Having just read the joint CSIS-ANU 'audit' of the US alliance, published this week, a few of us here wondered whether the Australian public would support the sort of intensified alliance proposed by the report's authors.

It has been said that the finer points of foreign policy don't decide elections here in Australia. So, does it even matter what the great unwashed thinks about the alliance? As one commentator has pointed out, 'the last mainstream Australian politician to openly criticise United States policy' was Mark Latham, and look what happened to him at the ballot box. The unpopularity of Australia's participation with its alliance partner in the Iraq war must have contributed to some degree to the Howard government loss in 2007.

So, perhaps one shouldn't blithely dismiss the relevance of public opinion on foreign policy generally, and the US alliance in particular.

The report, The ANZUS Alliance in an Ascending Asia, has three main policy recommendations for the alliance:

  1. It should refocus on the Asia Pacific
  2. It should serve as a 'central hub for Asian regional order and architecture'.
  3. It should play a leading role in enhancing maritime security in the region.

The sorts of practical measures proposed include working more closely together with partners such as India and Indonesia in 'minilateral' security processes, along the lines of the increased cooperation between Australia, Japan and the US in the past few years (this week, Japan is for the first time participating in the Talisman Sabre exercise with Australian and US military forces). In the maritime arena, the report recommends Australia and New Zealand provide 'badly needed strategic operating locations' to compensate for the limited US presence in the South Pacific. Other recommendations include sharing Australia's technological expertise and capability (radars, remote sensing), and more combined maritime operations to ensure open sea lines of communication.

None of this should pose much of a problem from the perspective of Australian public opinion.

The report's authors note the strong support for the alliance recorded in Lowy Institute Polls (now with 11 years of data on support for the alliance — check it out on our upgraded interactive tool) and from other polls, including those by ANU.

Even more persuasive evidence (not picked up in the report) is Australian support for basing US forces here in Australia, regardless of China's condemnation of the 2011 announcement that US Marines would have a permanent presence in Darwin. In 2011, before the Darwin announcement, a majority (55%) of Australians were in favour of 'Australia allowing the United States to base US military forces here in Australia'. Asked again in 2013, support was even stronger, with 61% of us in favour.

It is the first recommendation in the report – the 'refocus' on the Asia Pacific – which may cause problems for the punters, inoffensive as it sounds.

Australians are confident that the US will continue to guarantee Australia's security well into the future, with two-thirds (66%) of the adult population in our 2013 Poll saying it's likely 'Australia will still be able to rely on the alliance in 20 years' time'. However, they are far less enthusiastic about the reciprocal support Australia might be pressed to provide, particularly in inconvenient places like Asia.

In our 2013 Poll, we asked whether Australia 'should act in accordance with our security alliance with the US even if it means supporting US military action' (a) 'in the Middle East, for example, against Iran', or (b) 'in Asia, for example, in a conflict between China and Japan'. Less than half (48%) thought we should support US action in the Middle East. Even fewer (38%) would support US military action in Asia. Three-quarters (76%) thought Australia should only support US military action if it is authorised by the UN. 

In short, most Australians want the US to support us in times of need, but aren't necessarily prepared to return the favour, as Rory Medcalf pointed out at the time.

It's not just public opinion which tends in this direction. As Michael Green et al point out in their report, the Australian Government is free-riding on the alliance as well, with Australia's defence budget in 2012 at its lowest level as a percentage of GDP since 1938. Recognising this, the Abbott Government has begun to redress the imbalance with a significant boost to the Defence budget in 2014 and a more modest one in 2015.

The Asia 'refocus' recommendation is controversial because, reading more closely, it involves some tough prioritising for Australia. The argument made in the report is that Australia's military involvement in the Middle East (which is more palatable to the Australian public) has distracted us and diverted funds from the 'needed geopolitical focus on challenges in the Asia-Pacific' (less palatable to the Australian public). The corollary is that while Australia needs to refocus, the US needs to reconsider its demands on us, because Australia cannot afford significant military commitments in both the Middle East and Asia Pacific. It has to choose.

This all makes perfect sense from a strategic point of view. The soon-to-be released Defence White Paper may well recommend similar policy shifts. But if these are up for serious consideration by Government, it needs to be with the full realisation that they will require persuasive selling to win over a nervous Australian public.

Photo by Flickr user JD Lasica.