Review Essay 53 on Divided Allies: Strategic Cooperation against the Communist Threat in the Asia-Pacific during the Early Cold War15 min read

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and perhaps in some ways because of it, conflicts of interest between the United States and China seem only likely to increase in the coming years.  As conflicts of interest between these two states increase, one central question for scholars and policy-makers is the probability of different causal mechanisms whereby a conflict of interest generates a crisis and the crisis becomes a limited, conventional or even nuclear war. Another important and closely related question is which allies Washington and Beijing can count on to do what as these conflicts of interest grow.  Unlike China, the United States has alliances that span the world, with formal defence commitments throughout Europe and Asia.  If alliances do more than aggregate but substantially multiply U.S. power, exactly what do they bring to the table?

Thomas K. Robb and David James Gill.  Divided Allies: Strategic Cooperation against the Communist Threat in the Asia-Pacific during the Early Cold WarIthaca:  Cornell University Press, 2019.

Reviewed by Michael D. Cohen, Australian National University

Published 23 September 2020 | http://issforum.org/to/RE53 

Edited by Robert Jervis and Diane Labrosse
Production Editor:  George Fujii

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and perhaps in some ways because of it, conflicts of interest between the United States and China seem only likely to increase in the coming years.  As conflicts of interest between these two states increase, one central question for scholars and policy-makers is the probability of different causal mechanisms whereby a conflict of interest generates a crisis and the crisis becomes a limited, conventional or even nuclear war. Another important and closely related question is which allies Washington and Beijing can count on to do what as these conflicts of interest grow.  Unlike China, the United States has alliances that span the world, with formal defence commitments throughout Europe and Asia.  If alliances do more than aggregate but substantially multiply U.S. power, exactly what do they bring to the table?

Many would agree that of Washington’s many formal allies, those with which it shares the same language, democratic and political culture, and war-fighting experience might be those that can be counted on the most to share threat perceptions with the United States and join it in an armed conflict. Thus Britain, Australia and New Zealand are what political scientists would call most likely cases of allies that might share threat perceptions and policy preferences with the United States.[1]  But this is ultimately an empirical question, and while much International Relations scholarship addressed NATO in the Cold War and U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the U.S. alliance with Australia and New Zealand (which left that alliance in 1985) has received much less scholarly attention.[2]  Australia, for example, relies primarily on the United States for security and foreign direct investment but depends on China for trade. After recent Australian pushback against alleged Chinese foreign interference in, among others, democratic processes, critical infrastructure, and tertiary education, Canberra is between a rock and hard place.  Perhaps urged on by Washington, Canberra called for a COVID-19 investigation but ran up against Chinese stonewalling and more recently high Chinese tariffs on barley exports.

Thomas K. Robb and David James Gill’s Divided Allies: Strategic Cooperation against the Communist Threat in the Asia-Pacific during the Early Cold War thus appears at an opportune time.  Regarding Australia’s status as a U.S. ally, many International Relations scholars note that because Australia joined the United States in its wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iraq again, Canberra is a very good ally.[3]  But other than the rare book that, for example, looks at Australia’s dalliance with a nuclear reactor at Jervis Bay during the Nixon Presidency, little more scholarship has addressed this case.[4]  Often when I step in a taxi at a U.S. airport after arriving from Australia and inform the driver that I have travelled over twenty hours from across the Pacific, s/he almost seems to look at me as if I had arrived from outer space. The taxi driver’s interest in but deep uncertainty about Australia seems to resemble that of many North American International Relations scholars regarding Australia’s status as a U.S. ally.  At a time when many argue that the United States may not be able to count on many of its traditional allies in an armed conflict with China, the question of under what conditions allies like Australia would do what must be of high scholarly and policy-making importance. Divided Allies should now be considered the best text for the history of how Australia and New Zealand fit and tried to position themselves in Washington’s grand strategy in Asia during the first decade of the Cold War.  Although it does not cover every nook and cranny of this history, the majority of the important developments of interest to contemporary political scientists, International Relations scholars, and diplomatic historians are covered or at least referenced.[5] The book also says a lot about the role of Britain and its policy in Asia amidst these dynamics. With 7 chapters in 180 pages of text and 90 odd pages of notes and references, there is a lot packed into a fairly short text.  The discussion in chapter 5 of the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of the almost eighty-year-old British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1953 to ram his way through the Eisenhower administration into the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) alliance is the best available treatment of this episode.

