An Anglo-Alliance
Why the British hesitation?


John O’Sullivan

Last week Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of the Australian, used his column to give a slightly embarrassed account of a successful coup. He was embarrassed because the coup was his own work, it was political activism as much as reporting; and he feared that it involved more than one breach of confidence.

It began with his research for a book, The Partnership, on the U.S.-Australian military and intelligence relationship which is close and growing closer. The more Sheridan examined this relationship, the more he was struck by something else: namely, “the astonishing, continuing, political, military, and intelligence closeness between Australia and Britain.”

Even though Australia has little at stake in Europe and the U.K. only limited security interests in the Pacific, everywhere Sheridan went in the U.S.-Australia alliance, he found the Brits there too:

Our special forces train with theirs, as we do with the Americans. Our troops on exchange with the Brits can deploy into military operations with them, an extremely rare practice, but something we also do with the Yanks. Australian liaison officers attend the most sensitive British intelligence meetings and vice versa, in arrangements of such intimacy that they are equaled only in our relationship with the U.S.

Sheridan was uneasy, however, because there was no formal alliance structure to give top-level political guidance to this effective but easy-going cooperation as there was with the similar U.S.-Australian relationship.

Events came to his aid: he was invited to a U.K.-Australia Dialogue in Canberra attended by Tony Blair on a flying visit. At the reception Sheridan buttonholed Blair, Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard, foreign minister Alexander Downer, and almost anyone else who would listen, to preach the necessity of a new U.K.-Australia security structure. He sensed they were unimpressed.

As he later discovered, however, at a Cabinet meeting attended by Blair the next day Downer, having apologized for springing the idea on everyone, proposed a new annual meeting of Australian and British foreign and defense ministers on the lines of their AUSMIN meetings with Washington. Blair responded enthusiastically — and AUKMIN now meets annually.

Now that all concerned are out of power, Sheridan feels free to reveal how AUKMIN began.

Well, an interesting little story, you may think, but hardly earthshaking. And if AUKMIN were an isolated incident, that would be a sensible response. As Sheridan’s account makes plain, however, AUKMIN merely brass-hatted an existing system of military and intelligence cooperation between Britain, Australia, and the U.S. that was unusually intimate and extensive.

And as it happened, this story rang several bells. I had recently been reading a Heritage Foundation study by the American writer (and a friend), James C. Bennett, in which he argued that such forms of developing cooperation were especially characteristic of English-speaking, Common-Law countries such as, well, Britain, Australia, and the U.S. There was, he argued, a definite pattern to them.

Citizens, voluntary bodies, companies, lower levels of government form their own networks of useful cooperation for practical purposes across national boundaries. Over time these networks become denser, more complementary, more useful, and more self-conscious, creating what Bennett calls a “network civilization.” In time governments see the value of these networks and underpin them with new political links — trade deals, military pacts, reciprocal immigration agreements — creating what he calls a “network commonwealth.”