economic wellbeing.
But in recent weeks, Australia has taken steps that suggest these assumptions may no longer be predominant in Canberra. Even if driven by domestic politics, Australia has played a leading role in marshaling the international community’s response to the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. Capitalising on Australia’s seat on the UN Security Council, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop quickly traveled to New York to introduce a binding resolution calling for a 'full, thorough and independent international investigation.' It passed unanimously. Back in Canberra, Prime Minister Abbott went so far as to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be welcome to attend November’s G20 summit in Brisbane if Russia proves complicit in the attack.
More from CNAS
ReportsInvesting in Great-Power Competition
Executive Summary This report asks whether the 2021 U.S. defense budget request is aligned with the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS) in selecting priority capability inves...
By Susanna V. Blume & Molly Parrish
CommentaryIn Myanmar, A Rare Glimmer of Hope for Indian Regional Policy
In the barren, high altitude Himalayan region between China and India, a clash on June 15 left twenty Indian soldiers dead. Nationalists on both sides called for demonstration...
By Coby Goldberg
CommentaryThe U.S.-China confrontation is not another Cold War. It’s something new.
With U.S.-China relations in free fall, the Trump administration’s chief arms control negotiator recently proclaimed that "we know how to win these races and we know how to sp...
By Richard Fontaine & Ely Ratner
CommentaryThrones Wreathed in Shadow: Tacitus and the Psychology of Authoritarianism
On May 10, 1626, Sir John Eliot — an English parliamentarian and statesman — delivered a blistering speech to the House of Commons. One of the finest orators of his day, Eliot...
By Iskander Rehman