Cancel the no-show overreaction to a potent foreign policy president

Cancel the no-show overreaction to a potent foreign policy president

So, Washington has missed an opportunity this week. But Joe Biden’s cancellation is not a symptom of post-imperial US decline. First published in the Australian Financial Review.

Based on the noise surrounding the cancellation of Joe Biden’s visit to Australia and PNG, you might think that the sky is falling in.

One analyst described the decision as “a self-inflicted wound”. Another said that Washington is “sinking [its] own boat”.

From the left, former foreign minister Bob Carr said it showed that “Australians have been enormously gullible and optimistic about our American partner”.

“Act like a client state, get treated like one,” Carr warned.

From the right, The Australian columnist Peter Jennings linked the decision to what he regards as the Albanese government’s lacklustre defence funding. “That type of complacency garners no presidential visits when other priorities are pressing.”

Of course, it’s a shame that President Biden isn’t visiting next week. The image of the leaders of the United States, India, Japan and Australia assembling at the Sydney Opera House would have been a coup for Anthony Albanese and a show of solidarity by four democracies in the face of China’s challenging behaviour.

Biden’s speech to the Australian parliament would have been a notable moment in the history of the alliance.

More significantly, his visit to Port Moresby would have been the first by a sitting president to a Pacific Island country and a chance to finalise the new US-PNG security agreement.

So, Washington has missed an opportunity this week. But let’s keep things in perspective.

In America’s messy and disaggregated political system, the executive doesn’t control the legislature. Biden’s top priority in the coming week is to prevent the US government from defaulting on its debt, which would cause global financial instability and undercut American economic leadership. Biden judged that his presence in Washington was required to avoid that outcome. Should he have taken a chance with the global economy in order to save our blushes?

Americans need to take care that their domestic problems don’t spill over into foreign policy. But Biden’s cancellation is not a symptom of post-imperial decline. Bill Clinton cancelled a trip to APEC to avoid a government shutdown in 1995, when America was in the full flush of its unipolar moment.

Neither is it a sign of presidential “frailty”. Biden is a serious political figure and a potent foreign policy president.

In 2020, Biden did America’s allies a great service by marching the appalling and dangerous Donald Trump out of the White House.

His administration has responded to Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine with strength and subtlety. It has brought consistency to the US relationship with China. Last week, Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spent two days in Vienna talking sense to his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

The White House’s decision does not “raise questions about the reliability of the United States as a regional ally”, as political editor of The Australian Financial Review Phillip Coorey reported on Thursday.

On the contrary, Biden has restored America’s regional alliances after the trauma of the Trump years. He has deepened diplomatic and defence links with Japan.

Last month, he closed a deal with the president of South Korea to counter the nuclear threat from Pyongyang and prevent Seoul from pursuing its own nuclear deterrent.

This month, Biden hosted Ferdinand Marcos jnr – the first Philippines president to visit the Oval Office in a decade – and reinvigorated US-Filipino military ties.

It was Biden who first convened the Quad countries at the leaders’ level. Hopefully, the four leaders will now meet in Hiroshima and advance the Quad’s agenda.

What about Australia? As part of AUKUS, Biden agreed to share one of America’s most advanced technologies – its naval nuclear propulsion system – to enable us to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

This is a “big bet” on Australia, Jake Sullivan told the Lowy Institute in 2021. “We trust you, we believe in you. And we believe even more importantly in our collective combined capacity to produce greater stability, security and deterrence in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Some commentators seem to have a case of nerves. They should take their lead instead from the Australian public.

Over the course of nearly two decades of Lowy Institute polling – and even at the depths of the misbegotten Iraq war – strong majorities of Australians have seen the US alliance as “very” or “fairly” important for Australia’s security. In the 2023 Lowy Institute Poll, which will be released next month, eight in 10 (82 per cent) continue to see the alliance as important to our security. One presidential no-show won’t change that long-held view.

The US presence in Asia gives structure to the region, which would otherwise be dominated by one giant authoritarian power. Through our active diplomacy in South-East Asia and the Pacific, as well as through the alliance, AUKUS and the Quad, Australia is contributing to a stable balance of power.

Nothing has changed this week. The sky remains in place.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions