Five Eyes is the oldest and most prominent intelligence alliance in the world. But does Australia’s membership in the alliance expose it to undue influence by US interests?

The US has the largest and most expensive intelligence apparatus in the world, indeed in the history of humankind. It is because of this, critics charge, that Washington dominates intelligence cooperation among allies due to the sheer scale of its capabilities. The evident asymmetry of the relationship between the US and its allies, according to this perspective, produces outcomes that are inimical to the interests of smaller countries, which have little choice but to accept the consequences of the power imbalance.

However, just as smaller states often seek out security alliances with major powers, they also covet the benefits that flow from intimate intelligence-sharing arrangements with more powerful states. As with alliances, junior partners that have intelligence-sharing arrangements with more powerful states are willing to sacrifice some autonomy in return for pay-offs in other areas.

Understanding the dynamics

Alliances are much more than transactional arrangements. To be sure, alliances are formed because of perceived threats from other states, but alliances can endure when threats either change in scope or dissipate altogether. NATO’s endurance after the Cold War is the most prominent case in point.

Despite Washington’s periodically stated concerns over the tendency of allies to free-ride on security guarantees, the US places great store in its alliances as evidence of its global reach, appeal and strategic influence. For junior allies, a security alliance with a major power provides more obvious benefits including the prospect (if not necessarily the guarantee) of military protection in crises, preferential access to high-end military equipment and joint training, and a sense of reassurance that promotes confidence in the execution of foreign policy and international engagement more generally.

Countries expect certain pay-offs from alliances and the expectation is that alliance relationships should yield roughly commensurate results. By allying with a major power, junior parties will expose themselves to a situation where they may be expected to support the major-power ally even when these policies are at odds with the junior ally’s interests.

The Five Eyes

Accusations persist that the network is an exclusive club designed to reinforce the global influence of the Anglosphere, and that its highly secretive nature is an anachronism in a world where the general public’s call for accountability and transparency is a strong theme permeating the discourse of globalisation. The apparent blurring of foreign and domestic intelligence since 9/11, which was dramatically underscored by the Wikileaks and Snowden disclosures, has triggered unease about the scope for authorised and unauthorised electronic espionage directed by intelligence agencies against their own citizens and those of their allies.

The Five Eyes network is the world’s oldest formalised intelligence network and has its origins in the significant expansion of Allied intelligence cooperation and exchange during World War II. The network was founded with the conclusion of the top-secret UKUSA Agreement of 1947 that formally codified the division of spheres of responsibility for signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection between the ‘First Party’ (the United States) and the ‘Second Parties’ (Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand). The countries established detailed cooperation activities during the Cold War in areas as diverse as ocean surveillance, covert action, human intelligence collection and counterintelligence.

Please click here to read the full “Five Eyes and the perils of an asymmetric alliance” article in Australian Outlook by Griffith Asia Institute member, Professor Andrew O’Neil.