U.S. Alliance Will Change
By OWEN HARRIES and TOM SWITZER
ON the day after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Prime Minister John Howard promised: "Australia will provide all the support that might be requested of us by the US in relation to any action that might be taken." This astonishingly unqualified commitment - note the words all and any - was made at a time when the nature of the US response, and the demands on Australia it might involve, were completely unknown.
Despite the sweeping nature of Howard's promise, and despite the radical direction US policy took, the Australian Government has honored that commitment to an exceptional degree. Indeed, it has virtually marched in foreign policy lockstep with Washington during the past six years.
It has gone to war with a country that was in no way threatening it (and which was a principal market for its wheat). In doing so, it has set aside its usual concern to have UN authorization for a resort to force. It has given unqualified support to the Bush doctrine of preventive war, regime change and aggressive unilateralism. It has not blanched at the setting aside of the Geneva Convention and habeas corpus. In one respect, Canberra even went further than America's other principal ally in this venture, Britain, in that it declined to insist on the right to a trial before an Australian court for an Australian citizen who had been held at Guantanamo Bay for five years.
The Howard Government's undeviating support for the US during a period when many other US allies have kept their distance or been openly critical has received high praise from US leaders, as President George W. Bush reminded us in Sydney last month. Yet the Australian public at large, as this week's US Studies Center survey reiterates, has been deeply uneasy with the direction of US foreign policy in recent years.
For one thing, there is the Iraq war, which Australians have opposed from the outset. In March 2003, a poll showed overwhelming opposition to sending troops without UN approval, and just 6 per cent supporting Australian involvement in an otherwise unilateral US strike. The US Studies Centre poll, reflecting other polls such as a recent Lowy Institute survey, show two-thirds of Australians oppose our involvement in Iraq. (By contrast, in the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War, 75per cent of Australians supported the US-led liberation of Kuwait.)
More generally, and more disturbingly, the US Studies poll shows only 37 per cent of Australians having a positive feeling towards the US and 48per cent wanting a more independent foreign policy. (By contrast, at the nadir of the Vietnam trauma in 1975, only 26 per cent wanted a more independent relationship.)
Australians' dramatic loss of confidence in US foreign policy, moreover, reflects global trends.
Just this week, for instance, the German Marshall Fund found that among even close traditional US friends in Europe, attitudes towards America have deteriorated substantially in recent years. Support for US leadership has declined across western and eastern Europe from 64 per cent before the Iraq war in 2002 to 36 per cent today.
So what does all this mean for the future of the US-Australia alliance? Well, it will endure; but it will also change. It will endure, because it serves real and substantial interests and because the need for a great and powerful friend is deeply embedded in the national psyche. From its birth as a state in 1901, Australia has always sought a close association with a great power with which it shares values and interests. On the US side, the alliance is of value because Australia is a stable, reliable and significant presence in the international system - and in a part of the world where such partners do not exist in abundance.
But the nature of the alliance will change: first, because of the changing nature of US foreign policy and second, because of the rise of China.
When Australia first entered into alliance with the US, both countries were concerned to protect an existing state of affairs against those - first Japan and Germany, then the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong's China - who were determined to radically transform it. That compatibility lasted several decades.
Recently things have altered. Australia is still the epitome of a satisfied, status quo state: well-endowed, stable, not very powerful, but with its modest population enjoying an enviable share of the world's wealth and advantages. It has every reason to assume that any radical change in the existing state of affairs will diminish rather than enhance its position.
But since the collapse of Soviet communism, and especially since 9/11, US foreign policy has changed. Far from being the principal defender of the existing order, it has become, according to its own policy statements and recent behavior, a revolutionary force determined to use its great power, including, conspicuously, its military power, to reshape the world.
No doubt part of this can be put down to rhetoric, and no doubt after Iraq there will be some adjustments and modifications. After all, America has shown throughout its history a remarkable ability to recover from setbacks and pursue a more prudent foreign policy. Still, it would be a serious error to doubt the momentum created by a combination of hegemonic power and the powerful sense of an historic - indeed, for many Americans, divine - mission that are by no means limited to the Bush administration.
It would be therefore wrong to dismiss the risk that the US, badly rattled and internally divided by the Iraq debacle as well as legitimately apprehensive about Iran's nuclear program, could become so erratic that it might decide on very questionable use of force against Tehran. Reconciling Australian and US views of the world and finding mutually agreeable policies are likely to become increasingly difficult projects.
Then there is China, whose spectacular rise means different things for the US and Australia. For the former its main significance is the emergence of a potent geopolitical rival; for the latter it is the opportunity for a rewarding partnership, and that opportunity is being eagerly seized by Australia.
China has recently overtaken the US as Australia's second largest trading partner after Japan. With Australian exports to and imports from China growing at more than 20 per cent a year, and with the compatibility that exists between Australia's vast mineral and energy resources and the needs of the Chinese economy, it does not seem improbable that China will become our leading trading partner sooner rather than later. There are, of course, risks and uncertainties involved. But as China approaches the completion of three decades of growth at an annual rate of more than 9 per cent, these appear progressively less formidable than they once did.
None of this, however, means that Australia is faced with a hard, stark choice between the US and China - not, at least, unless one of them insists such a choice be made. But it does mean that Australia must learn to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before, one that will on occasion involve the difficult feat of riding two horses simultaneously.
And instead of the sturdy, straightforward virtues of dependability and unconditional loyalty that have served it well until recently, it will need to acquire and cultivate a range of new skills: discrimination, agility, qualified commitment, ambiguity.
There is nothing strange about these skills; they are among the basic tools of diplomacy. But the special conditions that have for much of its existence allowed Australia to dispense with their regular use are ending. From now on, given the change, Australia will need to regard alliances not as a test of character ("Australia will be there!") or a union of souls (the Anglo sphere), but as pragmatic devices to be adjusted to changing conditions.
Yes, Australia will stay on the US bandwagon, but instead of always leading the cheer squad it will need to cultivate some of the skills of the helpful passenger. These include encouraging careful steering, some timely map reading, a judicious use of the brakes and, not least, better road manners. As with all efforts at back-seat driving, it is unlikely that such advice will be gratefully received. But it would serve the best interests of both countries.
Owen Harries is a fellow of the Lowy Institute for International Policy. Tom Switzer is opinion page editor of The Australian.