America the democratic (part 2)
29 May 2018|

If American strategic policy is re-entering a period of democratic change and uncertainty, then how should steadfast allies such as Australia respond? This post represents some initial thoughts, to which I hope others will contribute and respond—a democratic debate if you will.

First, America the democratic will be America the less-reliable. We’ve already seen this from both Barack Obama (Syria) and Donald Trump (everything else). Yet as I suggested in my previous post, less consistency may well be a good thing. The status quo isn’t working, to the harm of those who rely on American prestige and capacity.

Allies don’t always demand consistency. As my colleague Iain Henry has explored in his dissertation, US allies in the Cold War didn’t want America to keep every promise it made. Rather, they wanted America to keep the promise it made to them. Sometimes breaking a commitment with a remote or troublesome third party or shifting policy settings was welcomed. In today’s context, Australia wants an America capable in Asia and able to protect Australia. We don’t actually want America to keep its (largely relinquished) Cold War promises to Taiwan, or to spend 100 years at war on behalf of Iraq. In both of those cases, American disloyalty increases the chance that America can help protect Australia.

The second observation is that the partisan attachments between Australian and American politicians will carry greater risk than they have in the past. There has long been a rough alignment between the Australian Labor Party and the Democrats, and between the Liberal Party and the Republicans. This often didn’t matter much in practice, but it was there—Paul Keating loved Bill Clinton, John Howard didn’t. Howard loved George W. Bush, Mark Latham infamously didn’t.

In the future, as foreign policy differences between US parties loom, this affinity will count for far more, with obvious risks for reputation and credibility. George W. Bush may have publicly criticised Mark Latham in 2004, but the ALP forgave, and indeed wanted to forget it. John Howard may have attacked Barack Obama in 2008, but the Democrats largely ignored it. As the differences within the US grow, such incidents will matter more and the reputational image of being ‘close to America’ will be harder to share.

Not that I expect the ANZUS alliance to suddenly become a partisan plaything, but the products of it may be. It’s likely that Obama’s authorship of the JCPOA with Iran is a key reason why Trump torpedoed it. Will Trump or future Republicans also want to keep Obama’s positioning of Marines in Darwin? Whatever deals Australia does with Washington will need to be done with all of Washington, lest they become targets of partisan ire or spite.

On this score, we’re at least well prepared. As Alan Tidwell has explored, Australia has a well- established and capable Congressional Liaison Office with strong lobbying capacity. But that’s just officialdom. We’ll also need to do better at looking at how the wider American body politic is responding. In an important but overlooked 2014 article, ‘The ‘pivot’ and its problems’, Robert E. Kelly noted that Asia is unlike Europe or the Middle East in American minds and hearts:

It is very unlikely Americans will empathize with Asians as they do with Europeans, Israelis, Australians, and to a lesser extent, Latin Americans or Russians. This casts doubt on the American electorate’s cultural-intellectual ability sustain this pivot over time and at cost.

Europe and the Middle East offer deep cultural and social attachment for Americans in the way that Asia simply doesn’t. Australian elites know this. But in our rush to embrace the pivot/rebalance, did we ask what this meant? Did we realise how much it meant? Or how soon it would have an effect?

The final challenge is one that Australians will at least control: the need for patience. Democratic change is messy, often cacophonous and generally inefficient. The democratic upheaval of foreign policy in the US may be cathartic, but it’s already ugly. Costs have and will be paid by allies as much as by adversaries. Yet the change is necessary and change in a democratic fashion will be far more valuable and reliable than promises of an elite rebalance.

As such, Australia and Australians will need to give the US time. Washington will not produce a new ‘Long telegram’ by a new Mr or Mrs X anytime soon. Clarity shouldn’t be expected for some time to come. We’ll need to live with that uncertainty and accept that US promises need foundations beyond the word of a president.

Yet I don’t think that we ought to despair. Indeed, I celebrate the rise of America the democratic. Not because of any tired critique of the elites or populist championing of the masses, but because any serious acceptance of the significance of the challenges of this moment has to embrace our ally’s shift towards greater flexibility, change and contestation about the right way forward. That is true of Australia, and I believe it’s true of America.

If America is to re‑establish its roots in the global community, if it’s to tap again into those undrainable reservoirs of ingenuity, creativity and strength that defined it in the 20th century, then it will have to rethink and re‑imagine its place in the world. I’m confident it will do so in ways that ultimately suit Australia and the kind of world we want to live in.

Winston Churchill may not have said it, but it remains true: ‘You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.’ If we believe that to be true, then we must not only accept, but embrace, an era of ‘America the democratic’. However uncomfortable it will be.