Australia, it appears, is on the cusp of becoming a member of NATO. Continuation of extant interoperability arrangements are understandable and sensible to a point. But if fuller membership of NATO is imminent, then there is a need for some serious and broad-ranging discussions on the profound implications. There are, surprisingly enough, a number of potential benefits from maintaining and perhaps expanding some of the close ties. But are they outweighed by the potential liabilities they may generate?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was initially set up as an exclusive club of Western, northern-hemisphere countries allied against the Soviet bloc, dominated by Russia. Australia was excluded for practical purposes as much as anything else. Like the countries of Latin America, Australia was not in the northern hemisphere. Additionally, Australia was far removed from the Atlantic Ocean. For a while the United States sought to orchestrate parallel institutions at the height of the Cold War such as the South East Asia Treaty Organisation but this was largely toothless and dysfunctional, with the major but declining colonial powers of France and Britain marking SEATO with a distinctly extra-regional flavour. With both those European powers opting out of the Vietnam War, SEATO ended up being largely peripheral to the conflict and was defunct by the end of that war.
NATO, on the other hand, has managed to survive remarkably well. The ever-present challenge of Soviet forces across the Fulda Gap on the north German plains focused the minds of Western Europeans and North Americans, at least until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. NATO went through a post-Cold War existential crisis in the lead-up to the intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and then experienced a resurgence of sorts after the onset of the so-called 'global war on terror' in 2001. The creation of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan was the end result, providing an operational rationale for greater cohesion and refinement. Anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa benefited indirectly from the extra-regional focus of the new-look NATO as well.
Over the decade or more of involvement in military operations in Afghanistan, Australia has developed close ties with a range of partner nations that are members of NATO. Not only through greater IT interoperability to facilitate operations in Afghanistan, but also through the NATO councils in Europe, Australia has in recent years been welcomed in as a trusted partner. With NATO's role in Afghanistan winding up, arguably there was cause also to wind up the close relations that had developed between Australia and NATO over the years. But with so much uncertainty around the globe and many unconventional security challenges bubbling away there appears to be some solid reasons to keep the channels of communication open, to ensure that Australia remains interoperable with NATO.
Surprisingly enough, Australia has developed remarkably close ties with a range of NATO countries. In addition to the close partner relations with NATO countries Britain, the United States and Canada, Australia has developed remarkably close ties with France – particularly French forces based in New Caledonia. Similarly, with Portugal having close and strong ties with East Timor Australia has had cause to work closely alongside Portuguese forces as well. Holland partnered with Australia in Oruzgan province in Afghanistan and more recently over the recovery of remains form the MH17 disaster in Ukraine. We seem to have much in common with the Dutch and ongoing cause to stay well connected. Similarly, the Spanish have featured prominently, particularly on the naval front, with air warfare destroyers and amphibious ships sourced from Spanish shipyards generating a range of bilateral ties.
But these ties alone do not warrant Australia signing up to full membership with NATO. Such a commitment would imply a radical reorientation of our strategic priorities and an obligation to respond in the defence of the Baltic states and Poland to Russian aggression. This is something way beyond the capability of the relatively small and lightly-equipped Australian Defence Force. Any prospect of reciprocation by NATO powers to threat of conflict in the Indo-Pacific would also be seen as a significant act of provocation by China. With little realistic prospect of major European powers being interested in or willing to contribute actively in the event of major conflict breaking out in East or Southeast Asia, this would seem to be a pretty poor deal.
If the arrangement is better characterised as a continuation of the sort of arrangements that were codified for the operations in Afghanistan, then there appears to be some significant benefit that may accrue. Australia has a track record of finding itself working alongside NATO forces in the Middle East, the Indian Ocean and even in Southeast Asian waters (several European powers responded to the Indian Ocean tsunami, for instance). If this is the priority, then the message can be conveyed in a constructive and helpful light to allay concerns by those who may take fright. Alternatively, if Australia is signing up to a fuller and more formal membership of NATO, then the matter seriously needs to be debated.
Dr John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU. He is the author of The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard. @JohnBlaxland1