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Reading the US tea leaves

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COMMENTS

15 November 2010 10:40

One of the mysteries of the way Australian governments approach international affairs is the lack of scepticism, much less caution, about the United States.

The embrace of the US in the Australian Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan and the hearty enthusiasm of the annual AUSMIN talks in Melbourne are two strands of the same story.

The US Secretaries of Defense and State came to tea in Oz, while the Tea Party was stomping towards Washington. How should all these tea leaves be read' And not least, how should the normal domestic ructions of the US be factored into expectations about US foreign policy'

Australia is happy to expect the best of the US. We have embraced the optimism but lost sight of the caution contained in Churchill's sentiment, both acerbic and affectionate: the US will always do the right thing — after exhausting all other possibilities.

Occasionally, Australia's leaders seem to take the alliance as the end point, rather than a supremely advantageous starting point.

AUSMIN was a fascinating moment in the long relationship with the US, and the punditry have done it proud. See the deconstruction of the communiqué by Rory Medcalf, Matt Hill's excellent musings on the way the alliance is altering as Asia grows, and Paul Kelly being more explicit than the leaders in explaining how the alliance is responding to the challenge of China.

Punditry usually demands only one or two tricks per pony. Not too many ideas can be loaded on any one bit of pontificating. So, the commentary must accept AUSMIN on its own terms, without pausing to question the big letters at the centre which mean so much — US.

Australia's course in the Asian century would be well served by occasionally trying to treat the US as equally mysterious and, ultimately, as unpredictable as China. A faint hope, I concede. And this is not to equate the US with China or to indulge in any silly moral equivalency (ah, remember those Cold War arguments). Take leadership as a simple illustration of the proposition. We now have a firm view of China's next generation leadership for the coming decade, formally anointed by the Party.

The US is just starting to sort through the divergent options for who will be in the White House in two years time. Tea leaf reading, indeed! On the leadership predictability front, the US can do surprise on a scale most state systems have nightmares about. 

You can certainly predict the line of US interests in Asia. But picking its future responses, much less leadership choices' Call it the glorious uncertainty of democracy; a country that truly does get a chance to completely restock its government and bureaucracy every four years.

The size, vibrancy and importance of the US mean it always has options to change direction. That insight — or fear — is at the heart of the formal alliance that brought The Hillary and Dr Gates to Melbourne. And, indeed, actually getting such access to two of the most powerful people in the world always ranks as a huge plus for the alliance.

The aim of the alliance when it was created, just as it is today, is to try to lock in the US presence and security guarantee in Asia. That is why Australia, and most of the nations of Asia, never tire of hearing the refrain from visiting US leaders about America's vision of itself as an Asian power.

The Australians who hammered out the ANZUS treaty had seen what happened when Washington picks other options, sitting out the start of two world wars and waging a protectionist trade battle against Australia in the 1930s.

Such history partly informed Menzies' view that the Pacific pact so eagerly sought by Percy Spender was 'a superstructure on a foundation of jelly'.

Menzies was uncomfortable with the shift from a family relationship with Britain to a contract with the US. Australians occasionally need to revisit that history and consider the terms of the alliance contract.

As Coral Bell observes, the alliance which is expressed in the ANZUS treaty is 'not comprehensive, never covering economic relationships, not even all security problems (though at one stage Australian policy–makers tried to interpret it as doing so). It was not automatic, but required an act of political will — a choice — at a specific time by both parties'.

The operational effect of this point in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, has been that the US chooses the wars, while Australia chooses to follow the US into those wars. Habits of cooperation and coordination can lead to interesting places.

John Howard makes clear in writing about Iraq that the necessary act of political will — the choice — at the heart of the alliance can take on a rather automatic tinge. That is what happens when the alliance is elevated from vital to sacred.

An Australia that pauses to consider its understanding of the US might start with the thought that a roiling, rowdy politics surging towards frenzy amounts to a normal day at the office in Washington. 

The Tea Party has yet to reach the heights of extraordinary hatred the right wing directed at Bill Clinton in the 1990s. And while the new Congress ensures Obama will face a lot more investigations, his chances of being impeached are not yet close to what faced Clinton. Two different Americas are always in conflict: the bustling and confident Can-Do US versus the anxious and embattled America. Bruce Grant captured this a decade ago by calling his book on America 'A Furious Hunger', taking the title from Thomas Wolfe's depression–era description of US energy and anxiety:

All we know is that having everything we yet hold nothing, that feeling the wild song of this great earth upwelling in us we have no word to give it utterance. All we know is that here the passionate enigma of our lives is so bitterly expressed, the furious hunger that so haunts and hurts Americans so desperately felt — that being rich, we are all yet poor, and having an incalculable wealth we have found no way of spending it, that feeling illimitable power we have yet found no way of using it.

The Tea Party to a T. What Wolfe did for the American soul, Patrick White did for Australia. And the passions White found at the heart of Australia lead in different directions, more melancholy than melodramatic.  The US and Australia are two countries divided by a common language and dissimilar histories.

American hunger is so great because history says such appetites can be met. Geography sets the tone. Americans found a bounteous land that offered up nature's riches. Australians pressed inland and found the dead centre.

The US celebrates its revolution against Britain; Australia commemorates the start of British settlement. Australia, Bruce Grant concludes, thinks it needs the US much more than the US needs Australia:

American history emphasises self-assertion. Australian history shows a modicum of independence, but dependence in substance.

Australia surely needs to sit with the US to discuss how to handle the rise and rise of China. But in steering that course, Australia must occasionally glance towards the differences that make the US both a powerful and a puzzling partner.

Photo by Flickr user scout seventeen, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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