Why does the US trust Australia with its Secrets? The Five Eyes Alliance, Race, and Loyalty

Why does the US trust Australia with its Secrets? The Five Eyes Alliance, Race, and Loyalty

In the immediate post-World War II period, Australia was included in the five eyes alliance. Why was this the case given Australia’s marginal importance to the US at the time?


Two years after fighting side-by-side in WWII, Australia failed to make it into the top 16 nations and regions arranged in order of their importance to America’s national security. The list was the result of a top secret report commissioned in 1947 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to detail who the US would assist  from the standpoint of US national security. However, the did US trust Australia with some of its most treasured intelligence. Was this because Australia was a predominately white, former British colony? 

Since the immediate post-WWII period Australia has become a much closer ally of the US, and it is claimed Australian access to US intel is very similar to the British (America’s closest ally in terms of sharing intelligence). Has Australia been treated so favourably because it has supported the US in every major conflict since WWII, or are there other essential explanations?  

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In an article, forthcoming this year in Political Science Quarterly, my colleague Lloyd Cox and I argue that cultural affinity and race are central to the  relations between the US and Australia that has led to the sharing of national security intelligence.  We make our case by bringing together the literature on US “special relationships” with the literature on emotions in International Relations. 

Despite periods of stress and occasional sharp differences on issues of international importance, the United States has, since the Second World War, maintained the form and substance of unique  relationships with the Anglosphere countries – as manifested in the so-called “five eyes” intelligence-sharing arrangement – even when the immediate interests and preferences of the United States have been incongruent with those of its partners. 


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The unity  of states’ interests and preferences, or lack thereof, is, of course, always arguable. But indeed, Canada’s decision to not join in the US’s “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq in March 2003 ran counter to the interests and preferences of the United States as conceived by its political leaders at the time. Britain’s refusal to become involved in the US’s military intervention in Vietnam in the 1960s, and the New Zealand Labor government’s 1986 decision to stop US nuclear-powered  warships from entering its harbours, are further examples of US allies acting in ways that strained but did not sever their unique relationship with the United States. 

Cultural affinity and race are central to the relations between the US and Australia that has led to the sharing of national security intelligence.

Similarly, the US’s resistance to lifting trade barriers to many categories of Australian, New Zealand and Canadian agricultural exports is another example of interests diverging but the special relationship prevailing. The longevity and closeness of these relationships suggest  to us that they are not reducible to interests and values alone, but that emotional attachments should be taken seriously. Such sentiments are not just special pleading in pursuit of state interests; they have real causal power in their own right. Specialness in these cases draws together the instrumental, normative and expressive dimensions of politics. To explain why and how this occurs, we need to explore why and how emotions are collectivized, up to and including at the level of states, and why and how such collectivization facilitates the invocation of specialness in some inter-state relationships but not others.

Concerning  the US-Australian “special relationship,” a sense of shared history, values, and even race were essential  in creating the willingness of both parties to enter into the 1951 ANZUS alliance, from which the non-white Philippines was excluded at Australia’s behest, and to forge the Five Eyes Intelligence agreement. The latter, which was conceived at the exclusive White’s “gentlemen’s club” in London just after WWII, is the closest intelligence-sharing  relationship America has, and it is highly prized  by America’s partners – the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. 

It has been claimed that access to more American intel was one of the benefits of Australia being part of the “Coalition of the Willing” in the 2003 Iraq war. From the American point of view, the Five Eyes similarly brings together common interests and strongly felt emotional attachments. In his insider’s memoir on the American intelligence community, for example, former National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency chief General Michael Hayden repeatedly emphasizes the depth of the emotional bonds that tie together the United States and its Anglosphere partners: “These loyalties,” he says, “run deep,” notwithstanding the differences that he freely acknowledges. 

USS Wasp (LHD-1) transits Port Jackson outside Sydney in 2019 (Wikipedia)

Reflecting on positive examples of alliance politics such as cooperation between the US and Australia over East Timor in 1999, and negative examples such as the sharing of faulty intelligence claims  that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction in 2002, requires us to recognize the ever-present place of emotions in international relations. Thus, the challenge for allies in “special relationships” is not to eschew emotions as realists demand. Instead, it is to understand the role of emotions better. Scholars can help in this process of understanding by not just critiquing manipulative and irrational emotions, but helping to find ways to channel ever-present emotions such as fear, empathy and loyalty into more just outcomes in international affairs. 


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Read another great blog in this series: Est-ce que l’affaire Cryptoleaks représente un abus de pouvoir dans le domaine des by Nathaniel Hailu
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