The American alliance and Vice President Biden’s recent visit

Jul 23, 2016

Vice President Biden’s speech at the Paddington Town Hall on 20 July was by invitation only. I had met Vice President Biden three years ago in Washington when I was on the Board of the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue.  He was friendly and somewhat more impressive than I had expected and certainly had very competent staff around him.

Security at Paddington was intense.  We were asked to arrive at 9:00am.  Although it was raining and we had been advised not to bring umbrellas, invitees were not able to enter the Town Hall before 10:00am and Biden himself arrived nearly an hour later than he said he would at 12:00 noon.  I was sitting beside Tanya Plibersek who was told not to open her bag by a security officer and I was also asked to take my hands out of my pockets.

Biden’s speech was very well presented, but I thought it very assertive. In my view, it lacked appreciation of the way in which the world has changed in the last two decades.  Biden said America had “an unmatched ability to project our power to any corner of the world”.  He gave an emphatic description of United States power which reflected feelings of “exceptionalism”.

While the United States itself announced in 1986 that it would not defer to International Court of Justice decisions, contrary to its interests, and while it had not signed the International Law of the Sea Convention, this did not prevent it suggesting that China should do so.  China has in fact signed the International Law of the Sea convention and argues that for more than 100 years many thousands of ships carrying trade have gone through the South China Sea without any interruption.

There was no acceptance of the widely held view of the way in which new powers, especially China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, are continuing to rise.  He said that the United States economic and military supremacy would continue indefinitely.  He added that the United States would maintain a “rules based international order”.

He overlooked the fact that what American and some Australian political leaders refer to as “a rules based international order” was in fact established by the United States and Britain after World War II.  Countries which have risen in influence since then naturally want to participate in framing an order more relevant to the first half of this century.

Biden also said that the United States presence was “essential to maintaining peace and stability”  regionally and globally. America is the “lynchpin” of this.  He said he had told the Premier of China, Xi Chinping, that the United States intended to play a leading role in shaping the future of the dynamic Asian region.

Biden praised Australia for joining the United States in every conflict since World War II.  In so doing he overlooked any judgement as to whether these conflicts – in particular Vietnam, the second invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan,in each of which we have lost or appear to be losing – have been in Australia’s interests,or predominantly in the interests of the United States.

Also,no reference,of course,was made to the fact that on the only occasion we sought US support under the ANZUS treaty ,when our armed forces were in Sabah and Sarawak in conflict in 1964 with Sukarno’s Indonesian forces,opposing the establishment of Malaysia, the Kennedy Administration declined. The Kennedy administration declined to support Australia under the ANZUS Treaty.

Historically Australian Governments seem readily to have gone to war.  They do so with a curious lack of feeling a humanitarian need to do so.  For example, Australia lost 600 men in the Boer War between 1899 and 1902, a three year conflict in Africa which really had nothing to do with Australia.  Australia also sent forces to New Zealand to join in the suppression of Maori uprisings.  Maybe like the United States we feel the need of a threat to rally the Australian public to support a conflict.

I am certainly not a pacifist but I do believe Australia should only go to war when it is under attack, as it was by Japan in World War II, or under actual, not imagined, threats.  Our relations with the United States are of great importance, but I consider that we should tell our larger ally when we consider that a conflict is not in our interests, as distinct from those of the United States, as Prime Minister Whitlam did in 1973 in respect of the Vietnam conflict.

In the world of 2016 and beyond our foreign, security and trade policies should have a more updated and appropriate balance than they have now, especially in respect of the United States and China.

Vice President Biden was a little more reassuring on one thing.  Because of concern about Donald Trump, we were assured that the ‘angels’ i.e. the Democrats, would win the next Presidential election.

Richard Woolcott was formerly Australian Ambassador to Indonesia and several other countries. He was Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He was also President of the UN Security Council.


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