Kev and Obama’s Friendship Bolsters the Alliance

August 11, 2009

The alliance between Australia and the United States is currently being managed by a Labor prime minister and a Democratic president – a situation that has not existed since the period 1993-1996, under Paul Keating and Bill Clinton.

The relationship between John Howard and George Bush was famously close, however the replacement of these two leaders by Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama has turned out to good news for the alliance. Howard was wildly out of synch with the new Democratic rulers in Washington and his regrettable comment in February 2007 that Al-Qaeda in Iraq should pray for a victory by Obama and the Democrats might have presented us with real diplomatic difficulties had he been re-elected.

Bush’s retirement has also benefitted the alliance. It is good news for Australia when our strategic ally is well-liked around the world rather than disliked.

Furthermore Obama’s popularity among Australians has given a shot in the arm to domestic support for the alliance, which had been sagging under the Bush-Howard duumvirate. It’s notable that, with Bush gone, critics on the Australian left are no longer succumbing to the temptation always to put the worst possible interpretation on American conduct. Alliance bashers no longer argue, as they did during Bush’s time, that the US is a ‘rogue state’ and ‘the world’s most dangerous nation’ or that Australia is ‘hooked on dependence’.

However, Obama’s victory also poses new challenges for Australia. We will have to work harder in order to maintain our access in Washington because of the frenzied diplomatic competition for this president’s attention. Furthermore, Obama’s election has kicked away some of the traditional pillars on which the alliance has rested. He has little first-hand knowledge of Australia – in fact, he knows our near neighbour Indonesia much better. As the first president to come of age politically after the end of the Cold War, he has little intellectual or emotional attachment to the US treaty system. Certainly, his campaign statements lacked the ‘band of brothers’ tone often found in Senator John McCain’s pronouncements on alliances.

As president, Obama has not yet asked a great deal of US allies. The flipside is that he may not be prepared to offer them a great deal either.

In this context, the personal relationship between Obama and Rudd assumes unusual importance. They are very different people, but both are policy wonks from the centre-left. Both are newly-elected, so they have an interest in building a long-term relationship. Both have exerted personal control over their national foreign policy-making processes. Both are strikingly ambitious: Obama aims to bring peace to the Holy Land and avert a climate catastrophe at the same time that he kick-starts a global economic recovery; Rudd intends not only to dominate the domestic political scene but single-handedly to elevate Australia’s international profile, as seen in his initiatives on the G-20, Asia-Pacific architecture and nuclear weapons. Yet both are also instinctive pragmatists, with more than a hint of ruthlessness about them.

This synchronicity seems to be reflected in the early contacts between the two leaders. White House aides have told me that the relationship is unusually close: that they have ‘good chemistry’ and ‘similar senses of irony and understatement’. They pick up the phone to call each other and their conversations are mainly unscripted. Obama cited Rudd at a presidential press conference and brought him on stage for a star turn at the G8 conference in L’Aquila.

The portents of a good personal relationship, therefore, are strong. Rudd is right to set to one side the familiar incantations of Australian loyalty and to focus instead on the advocacy of Australian ideas. He signaled our reliability as an ally by deploying additional troops to Afghanistan at a time when withdrawals were more the norm – a decision that was noted and appreciated in the White House.

Rudd’s instinct to engage the administration right across the global agenda – and not just in relation to our usual hot-button issues of trade, Southeast Asia, the Pacific and so on – is also correct. The alliance is not, after all, an end in itself but rather a means of protecting Australian security and furthering Australian interests.

If any single factor has threatened to derail the alliance train for our Mandarin-speaking prime minister, it is the rise of China and the demands this places on Australian diplomacy. Yet I am not persuaded that our alliance with the United States will be threatened by our relationship with China.

First, I am more sanguine than many analysts about America’s enduring geopolitical strength. It is difficult to reconcile claims of American decline with the continuing magnetic power of American culture and American leadership. At the very least, a newly-confident Washington will be less jealous about allies such as Australia forming close ties with other great powers such as China. Second, the Uighur uprising in July highlights the internal fragilities that China’s boosters may not have fully considered, and the imbroglio regarding the imprisonment of Stern Hu reveals the limits of intimacy that can realistically be achieved between democracies such as Australia and non-democracies such as China.

The alliance will surely be tested in future years by unforeseen events such as severe difficulties in Afghanistan or trade shenanigans. But so far it is hard to fault the alliance’s new management.