Australia and the United States

An Alliance for the Twenty-first Century

On August 21–22, 2017, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) organized a conference in Sydney, Australia—Australia and the United States: An Alliance for the 21st Century—in cooperation with the United States Studies Centre (USSC) at the University of Sydney and the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia. The conference was generously supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of State.

This conference gathered together key thinkers from both countries at an important time for the Australia-U.S. alliance. The scope of cooperation between Australia and the United States has never been greater—extending well beyond traditional defense, intelligence, and diplomatic engagement—and the alliance enjoys healthy support among policymakers and the wider public in both countries. Bilateral economic, social, and cultural ties are broad and deep. The two countries are working closely together to defeat the threat posed by ISIL and other terrorist networks in the Middle East and globally, and to ensure the Asia-Pacific region remains stable and prosperous.

Yet the Australia-U.S. alliance faces growing external and internal challenges. The United States, Australia, and other allies confront rising threats in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, and globally from terrorism, financial instability, pandemic diseases, and other transnational challenges. Revisionist powers are seeking to reshape regional security dynamics and carve out spheres of influence, jeopardizing the liberal rules-based order that has supported American and Australian security and prosperity for more than half a century. The risks of miscalculation and conflict are growing, as is the prospect of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

At the same time, allied resources available to meet these problems are constrained by slow economic growth across the developed world and the cost of supporting aging populations. Now, economic dislocation and stagnant wages are generating a wave of populist and protectionist sentiment in many parts of the world that risks undermining governance and a return to zero-sum, mercantilist economic policies—while U.S. political divisions and some policy choices are exacerbating allies’ concerns about the future of American global leadership.

Many of these issues are playing out in the contemporary Australian debate, with a range of senior political figures and commentators calling for Australia to distance itself from the United States and recent opinion polls suggesting doubts about U.S. staying power as well as growing affinity for China. This is broadly consistent with polling from the region that suggests that China’s growing economic clout and military capabilities are driving expectations that China will supplant the United States as the predominant power in the Asia Pacific.

These trends raise new questions about the future of the alliance in domestic, bilateral, and international contexts that we must address. They also highlight: the increasingly complex challenges facing U.S. and Australian alliance managers; the importance of not taking the alliance for granted; a requirement for fresh ideas about the alliance; and the need to engage a broader range of stakeholders, including a new generation of strategic thinkers in Australia and the United States.

The Sydney conference brought together a group of about 40 participants—including 10 young next-generation leaders from Australia—for a two-day discussion on the opportunities and challenges facing the Australia-U.S. alliance across geopolitical, security, and economic issues. It focused on identifying key takeaways and formulating practical recommendations to improve the Australia-U.S. alliance’s capacity to adapt to changing dynamics, both globally and in the Indo-Pacific region, and to ensure support for the alliance well into the twenty-first century. Participation was by invitation and the discussions were off the record.



Amy Searight