RSIS Seminar by Professor James Curran, Department of History and the U.S. Studies Centre, University of Sydney
The Contemporary US-Australia Alliance: Learning to say ‘No’ again
In contemporary debate the US-Australia relationship has a prominence not seen since the Vietnam War. Resting on a strong foundation of bipartisan support, and driven by the uncertainty surrounding China’s rise, the Alliance remains the first principle of Australian foreign and defence policy. The celebratory rhetoric of recent times hails an unbroken Alliance, a tale of ‘comrades in arms’ standing shoulder to shoulder and facing the common foe: in World War Two, against Japanese militarism; in the Cold War, the threat of monolithic communism; in the post 9/11 era; the scourge of violent Islamic terror. Now, talk of a ‘new special relationship’ between Australia and the United States to rival that between London and Washington in the 20th Century is beginning to emerge. But the current forces in play are not sufficient to dismiss the relevance of past examples of divergence in the Alliance. For most Australians however, the idea that there have been significant policy differences between these two close allies would come as something of a shock. Indeed Australians have largely forgotten how to disagree with America. But in an era where both countries have primary strategic interests in Asia, a harmony of aims and interests is by no means guaranteed. Indeed it is likely that we are entering a period where disagreements between Canberra and Washington are likely to increase. This is not simply a case of reminding Australians that they have disagreed with the United States in the past. It is also to highlight to American policymakers that Australian governments might disagree with them with more frequency in the future. Indeed one of the great challenges of alliance management over the succeeding decades might well be handling the surprise and indeed disappointment in Washington when Australia diverges from American policy in Asia.
About the Speaker:
Professor Curran teaches Australian and American political and foreign relations history at Sydney University. In 2013, he was the Keith Cameron Professor of Australian History at University College Dublin and in 2010 a Fulbright Professional Scholar in Australia-US Alliance Studies, based at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington DC. His latest book, Unholy Fury: Nixon and Whitlam at War, was published by Melbourne University Press (MUP) on 1 May 2015. It was launched in Sydney by the former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bob Carr, and in Washington by Australia’s Ambassador to the United States, Kim Beazley. Curran’s first book, The Power of Speech (MUP, 2004) was shortlisted for both the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards and the NSW Premier’s History Prize, while The Unknown Nation-Australia After Empire (MUP, 2010) co-authored with Stuart Ward from the University of Copenhagen, was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Australian History Prize in 2011. He is also the author of Curtin’s Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2011), a major reinterpretation of the Curtin legend in Australian political culture.
Prior to joining Sydney University, Curran served in various roles in the Australian Public Service. From 2002 to 2005 he worked as a Policy Adviser in the Department of The Prime Minister and Cabinet, serving in both its Social Policy and International Divisions. This included a 12 month secondment to the US Alliance policy division in the Department of Defence. From 2005 to 2007, he was an intelligence analyst at the Office of National Assessments. From time to time, he writes articles for the press and has also offered public commentary on both ABC and Commercial radio and television.