ANZUS Invoked: September 11 and Interpreting the Treaty

Peter J. Dean, University of Western Australia




This article first appeared on the Australian Institute of International Affairs

A supposed “100 years of mateship” has seen the US and Australia fight every major war together since 1918

However, the ANZUS Treaty has only been formally invoked once – in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Twenty years on, with the 70th Anniversary of ANZUS and the recent withdrawal from the war in Afghanistan, it bears reflecting on the Treaty and how it has influenced the relationship.

It is widely known that John Howard was in Washington DC during the attacks on September 11. He witness the attack on the Pentagon from the window of his hotel. On September 12, via Air Force Two (the Vice Presidential plane), Howard flew to Hawaii and then onwards to Australia. On this trip home Howard spoke to his foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, and from that “conversation the idea of invoking ANZUS came.

Two days later, back in Canberra, Howard held a press conference with Downer and the Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, and announced that: “the federal cabinet…came very quickly to the view that the provisions of the ANZUS Treaty should be invoked in relation to the attack upon the United States. Quite clearly these are circumstances to which Article IV of the ANZUS Treaty applies.”

Interestingly Howard chose to name Article IV of the Treaty as the rationale for the decision. Just in case the public and gathered media pact were not familiar with its eleven articles,  he went on the explain that “consequence of that is that we will consult the Americans regarding responses which might be deemed appropriate to what does amount to an attack upon the metropolitan territory of the United States in accordance with the provisions of the ANZUS Treaty” (emphasis added).

In doing so he was highlighting two key elements of the rather vague language that pervades the Treaty: the lack of a security guarantee and the lack of geographical definition in the Treaty.

Howard’s use of the word “consult” and the phrase “metropolitan territory” were very deliberate.  Consult is about as clear as any security commitment in ANZUS gets – there is no security guarantee. You can search long and hard through ANZUS and you won’t find anything near the provisions like that found in Article V of the NATO Treaty that provides for the provision of collective defence.

Howard in fact quoted at his press conference, not from Article IV but from Article III “consult,” and Article V: “For the purpose of Article IV, an armed attack on any of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of any of the Parties.” Article V was critical to Howard’s invoking of the Treaty. New York City and Washington DC are far removed from the “jurisdiction in the Pacific” in which the Treaty is largely set.

The Treaty itself is rather short – at 820 words it is briefer that most op-ed or blog posts (including this one) – and certainly well short of the hundreds of thousands of words that have been written explain and interpreting it. In large part, this analysis has been driven by the vague or ambiguous language in the Treaty.

One of the reasons for the lack of clarity in the Treaty was that the US State Department and the Pentagon held widely different views as to its development and provisions when the Treaty was being negotiated. As Dougal Robinson has explained, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff had a “sustained tantrum” over ANZUS which resulted in limitations to its “geographic scope” and Australian access to  the “Pentagon’s global strategic planning” that it craved after its experience in coalition warfare with the US in the Pacific War. In hindsight this is rather ironic given the closeness of the contemporary military relationship, especially since September 11.

The vagueness of the treaty and the limitations of the US commitment has been a reoccurring theme in the alliance relationship. At times the history of the relationship from an Australian perspective seems personified more by dashed expectations than a 100 years of mateship.

During the 1950s and early 1960s Australia looked to further clarify the alliance relationship, especially through the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) from 1954 – consistent with Article VIII which anchors ANZUS within the framework of the “development of a more comprehensive system of regional security in the Pacific Area” which has never occurred. In fact during the 1950s and 1960s, Australia balanced its security by remaining deeply engaged with the United Kingdom in Southeast Asia. It was not until it was clear that SEATO was moribund and that the UK would withdraw east of Suez that the ANZUS Treaty moved to the centre of Australia’s strategic policy.

The vagueness of the treaty language can be found in many places. In the tussle with the US over ANZUS and its provisions during Confrontation with Indonesia, even the idea of what the “Pacific” constituted was up for debate. Such was Australia’s concerns over Konfrontasi that the Menzies Cabinet in 1963 sought to specially define Malaysia within the “Pacific Area” provisions of the Treaty. DFAT Secretary Sir Arthur Tange sagely pointed out that attempts to entrap alliance partners driven by fears of abandonment work both ways, and that such a move would mean it would be hard to correspondingly exclude South Vietnam and Formosa (Taiwan) from the Pacific. Such were Australia’s concerns in 1963 this was a position that Cabinet was willing to accept.

The ambiguous nature of the Treaty does have its benefits though. It has made the alliance flexible, adaptable, and able to reinvent itself at various times during its existence to meet contemporary security threats. Importantly the 1983 Hawke Government Review of ANZUS noted that the Treaty protects Australia’ sovereignty as it does “not derogate…Australia’s right of national decision [making] in foreign and defence policy matters.” In other words, Australia’s foreign policy decisions, for good or ill, are its own.

Just as significantly the Hawke Review noted that despite the lack of a security guarantee, “the imprecision” of the Treaty language provides a deterrent benefit as any potential adversary could not ignore the prospect of US military support for Australia.

The collapse of the government in Afghanistan in recent weeks has brought a final end to the War on Terror era in the history of the ANZUS alliance. This has sparked a debate in some quarters that “abandoning” Afghanistan will lead to allies, like Australia, losing faith in the United States. In reality the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, ending Howard’s invocation of the ANZUS Treaty, should provide a measure of reassurance for US allies in Asia who are faced with vastly different strategic landscape than they did in 2001. In this new era, the focus is squarely back on Australia’s immediate region through the strategic geography of the Indo-Pacific.

In this strategic arena it is pretty clear that ANZUS will endure. As Allan Beham has argued “The ANZUS treaty has not passed its use-by date. Why? Because it never had one” – the Treaty has no sunset clause. Article X states that “This Treaty shall remain in force indefinitely,” while also providing a provision for an off-ramp, provided one gives a year’s notice to vacate.

Although the Treaty’s text it’s a very good place to start to understand ANZUS, in the end the key to assessing its ongoing viability cannot be found there. Rather it is the usefulness of the partisanship that is the key. From an Australian perspective, ANZUS remains exceptionally popular with the public, and every government since 1951 has, in the cost-benefit analysis of its sovereign policy decisions, concluded that it is in Australia’s interests.

It is often noted that nations have no permanent friends, but “interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” Consistent with this assessment, the Hawke Government’s Review of ANZUS still stands the test of time.

Professor Peter J. Dean is the Chair in Defence Studies and Director of the Defence and Security Program at the University of Western Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

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