The age of unqualified loyalty is over
In the aftermath of 11 September, it was widely assumed that a US-led coalition of freedom-loving states fighting the good fight against Islamists would determine the new epoch. Who can forget those days when John Howard gave an unqualified commitment for Australia to ‘provide all the support that might be requested of us by the United States in relation to any action that might be taken'? The US, loyally (and primarily) backed by the UK and Australia, was confidently imposing its will and leadership all over the globe to eradicate terror and transform the global system in America's image.
The allegedly reckless nature of Saddam Hussein's Iraq ruled out containment and justified pre-emption. Suddenly, democracy was regarded as an export commodity to the Muslim world. And multilateral institutions were seen as an obstacle to decisive action by the US and its allies in holding rogue states to account. Some commentators even labelled the Anglo-American-Australian troika an ‘Anglosphere'.
It is worth recalling this quite recent picture of the global landscape in order to appreciate fully how different things are today. Gone are Tony Blair, John Howard and George W. Bush; and in are Gordon Brown, Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama. Neo-conservatives, with a moralistic, ideological and very assertive view of the US world role, are largely discredited. (The American Enterprise Institute, the intellectual home of neo-cons throughout the past two decades, last month sacked several leading neo-conservative warriors; and the Wall Street Journal, the most prominent media outlet for neo-con voices, also last week ran a provocative article by one Mark Helprin slamming the Bush administration for ‘catastrophically throwing the country off balance, both politically and financially, while breaking the nation's sword in an inconclusive seven-year struggle against a ragtag enemy in two small bankrupt states'). The US, meanwhile, is in the process of recognising the need to act collectively with other states in addressing international problems.
Not many serious commentators, moreover, still talk of an Anglosphere or a Coalition of the Willing. Nor does anyone boast, as one senior White House aide did a few years ago, that the US is ‘an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality'. If anything, it is America, like the former liberal Democrats who became neo-conservatives in the 1970s, that has been mugged by reality.
So, what now? What's the future of the US-Australia relationship in the new Rudd-Obama era? The Labor PM's decision to withdraw combat troops from Iraq last June certainly marked a clean break with what the Australian people regarded as the biggest mistake of the Howard era. Obama, for his part, opposed the war from the outset on the grounds that containment held the Iraqi tyrant in check; and his planned withdrawal of troops is in keeping with the Rudd position. Meanwhile, both leaders have pledged a solid commitment to the fledgling democracy of Afghanistan.
As for the US-Australia alliance itself, it will obviously survive the Bush-Howard era. True, Obama, unlike John McCain, hardly mentioned America's loyal antipodal ally during the long election year. But Rudd, notwithstanding his embarrassing October behaviour when he leaked to the media private sensitive conversations with the President, is a long-standing champion of the special relationship with our ‘great and powerful friend'. Still, the US alliance will change because US foreign policy itself has changed in the post-Cold War era, and because of China's rapid economic rise.
When Australia first looked to America, under Curtin in 1941, and then under Menzies in 1951, both Canberra and Washington were concerned to protect the balance of power against those revisionist powers - first militarist Japan and Nazi Germany, then the Soviet Union - that sought to transform the international system. That compatibility lasted decades.
In recent times, however, things have changed. As my colleague Owen Harries and I have argued in recent years, Australia is still the epitome of a satisfied, status quo state: well-endowed, stable, middle-power, but with a modest population enjoying an enviable share of the world's wealth. We have every reason to assume that any radical change in the international order will diminish our position. Yet since the collapse of Soviet communism in 1989-91, and especially under the Bush administration since 11 September, US foreign policy has changed. Far from being the principal defender of the status quo, the US has become, according to its own policy statements and actions, a revolutionary force determined to use its great power to reshape the world.
To what extent the Obama administration will shake things up is unclear. Obviously, there will be some change to US policy over the next four years. And it is true that America has demonstrated a capacity for self-correction and renewal: think of how the US bounced back rapidly from the Civil War, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam and Watergate.
Yet the US remains a global hegemon, and the idea of American exceptionalism - the term used to describe the nation's historic mission to redeem the world - will not simply disappear just because a new president is inaugurated on 20 January. It would be wrong, for example, to dismiss the risk that even Obama's America, still badly rattled by the Iraq debacle as well as legitimately apprehensive about Iran's nuclear programme, could become so erratic that it might decide on very questionable use of force against Tehran. In these circumstances, reconciling Australian and US views of the world and finding mutually agreeable policies are likely to become increasingly difficult projects.
Countering terrorism remains a vital interest for both nations, but the priorities will change. In Australia's case, instead of giving unqualified and uncritical support to Washington in the Middle East, Canberra is bound to focus more on south-east Asia. Australia, after all, is located next door to the most populous Muslim state in the world, a breeding ground for terror.
Another reason why the alliance will change is China. For Washington, the rise of China means the emergence of a potential strategic rival; for Canberra, it is the opportunity for a rewarding commercial relationship. True, the jury is still out on whether Beijing will weather the global financial contagion. But as Australian trade with China grows rapidly, and with the compatibility that exists between our vast mineral resources and the needs of the Chinese economy, it is no wonder Canberra is accommodating the rise of the Middle Kingdom.
In this new environment, Australia will need to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before, one that will sometimes involve the difficult feat of riding two horses simultaneously. Which means that instead of embracing the virtues of dependability and unconditional loyalty that have served Australians well until recently, we will need to acquire and cultivate a range of new skills: ambiguity, discrimination, agility, qualified commitment.
Such skills, of course, are among the basic components of the realpolitik toolkit. But the special conditions that have for much of our existence allowed Australia to dispense with their regular use are ending. Thus, Canberra will need to regard the US alliance not as an unqualified endorsement à la Howard or as part of some kind of Anglosphere à la Robert Conquest, but as a pragmatic device to be adjusted to changing conditions to secure the Australian national interest.