East Timor, Canberra and Washington: A Case Study in Crisis Management

Coral Bell

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    In retrospect, the collaboration between Canberra and Washington in the management of the East Timor crisis looks like a rather successful (after a bad start) division of labour. The outcome was that desired by the East Timorese (as evidenced in the August vote): fast progress towards sovereign independence under the aegis of the United Nations. Washington supplied the diplomatic pressures that secured the vital prerequisite to that end: the exit from East Timor of the Indonesian army and its auxiliary militia. Beneath the surface of Australia-US cooperation the drives of Canberra's policy seem to have been considerably at odds with Washington's, at least until the September carnage after the vote for independence. We come to what I regard as the most important point about the crisis: that it was, like Kosovo, an illustration of a process of normative shift in the society of states. It is hard to explain the decisions made in Canberra on any other basis. To put the outcome in the bluntest real-politik terms, those decisions of September 1999 meant that Canberra exchanged an easy quasi-alliance with an emerging power of 211 million people for a fragile and probably conflictual relationship with a very vulnerable small nation of 800 000. Indonesia is, of course, far less important to Washington than it is to Canberra, but it is quite important there also, because it is the largest Islamic nation, and the sea lanes through the Indonesian archipelago are vital both to the US naval power in the Gulf and to the trade routes of its crucial Japanese-ally. So it was not in the least surprising that, until September 1999, Washington like Canberra, was prepared to shrug off a good deal in Jakarta's policies. That attitude was perfectly logical in the light of the realist/nationalist norms of the Cold War decades.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)171-176
    JournalAustralian Journal of International Affairs
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2000


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