July 1, 2007  

What friends are for

Plain speaking from a staunch ally

Which foreign nation has most often been a partner in arms with the U.S. over the past 90 years? Few Americans realize that it is Australia, not Britain, that has been our staunchest ally for the past century.

For all the focus on where the U.S.-U.K. relationship is headed post-Tony Blair, it is curious how little public attention is paid to the Washington-Canberra bond. Yet the Australia-U.S. military relationship is as strong, if not stronger, than it has ever been since the two armies first fought side-by-side in World War I. It was Aussies, not Brits, who joined us in Vietnam. Australia was the first country after the U.S. to offer up troops to U.N. forces in Korea, and it was an early supporter of the Iraq and Afghanistan war efforts.

Brig. Gen. Damian Roche, the Australian Army military attachĂ© in Washington, D.C., says there’s a reason why they keep putting up their hands: "We have the same deep and shared values, and like you, we tend to roll up our sleeves and do the hard and dirty work."

Speaking in June at The U.S. Military and the World conference organized by The Patuxent Partnership at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Roche talked of "a deep and abiding relationship" that has developed between these two new world nations. Here can be discovered the true underpinnings of an empowered coalition. Here also is the part of a coalition that is the most tricky to sustain and to which attention is typically least paid.

Defense departments see coalition issues in terms of interoperability, common operating standards, data access, lines of communication, network security and authorization levels. To these, they apply technological tools.

But coalitions are built around people, not hardware. And the best coalitions, Roche pointed out, are built on trust, relevance and shared confidence born of a common understanding and sense of purpose. This is the friendship factor, and like all friend relationships, it cuts both ways.

"As friends, we will speak our minds and tell you when we disagree," Roche said. "Never take real friendships for granted. Any deep and meaningful relationship that’s going to make a difference has to be worked at," Roche said.

This particular partnership transcends domestic politics and local political trends. If, as polls indicate, Australian Prime Minister John Howard loses to opposition party rival Kevin Rudd, chances are we’ll still be all good mates. Rudd is pro-American and unlikely to make any sudden or major changes to Australian coalition commitments in Iraq or Afghanistan. Indeed, Rudd has pledged his support for Howard’s plan to more than double the number of Australian troops in Afghanistan. In mid-June, Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson made a strong public statement reasserting his nation’s commitment in Iraq.

Nevertheless, Roche is right to point out that such an enduring friendship should not be taken for granted. "The stars and stripes needs to have other flags around. But if we are just a flag, it begs the question: Why have our flag there are at all? We must be relevant. It’s very important to ensure partners are engaged," he said.

"Cultures such as the Australian and British cultures are reasonably understood by the U.S., but nontraditional partners are just as important to the legitimacy of the coalition, and unless you know how those partners think, how they tick, then you won’t know what strengths they bring to the coalition. When you can clearly identify all their strengths, you have a much better chance of finding a solution."

It also pays to listen to what our allied forces notice about us and aren’t afraid to tell us. Hear this from Roche: "My observation of the U.S. military is that it had lost the balance between the science of warfare and the art of warfare. Technology dominated. Technology is great when you are looking at very large targets. But the critical issue for the U.S. military now is to shift to make the art of warfare more in balance.

"The art of warfare has got to be about people. Boots on the ground is not just about the boots on the ground. It’s about the smiles on the faces of the soldiers wearing the boots where a soft approach is needed rather than a kinetic approach."

So yes, the Australia-U.S. partnership is as strong as it has ever been in 90 years. Just don’t take it for granted.