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The Washington Quarterly 25.3 (2002) 29-40

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Can East Timor Be a Blueprint for Burden Sharing?

David Dickens


Should the United States turn over leadership of responses to regional conflicts to reliable allies? 1 The United States underpins the security and stability of Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and the Middle East. In addition, the protection of its own sovereignty since September 11 has become more demanding. These are weighty burdens. The United States may not be stretched too far, but it is limited in what it can achieve without weakening existing commitments. How much attention can Washington spare to manage crises in places of secondary strategic interest (realistically, the Southern Hemisphere, including all of Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America), especially where allies and friends have much better local knowledge?

The international intervention in East Timor, led by Australia, may serve as a model for how the United States can turn over leadership of regional interventions to reliable allies. Australia led the operation, and the United States supported it. Australia and coalition partners provided ground troops while the United States gave intelligence, planning, transport, logistics, and communication support. Referring to Indonesia, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell has talked about "let[ting] our ally Australia take the lead as they have done so well." He said that the United States would prefer to let regional allies deal with regional security problems "rather than [the United States] feeling it has to respond to every [call] that's out there." 2 Former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia Stanley Roth commented in testimony to the Senate that East Timor was a "role model about how nations can take the lead in responding to crises in their own region." 3 [End Page 29]

Yet, is East Timor truly a viable blueprint for how the United States can relinquish the leadership of regional operations to partners? Washington seems to have a bipartisan hope that the answer is "yes." Before addressing this question, however, the ingredients of success in East Timor must be identified. 4

Why Did the East Timor Model Work?

The operation in East Timor succeeded because Australia possessed key capacities that are the prerequisites to leadership. These capacities are by-products of Australia's self-reliant defense posture. During the last 25 years, Australia has developed sophisticated defense machinery and the military means to implement its defense strategy. In addition, Australia has reformed and revitalized its alliance with the United States (embodied in the ANZUS Treaty) and developed a sophisticated web of defense relationships with Southeast Asian nations, its neighbors in the South Pacific including New Zealand and France (which maintains a respectable military presence there), Northeast Asian states, and Great Britain. At least nine identifiable characteristics of the East Timor model enabled Australian leadership to be successful.

An independent strategic decisionmaking capacity: This capacity enables decisionmakers to mobilize the resources of their own state, build coalitions, and develop regional as well as international support. Canberra was capable of making strategic decisions, gathering and interpreting intelligence, and staffing military and diplomatic organizations with experienced professionals. This infrastructure gave decisionmakers the capacity to manage the crisis. Australia was then able to mobilize international and regional support efficiently and to convince the United Nations (UN) to agree to a Chapter Seven-mandated missionin East Timor (Chapter Seven of the UN Charterauthorizes UN Security Council coercive action). Without this mandate, Australia's military position on the ground would have been tenuous. 5

Defense relationships with other states: States that are long-standing members of defense arrangements and working partnerships are in a good position to mobilize support when needed.Key decisionmakers will most likely know each other and be familiar with working together. Australia's web of defense relationships with Southeast and Northeast Asian states, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom enabled it to garner political and military support quickly.

Australia's sophisticated bilateral relationship with Indonesia, although failing to prevent the crisis, served as a conduit for discussion and information sharing. Consequently, Indonesia agreed that Australia would...


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