In the past two fragments in this series, I began to lay out the interaction between geography and the development of the United States. I want to continue with some other examples. This week, I will focus on the geopolitics of a country that, like the U.S., is fairly young, but that has developed very differently: Australia. Next week, I want to write about a very small country that has existed for a millennium: Hungary. Apart from the fact that my wife was born in Australia and I was born in Hungary, my goal here is to create a small baseline in reality, before returning to theory.
Australia, like the United States, was born in the course of the British Empire’s creation. Both were occupied by indigenous peoples when the English arrived. In each, the English settlers created states that were eventually united into a single nation. The two countries share significant cultural similarities, not least their common language. But there are dramatic differences in how Australia and the U.S. behave within the international system.
Let’s begin with the obvious: Australia appears bigger than it actually is. Much of the country cannot be inhabited. Its populated areas run along the coast in a strip no wider than a few hundred miles. This strip wraps around much of Australia, but the population is unevenly distributed. The historic heartland of Australian ran from Sydney to Melbourne. Over time, outposts like Adelaide and Brisbane were drawn into this crescent of urbanization, though Perth on the Indian Ocean, Darwin in the far northeast and Hobart in Tasmania remain distinct.
Beyond its population distribution, Australia differed from the United States in two profound ways. First, the distance between Australia and Britain made extensive contact impossible. Second, Australia’s center was unproductive, and the country had few exports that interested Britain. It was therefore generally self-sufficient and far more isolated from the international system than the United States was. It also suffered internal isolation: While transport routes developed in the southeastern coastal strip, much of the rest of Australia’s settlements were isolated from the main corridor and from one another. The American colonies developed in a degree of isolation, but Australia’s was so intense that the various states did not form a single federated country until 1901. The distance made conflict between Australia’s states impossible, but it also meant that Australia did not need the kind of heterogeneous immigration that the U.S. needed to exploit the country. Therefore, in spite of isolation and differences in how they lived, Australia’s population did not differentiate itself linguistically or culturally. Geography did not create multiple, incompatible political centers.
But that virtue became a vice; Australia needed to grow its population to cement the nation. To attract immigrants, it needed to create economic opportunities and luxuries, which it could not do through its domestic economy alone. Australia had to import not only many luxuries but many of the necessities, too, and as a result, it needed to have products it could export and trade. Much later in the 20th century, those products were industrial minerals, but until then Australia had a range of agricultural products available.
Australia’s strategic priority became the need to maintain access to sea lanes, particularly in the western Pacific Ocean. But that became a problem. Think of Australia as a creature whose circulatory system is outside of its body. That circulatory system – maritime trade – is essential to both its regular functions and its ability to grow. Obviously, having a circulatory system outside the body is enormously dangerous. Someone could easily cut off that circulation, leaving Australia in a desperate condition.
There is a massive imbalance between Australia’s dependence on trade and its ability to protect that trade. Given the size of Australia’s economy and population, it cannot build and operate a naval force large enough to protect the circulatory system. Its only advantage is that invading Australia is both difficult and yields relatively little value for the effort. The size of the land and narrow lines of attack make Australia an unlikely choice for an invasion and impossible to occupy as a whole.
Its urgent requirement is, therefore, to establish and maintain an alliance with a major naval power, which, in the course of pursuing its own ends, can secure Australia’s sea lanes without any interest in cutting them. Australia’s strategic history, then, can be divided into two. During the first phase, from when it was first settled in the 18th century until the fall of Singapore in 1942, Australia depended on the Royal Navy – a natural relationship that grew out of Australia’s colonial history – to guarantee its maritime access. But the relationship also carried with it a price: Australia had to fight in British wars. There is a photo of my wife Meredith’s maternal grandfather heading out to the Boer War; another of her paternal grandfather going to fight in the trenches of France; and another of her mother’s cousin in uniform, who would die in the downing of a de Havilland Mosquito over Austria in World War II. This was the price Australians paid for protection of the trade that was their lifeblood.
The second phase began with the fall of Singapore and the Royal Navy’s departure from the Western Pacific. Australia pivoted quickly to dependence on the new global naval power, the United States. The U.S. needed Australia as a forward base to fight the Japanese, and Australia needed the reassurance that it would not be isolated by Japan. The relationship has been maintained since then with the same quid pro quo as with the British: The Australians contribute their limited ground forces, and the U.S. guarantees the sea lanes Australia uses. (Our daughter, when serving in Iraq, visited Australian troops regularly for tea, Vegemite and whiskey.)
What makes the Australian geopolitical situation so interesting is that it appears on the surface that Australia is too far, too big, and too rugged to be attacked, and therefore not in need of a defense policy. But given its dependence on maritime trade and inability to afford a navy, Australia is actually an extremely vulnerable country, especially because its most important sea lanes run through the Western Pacific, the very focus of World War II.
This all raises a theoretical question: Can cultural affinity transcend geopolitical divergences? The U.S. and Australia have a common cultural base. But Australia and the United States (like Australia and Britain) have potentially different strategic needs. Could their potential divergences break the alliance?
The United States and Australia are a laboratory for geopolitical theory. They have common cultural roots but widely different geographies and histories. They are bound together in a common interest. The cultural and the strategic reinforce each other. But can strategic interests diverge while cultural affinity is maintained? Can cultural similarities diverge while strategic interests remain? The question of culture’s relationship to geopolitics is tested here.
It is also tested in Hungary, a country utterly different from Australia and the United States. But that’s a topic for next week.