The terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001

Before September 11, the thought of a terrorist act of this magnitude was usually associated with regions where civil war was or is rampant. In the wake of the attack, some American commentators have compared it is the most tragic incident since Pearl Harbour. The calculated attack on such a symbolic building has made the whole world aware that terrorism has no bounds, and that not even the world’s most powerful nation was, or is out of its reach. The horrific attack on innocent people in New York, has affected each and every nation of the world in one-way or another.

Australia is one nation that has been considerably affected, and in the aftermath of September 11 (and also the Bali bombing, which was an equally symbolic target) the nation’s government has been forced to re-evaluate and alter strategic position and policy. First and foremost, our relations with other nations have been assessed and advanced in an attempt to increase the security of Australia and its people. We have seen examples of this in many ways. In the wake of the terrorist acts perpetrated by extreme Islamic groups, we have seen the Australian government take a firmer stance on illegal immigrants.

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In an ASPI occasional paper, Hugh White supports this suggestion, when states that, ” A wider concept of security has received dramatic new emphasis since September 11″; in particular there has been much consideration of Australia’s “borders being breached illegally, particularly by boat2”. It appears that the September 11 attacks have in a way, caused the strategic position and policy of not only Australia but all nations of the world to take a more xenophobic approach to the issue of asylum seekers.

The Australian government’s response to the tragedy of September was swift and precise. Immediately Australia (along with other nations) offered unquestioned support to the United States in bringing the perpetrators to justice. This stance appeared to become even stauncher in the wake of the bombing of the Sari club in Bali. We need only look to the words of Alexander Downer to substantiate this. Downer states, “Australia’s security outlook and perspective have been dramatically harpened by the bombing in Bali on the 12th of October. For Australians, the Bali bombings underscore that terrorism no longer happens just to other people in other parts of the world. It has occurred in region, and the danger it may yet occur in our country is very real.

No one is immune, and everybody feels threatened. This is why we talk about waging a war against terrorism. Indeed it is a war – but a war against multiple foes, without a clear frontline. It is war that cannot be waged and won by ny single country. Nor can it be ignored -we cannot curl up in a ball and hope the enemy is simply going to disappear3″. In June of 2002 well before the Bali bombing, the Minister for Defence, Robert Hill in addressing the Australian Defence College stated, (in regard to the September 11 attack) ” Its effects have already been profound and will continue to shape the global security agenda and the security environment for Australia and this region4″.

The fact that the governments Minister for Defence made such a tatement is unequivocal evidence that September 11 had forced a re-evaluation of Australia’s strategic position. He also went on to contend that, “We are seeing a fundamental change to the notion that our security responsibilities are confined to our own region. The ADF is both more likely to be deployed and increasingly likely to be deployed well beyond Australia5”. This statement of Senator Hill’s was proven correct when John Howard invoked the ANZUS treaty for the first time, sending troops to support the American forces.

Graeme Cheeseman discusses five proposed areas of defence that the Howard government’s minister for defence, Ian MacLachlan, intended to address in 1996. These were:

1.The enhancement of the ADF’s combat capabilities to protect and maintain Australia’s military position in the Asia Pacific.

2. Making defence more efficient and cost effective.

3. Make a defence career more appealing.

4. Revitalise alliances, particularly with the U.S and New Zealand.

5. Develop regional military cooperation.6

In the wake of September 11, we can see that some of these issues have become more apparent than others. For example, now that the fear of terrorist attacks is seen as somewhat closer to home, the issue of making defence cheaper, seems to have taken a back seat to ensuring that Australia will have the support of a powerful allie, the United States, should it be required. Whilst it may appear that these suggested areas are still being addressed, it is the intensity with which some are being approached that suggests that September 11 has altered Australian strategic position and policy.

It is worthwhile comparing views of strategic policy and position from the past to today’s position, in assessing whether or not September 11 has caused them to be altered. In 1986, Paul Dibb put forward the suggestion that, “Australia faces no identifiable direct military threat and there is every prospect that our favourable security circumstances will continue…There is no conceivable prospect of any power contemplating invasion of our continent and subjugation of our population…The regional security situation would have to change dramatically and the interests of nations other than Australia would be threatened by the arrival of such a power…But there is no requirement for Australia to become involved in United States contingency planning for global war 7”. Whilst this article was written more than fifteen years ago, and we have seen the Gulf erupt once before (Desert Storm) we can nonetheless see that these theories are no longer valid. Whilst we may not be in the midst of a ‘global war’ as such, there is still an international war against terrorism.

Hugh White suggests that responding to the threats that are international terrorism poses will, “require a major national and international effort comparable to World War II or the Cold War and will overtake all other international issues” and that Australia will need to “restructure defence toward a U.S ally system rather an Australia oriented system8”. This suggestion appears to be of merit, given the unconditional support that John Howard offered the U.S in the aftermath of September, and the attempts to form or strengthen other international relations. It is possible that this support from Howard was awarded with the foresight that Australia may also be a target for terrorist groups, and hence may need America’s support in the future. This may well be the case, given that the Bali bombing has said to be a symbolic attack on Australian’s for their support of the U.S in Afghanistan.

In concluding, it appears that September 11 has been influential in altering Australia’s foreign policy to some degree. In witnessing the world superpower suffer an abhorrent terrorist attack; Australia (and other nations of the world) has become aware that no nation, regardless of size or military power, is safe from attacks of this kind. The Bali bombings made this even clearer. The Australian government has realised that our vast coastlines are no assurance that the nation will remain free from invasion or attack, and that more attention needs to be payed to the issue of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. It has also become very clear that Australia needs to join the other nations of the world in fighting terrorism at all levels, so as to protect its people and the standard of living that they deserve.