U.S. Focus on Bonds with Asian Region

November 14, 2011

Barack Obama’s visit to Australia this week will attract some frenzied reporting. We will hear about Obama’s limousine, his “body man” and his Blackberry. There will be reports on the wingspan of Air Force One and the number of Secret Service agents in his party. Twitter will go nuts.

Meanwhile in the American press, no Australian cliche will be left behind. But beneath the glitter, there are four pieces of good news to consider during the visit.

First, it marks the 60th anniversary of Australia’s alliance with the U.S., an alliance which means Washington gets a reliable ally and Canberra gets a powerful one. There will be significant announcements on closer military co-operation, but the historical fact is just as important.

Second, Obama’s presidency has strengthened Australians’ regard for the alliance, which sagged badly during the Bush administration. Australians supported Obama’s election in 2008 by a ratio of nearly five to one, and our esteem for him has now spread to the alliance with his country. This year’s Lowy Institute Poll found 82 per cent of Australians say the alliance is important for Australia’s security and 83 per cent say they trust the U.S. to act responsibly in the world.

The atmospherics of the debate have also changed since Obama’s inauguration. Alliance bashers no longer argue, as they did until recently, that the U.S. is a “rogue state” or “the world’s most dangerous nation”. With George Bush out of the picture, we can see the U.S. more clearly. Perhaps the relationship at the summit is not quite as close as it was a few years ago. But that’s no bad thing. You can love an alliance to death; respect and affection are probably more appropriate mindsets for sovereign states.

Third, Obama has been a prudent commander-in-chief. Given Australia’s record of fighting beside America in every major conflict of the last century, this is good for us.

Future historians will shake their head as to why, during a period of remarkable global change, Washington decided to invade an Arab country for no obvious reason and spend a decade occupying it. The same historians will despair that Australia went along with this folly, without so much as a peep of official protest.

The Obama template for projecting American power has proven vastly superior to the Bush template. For example, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was a patient, intelligence-led, lightning operation against an enemy which had done America enormous harm. It was the opposite of the Iraq operation, which was an instinctive, military-led, lingering invasion.

Finally, Obama’s administration is proving attentive to the region in which we live. The president and his officials have been highly conscientious about spending time in the Asia-Pacific. They recognise the U.S. has been too focused on the Middle East and that their future, like ours, will largely be won or lost in Asia. Now the administration is doing its best to extricate itself from the former and concentrate its energies on the latter.