The visit to Washington of the two Australian ministers is mildly encouraging but some important questions remain. Why did they go and why did they say what they said? What next? And in the longer term what degree of control will Australia have over the world we inhabit?
Presumably, the ministers took the serious step of making a visit rather than zooming in order to make a splash. They had something important to say and this was a way of emphasizing it. Put together with the Prime Minister’s comments the message was that we value the alliance but we will not go all the way with Donald J. So was it a move towards greater independence from the USA or was it just a way of dissociating Australia from the man who looks like losing the upcoming presidential election? Or was the relationship with China the main motivating factor?
Trump is increasingly erratic and increasingly concerning for the world. Pompeo is even worse. He clearly has delusions of grandeur and has forgotten that when his namesake, Pompey the Great, overestimated his power he ended up dead. His recent attempts to create a new cold war with the implied assumption that loyal allies like Australia would jump on the Free World bandwagon created a difficult situation for Australia which is facing a deterioration in relations with China whose importance to us need not be spelt out. Pompeo might have reasonably assumed that we would go along with whatever the US wanted. Remember this is the country that was one of only three countries to join the Coalition of the Willing and hasn’t been in the habit of denying the US anything it asked for.
While Pompeo, in particular, was unhappy with the result both the ministers and the prime minister have been at pains to stress the importance of the Alliance to us. So it could be argued that the aim was to assure the incoming president that we are still on his side. The proposal for fuel dumps in Darwin confirms that we remain tied to the support of American military action in the region or even elsewhere. The stress on Australia making its own decisions was clearly aimed at China which accuses us of being an American lapdog. It may perhaps also be a warning to the USA not to take us for granted but while there was some stick, more carrots were offered.
That is the narrow perspective but does this presage a more flexible approach to the growing instability and uncertainty of the not so brave new world that faces us? If the American Empire has begun its decline and China has made a comeback should we still put all our eggs in the American basket? Talk about working with our neighbours suggests not. However, as Mike Scrafton has pointed out in detail in P & I, we are so integrated with the US military system that we could not go to war without their permission and it would be a major step to pull out if they go to a war we don’t want to get into. So much for sovereignty. We were able to stop Australians serving with the British going to the Falklands but that was a very different and easier thing.
Domestically the defence/intelligence community is riding high and has sold itself to the media. However, it faces growing concern from business and National Party members who listen to farmers. Political and media lectures to China on human rights and the way they run things have no effect on a country which suffered over a century of humiliation from these same countries. They are not interested in moral lessons from people who are not in a position to cast the first stone. China has stood up is not an empty slogan and, like it or not, we have to learn to live with people who do not share all our values and who do not have the same high opinion of us and our society that we have.
We are a bit misty-eyed about sharing values with the US but we have learned to live with the fact that we do not share a lot of things with them – or perhaps we don’t even understand what American values really are. The difference between rhetoric and implementation is considerable… The wording by the ministers that we share many values with the USA is interesting because it is obvious that we do not share many values with them too. It is not just gun control and the death penalty but the very basis of the American psyche which is a combination of exceptionalism and rugged individualism. It is possible to go from log cabin to the white house but if you don’t make it that’s your problem. Australia is a more egalitarian place with a different ethos.
The COVID19 virus has had and will have major effects on the world economy as well as politics and defence. We do not know just what those effects will be but they will clearly be major. Who will come out on top and who not? The USA and Russia have made a mess of things while China seems to be emerging as a winner. How will India and Indonesia emerge? Will people turn to fundamental religion and strong authoritarian leaders as they have so often done in past times of crisis? What is clear is that as we struggle out of the slough of despond we will find ourselves facing the hill of difficulty.
Assuming Joe Biden becomes president, what then? What will be his policy towards China in a country that has turned strongly against China and likely to remain so even without Trump.? Clearly Biden will be less erratic than Trump and hopefully more reasonable but where do we go from there? Will Australia return to the status quo ante Trump or truly strike out in a less dependent manner? And, of course, much depends on what China and other regional countries do.
There is much that is beyond our control and we could be faced with making a dramatic change or supporting an ailing superpower making serious mistakes. We do of course have a record of doing just that but next time it could be more damaging for Australia. We can speculate about what will happen and what we want but we don’t have the clout to take the lead so we will probably have to react much more to what others do than we might like.