Sunday 25 Feb 2018 | 01:24 | SYDNEY
Sunday 25 Feb 2018 | 01:24 | SYDNEY

Obama's pocket guide to Australia



15 November 2011 12:00

You're going to meet a people who like Americans and whom you will like. The Australians have much in common with us – they're a pioneer people: they believe in personal freedom: they love sports...But there are a lot of differences too – like tea, central heating, the best way to send Sunday morning, or saluting officers and such. You'll find out about all those, but the main point is they like us, and we like them.

So advised the Pocket Guide to Australia that was produced by America's war department in 1943 — the Department of Defence, remember, was a post-war invention – and handed out to American servicemen as they headed down under. Much of the advice has withstood the test of time, not least on the still befuddling absence of universal central heating.

The central idea that 'they like us, and we like them' also holds true, especially after Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The 'perfect relationship' was how the US ambassador Jeffrey Bleich recently described US-Australian relations, which sounded like diplomatic hyperbole but only just.

So if US officials were to produce a pocket guide for their commander-in-chief ahead of his Australian visit, what might it say? Here is a possible first draft:

Congratulations Mr President for finally making it to Australia. Yes, we know, it's a very long flight, but Australians now like to think of themselves as being in the 'right place at the right time', an increasingly voguish phrase that you might hear a few times during your short visit. Australia is increasingly defining itself by proximity rather than its geographic isolation. When it comes to the Indo-Pacific century, few countries are better positioned, endowed or well-connected.

You’ve been largely forgiven for your two previous cancellations. Stuff happens. But it is worth pointing out that your second cancellation, because of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, did alter the course of Australian history. You were due in Canberra on June 18th. Your close friend Kevin Rudd was ousted on June 24th. Had you been around, it would have been hard, if not impossible, for the plotters to mount a coup.

As you know already, Australia is a vastly different country to the one you visited as a teenager en route from Indonesia to Hawaii. Economically, it really is true to speak of a 'wonder from down under'. Just look at the dollar. And at the risk of touching on another raw nerve, Mr President, Australia has not had a recession for twenty years.

It is also a much more Asia-oriented country. Qantas, the national flag carrier, is positioning itself as an Asian rather than Australian airline. The premier of Western Australia, the country's most thrusting state, boasts that he spends more time in China than Canberra. Still, Australians continue to be a bit stand-offish when it comes to their Asian neighbours. The dominant cultural influences are still British and American.

Nor is there much of a genuinely national debate about Australia's role in the Indo-Pacific Century. Politicians and the media tend to focus on narrow gauge issues like asylum seekers (and you should have seen the coverage of Kim Kardashian's visit).

Strategic thinkers and academics are obviously asking the question, as they have done so for decades. But now it is definitely being raised with a new sense of urgency. One of Australia's savviest foreign policy thinkers, Hugh White, last year published a controversial essay suggesting that Australia's present arrangement, where we guarantee its security and China underwrites much of its prosperity, is fast becoming untenable.

But Julia Gillard had not read the essay the last time a journalist asked her about it — although she understood its thesis — and there's strong bipartisanship on the question of reaffirming the alliance. In political circles, everyone wants to preserve the status quo. This will be a more pressing issue for your successors.

In any case, China gets far too much credit for the Australian economic success story. Perhaps it is worth reminding the Aussies that America is part of that narrative, too. After all, the US is the largest foreign direct investor in Australia, and 30 times larger than China in terms of our investment. That often gets overlooked.

Frankly, it is surprising that Australia has not looked more to India. The two countries have had problems in recent years over attacks on Indian students in Australia, a disputed cricket series of all things and the refusal of the Labor government to sell uranium to Delhi. When Commonwealth leaders met in Australia last month – yes, the Brits are trying hard to cosy up to Australia and other Asian countries at the moment – Prime Minister Manmohan Singh didn’t even show up. The big news, then, is that Julia Gillard has announced her intention to lift the ban on uranium exports to India, though she’ll face tough opposition from the left-wing of her party, which has always linked uranium sales to nuclear proliferation.

Afghanistan is also a thorny issue. Public opinion is turning against Australia's continued involvement, especially after a number of tragic recent incidents. A poll earlier this month, conducted after three Australian diggers were killed, suggested 72% thought it was time for Australia to withdraw. Back in May, the figure was 40%.

However, there's still political consensus in Canberra on Australia's continued involvement. When it comes to troop deployments, America really has had no better friend. The view has taken concrete hold that to deviate from such staunch support would devalue the alliance.

There's a lot of mythology that buttresses our relationship. You will probably hear frequent mentions of John Curtin, the wartime prime minister who supposedly signaled Australia's historic realignment, away from Britain to America. We are happy that Curtin is spoken of with such reverence, but the relevant text, his New Year Message for 1942, was nowhere near as clear-cut. Why, he also spoke of receiving aid from the Russians, and even mentioned the Dutch.

Driving through Canberra, you might pass the new Curtin statue and notice it isn't on a plinth. That tells you a lot about how Australians regard even their most admired leaders.

Alas, you are only visiting Canberra and Darwin, which means you will miss out on the country's greatest cities, Sydney and Melbourne. But if there is to be a second term and a second visit, Mr President, and you really want to get a handle on modern-day Australia, might we be so bold as to suggest Perth?

 Photo courtesy of the White House.

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