Chapters 1 and 2 provide a very succinct yet comprehensive 65-page coverage of U.S., British, Australian and New Zealand’s interests from 1945 through 1950.  Here one quickly learns that even amongst states that we would expect to have many grounds for cooperation, strong disagreements existed and perhaps were likely to undermine more sustained cooperation from the moment German and Japanese forces were defeated.  Key to this was not only that Washington was rising and London was declining.[6] While presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were opposed to colonialism and the British overseas empire, Prime Minister Clement Attlee and especially Churchill were ever committed to sustaining it. Indeed, many of the U.S.-UK disagreements related to the ANZUS alliance, membership within it, defence planning in the Middle East and East Asia, the demise of the French position in Indochina and the subsequent SEATO alliance and attempts to establish four power defence planning therein boiled down to perhaps irreconcilable disagreements over the former British colonies. Divided Allies also nicely brings out how Australia and New Zealand fundamentally sought a U.S. security guarantee after 1945 but until North Korean forces invaded the South had no basis on which to get one.  Robb and Gill might have said more about Australia’s and New Zealand’s positions towards the other British colonies.  The book captures their strong ties towards the British Commonwealth.  But as it became clear that Washington would be in and London would be out of a Pacific alliance, New Zealand’s desire to placate Britain and, say, send troops to the Middle East, usually seemed to be stronger.  Robb and Gill note this and the economic rationale behind this impulse but might have made more of the security motivations.  Perhaps more controversial is the claim that the Chifley government’s policies “drew Australia into the Cold War” when it was the Menzies Liberal government that many in Washington viewed as a breath of fresh air and a group they could more effectively cooperate with (33). Also addressed is how the ultimate desire for Canberra and New Zealand of a defensive alliance with Washington and London given the conflict and cooperation between these rising and declining great powers led to strategic dynamics that are not what one would expect of four states that were apparently prone to cooperate. As Robb and Gill summarise, “convergent perceptions of threat and overlapping national interests did lead to eventual cooperation but it was often limited and contingent” (45).

Chapters 3 and 4 address the creation and design of the ANZUS alliance.  The influential claim that common threat perceptions are a strong cause of alliance formation finds an interesting case in the ANZUS alliance.[7] Robb and Gill showed that as Washington became preoccupied with the Soviet threat and especially Chinese aggression in Asia, perhaps as a prelude to a Soviet territory grab in Western Europe, Britain would have preferred that Washington keep its gunpowder dry and its gaze fixated on Europe and the Middle East. When Washington saw greater security threats in Asia, London saw U.S. overextension, nuclear escalation dangers and commercial vulnerability.  Meanwhile, while Canberra and New Zealand certainly perceived threats emanating from the Soviet Union and China, they exhibited far greater fears of a resurgent Japan and the economic but especially military threat it would pose.  By late 1950, as Washington came to desire a strong Tokyo as a bulwark against Soviet aggression, Canberra and New Zealand insisted on a weak one.  Divided Allies correctly noted this as genuine fear and not a cover for other concerns but might have done more to document it and address its sources (74).  By 1945, after all, Japanese military power had been eliminated.  Yet there should be no doubt that while Washington perceived the most threat from Moscow and Beijing, Canberra remained acutely worried about then defeated Tokyo.  This melting pot of threat perceptions led to some interesting dynamics.  For example, at the February 1951 Canberra talks that led to the ANZUS treaty, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, representing the Americans, questioned why Australia and New Zealand needed an alliance given that a Soviet or Chinese attack on their homelands was unlikely. The wily Australian Foreign Minister Percy Spender however, who was concerned about Japan, shot back that if this was true the United States could sign a treaty and never have this commitment called on (78). It is perhaps surprising that we saw as much cooperation against the Communist threat as we did.

The emergence of the ANZUS alliance – including the United States, Australia, and New Zealand but not Britain – would not seem to be an easy fit for standard International Relations models of alliance formation.  For models that expect weaker powers to prefer multilateralism in order to dilute the influence of the greater powers and greater powers to prefer bilateralism in order to overcome this problem, the Pacific Pact confounds both of these expectations.[8] As Robb and Gill show, Canberra and Wellington preferred direct access to Washington and worried that extending the alliance beyond the trilateral arrangement would threaten this. Robb and Gill might have made more of the fact that Washington’s clear preference leading up to Dulles’s tour through the region to negotiate a treaty was for one multilateral arrangement including Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines.[9] Manila’s non-inclusion in ANZUS raises another question. As Robb and Gill note, although Dulles and Secretary of State Dean Acheson both wanted Manila’s inclusion in the Pacific Pact, London emphasised that this was too bitter a pill to swallow.  Much easier, the British Ambassador asserted, if Manilla received a separate bilateral allowance.  Why did Dulles not budge on Britain’s persistent demands to join ANZUS but then allow London a separate U.S. bilateral alliance with the Philippines when the underlying U.S. preference was for a multilateral arrangement?  As Prime Minister Harold MacMillan noted, the United States “undermine(s) our political and commercial influence all over the world.  Yet all this they do (so ambivalent is their policy) with only one half of their mind and purpose.  The other half is just as friendly and loyal as in the days of the war” (95).  Why the U.S. pushed Britain as hard as it did out of Asia – but not any harder, by, say, demanding significant British retreats from Malaya, Hong Kong and elsewhere – requires further research and should say much about the sources and limits of allied cooperation in the Cold War and today.

One of the many commending virtues of chapter 5 on Churchill’s attempt to break into the ANZUS alliance is the discussion of racism.  The British were often told that their entry into ANZUS was problematic on the grounds of the Pacific Pact appearing to be an alliance reserved for non-Asian countries.  But as the British immediately realised, and Gill and Robb note throughout, this argument was fairly problematic insofar as the Pacific Pact was already subject to this criticism, something that was not lost on the Soviet Union and many of the neutral countries. Robb and Gill show that in private diplomacy the racism card was often only played after other arguments and issues that mostly related to strategic dynamics.  The timing of public accusations about racism also suggested in many if not most cases the importance of more strategic considerations related to Truman and Eisenhower’s desires to reduce Britain’s influence in Asia.  Robb and Gill do not dismiss the argument that racism drove great power policy in the region, but they do force it to confront alternative explanations which usually put it on weaker ground.  It will be interesting to see what later studies make of this.

One can push back on Robb and Gill’s claims regarding coercive diplomacy between the allies.  For example, Divided Allies argues that during the British Commonwealth meetings in June 1953, Churchill claimed that “very intimate relations (with Australia)…might be impaired in future if a solution were not found to the problem of planning Pacific strategy…some wider form of Pacific pact should be considered” (123). It’s hard to disagree with Robb and Gill’s argument that this was “suggestive of a threat,” but given that Churchill had little with which to threaten Australia, Prime Minister Robert Menzies may well have done well to ignore it. Certainly the Australian motivation for some form of military planning with the United States and Britain was already high and potentially on the table as far as Canberra was concerned after the conclusion of the Geneva talks the following year. Dulles’s later threat to Canberra that he could admit Britain to ANZUS but that it would then be a meaningless treaty was perhaps a more serious coercive threat (128).  But even here this seems to have been designed to have encouraged Canberra to take a harder line against British pressure for admission than a credible threat to walk away from ANZUS.

Divided Allies should be considered not only the best treatment of early Cold War History of cooperation between Washington, London, Canberra, and New Zealand but also has substantial empirical material of interest to International Relations scholars and for historians to further follow-up.  Chapters 6 and 7 nicely document the challenges that disrupted allied cooperation in South East Asia throughout and after the 1954 Geneva summit.  Divided Allies contains many great quotations that speak to longstanding issues in International Relations and International Security.  For example, regarding the U.S.-U.K. relationship, Eisenhower remarked that “the conclusion seems inescapable that these differences come about because we do not agree on the probable extent and the importance of further Communist expansion in Asia…your own government seems to regard Communist expansion in Asia as of little significance to the free world future” (160). At the 1955 ANZUS Council Meeting where Australia and New Zealand were, as ever, interested in staff talks with the United States that would clarify the U.S. role in Malaya and elsewhere, Dulles apparently never even bothered to open his briefing material (178). This was one of many Australian frustrations at Washington’s reticence to commit more or at least clarify the conditions when greater commitments would be forthcoming in Asia.  Divided Allies clearly shows that even amongst allies that we might expect to have had the strongest incentives to cooperate, serious problems posed significant limitations on allied cooperation against Communism in the early Cold War.  Everybody who thinks that Australia’s previous commitments to U.S. wars has positive implications for cooperation today needs to read this book.  The ‘special relationship’ between the U.S. and the UK is also cast in a very different light.  One would be naïve to expect these divergent threat perceptions, mixed interests, and limits to cooperation to have dissipated as the United States and its allies again grapple with a more powerful rising Communist state in Asia.

 

Michael D. Cohen is a Senior Lecturer (Assistant Professor) at the National Security College, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.  He is the author of When Proliferation Causes Peace: The Psychology of Nuclear Crises (Georgetown University Press, 2017), co-editor of North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: Entering the New Era of Deterrence (Georgetown University Press, 2017) and articles in scholarly journals such as Journal of Global Security Studies, European Journal of International Relations, Foreign Policy Analysis, Asian Security, International Relations of the Asia-Pacific and The Non-Proliferation Review.

 

Notes

[1] Aaron Rapport, “Hard Thinking about Hard and Easy Cases in Security Studies,” Security Studies 24:3 (2015): 431-465.

[2] See, for example, Victor Cha, Powerplay (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016); Yarhi-Milo, Keren Alexander Lanoszka and Zack Cooper, “To Arm or to Ally?  The Patron’s Dilemma and the Strategic Logic of Arms Transfers and Alliances,” International Security 41:2 (2016):  90-139; Mira Rapp-Hooper, Shields of the Republic: The Triumph and Peril of America’s Alliances (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020).

[3] See, for example,  Stephen Walt, “How to Tell if You’re in a Good Alliance,” Foreign Policy, October 28, 2019: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/10/28/kurds-turkey-israel-saudi-arabia-good-alliance/.

[4] Jacques Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions and Foreign Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[5] For a treatment that gives more attention to political leaders, see David McIntyre, Background to the Anzus Pact (London: Macmillan, 1995).

[6] Joshua Itzkowitz Shifrinson, Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Great Powers Exploit Power Shifts (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018).

[7] Stephen Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987).

[8] Cha, Powerplay.

[9] See, for example, Paul Claussen, John Glennon, David Mabon, Neal Petersen and Carl Raether (eds.) Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951 Vol. 6, Asia and the Pacific Pt. 1, (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1977) Doc. 34: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1951v06p1/d34