U.S.-Australia Alliance Goes Back to Business First with Kevin Rudd

April 4, 2008

In Washington this year, March was the month of the two PMs.

First, former prime minister John Howard came through town as the guest of honour at a splashy dinner at the last redoubt of the neoconservatives, the American Enterprise Institute. A couple of weeks later, Kevin Rudd arrived on his first official visit.

At his dinner, Howard received a gong for outstanding achievement (what would they have given him had he won last year’s election?) and delivered the annual Irving Kristol lecture, named for the intellectual godfather of the neocons. A couple of Americans who attended the dinner told me they winced at Howard’s attacks on the new Labor Government. But to Australian sensibilities, unaccustomed to the quaint American notion that politics stops at the water’s edge, his criticisms of Labor seemed mild. The speech was very long and attendees had to wait until he had finished before dinner was served. But overall it was a red-blooded defence of his cause which no doubt delighted the Paul Wolfowitzes and John Boltons in the audience.

If Howard enjoyed his Washington sojourn, Rudd must have been delighted with his. He spoke to all the people who matter in the Administration and the three candidates to lead the next one.

Elements of both the right and the left in Australia predict Rudd will be a facsimile of Howard, although they differ on whether this is a good thing or a catastrophe. (The notion that Howard and Rudd are in any way similar produces blank looks and disbelief from Americans who have dealt with both men.) However, several aspects of Rudd’s visit indicate his Government will be as different on foreign policy from the Howard government as the Howard government was from the Keating government.

First, the atmospherics at the White House press conference, while friendly, were more businesslike than those which prevailed whenever President George Bush and Howard when prime minister were in the same room. There was less clenching of the jaw and squaring of the shoulders; fewer misty looks into the middle distance. By the end of the trip, Rudd certainly had the appearance of an effective alliance manager: he even received a glowing review from the editorial page of the The Wall Street Journal. But with his references to the “12 presidents and 13 prime ministers” who have presided over the relationship, and his conversations with all three of Bush’s possible successors, Rudd also signalled that the alliance relies primarily on shared interests and values, not personalities.

It is unhealthy for an alliance to be tied too tightly to the fortunes of particular leaders. Indeed, there is good evidence that, with its embrace of the Bush Administration, the Howard government was loving the alliance to death. In the three years since 2005 in which the Lowy Institute has conducted its annual poll, the percentage of respondents rating the alliance as “very important” to Australia’s security has declined from 45 per cent to 36 per cent. The dualism of Australians’ attitudes to Washington showed up in the 2006 poll, in which 70 per cent of respondents thought the alliance was either “very important” or “fairly important” to Australia’s security, but 69 per cent believed we were taking too much notice of the US in our foreign policy.

If the intimacy of the Howard-Bush relationship undercut the alliance in Australians’ eyes, it also hurt us in some Washington constituencies. A case in point was Howard’s claim last year that al-Qaeda would be praying for a Democratic victory, which drew this deadly response from Barack Obama: “I would suggest that he calls up another 20,000 Australians and sends them to fight in Iraq, otherwise it’s just a bunch of empty rhetoric.” Here was a leading contender for the presidency making light of a dangerous deployment we had undertaken largely for alliance management reasons, and implying we were not living up to our full responsibilities – the opposite of the view we like to encourage.

Second, it was significant Rudd followed up his lunch with Bush with a meeting the next day with the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, at which he announced Australia’s candidacy for a seat on the Security Council. The Howard government was not only sceptical of international institutions, it was self-indulgent on the topic. The UN is limited in its design, frustrating in its operations – and vital to our foreign relations. Australian governments should be honest about the UN’s flaws but it is counterproductive to fetishise them. By homing in on the Council – the pointy end of the UN – Rudd shows he intends to increase Australia’s points of international influence and use the organisation more effectively than his predecessor did to promote Australia’s national interests and its views on global issues.

Finally, in his crunchy and well-received speech to the Brookings Institution – the policy wonks here recognised one of their own – Rudd alluded to one of the most challenging long-term projects of his prime ministership: management of the US-China-Australia strategic triangle. Howard deserves high marks on this score, but his task was made dramatically easier by the improvement of ties between Washington and Beijing after September 11. Rudd will be more proactive in trying to influence the tone of that relationship – not as a bridge, or even an interpreter, but as a busy ally and partner. Contrary to some expectations, there was no anxiety in Washington’s spring air about Rudd’s views on China, only interest in them.

The criticisms made in Australia about the length of Rudd’s trip (often levelled by the same people demanding he add other stops to his itinerary) went unnoticed in the US. It seems to be generally regarded here as a good thing to have high ambitions for your country – one thing our two prime ministerial visitors have in common – even if that requires you occasionally to travel abroad.