Hillary and Australia
15 Apr 2015|

Foreign Minister Bob Carr meets US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her arrival in Perth.In between steaming bowls of organic steel-cut oats and workouts deploying the one-legged Romanian deadlift, supple Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister heaps praise on Hillary Clinton, ‘a world-historical figure’ for her energy, sharpness and tough campaigning skills. At their first meeting Carr frets about his ‘threadbare credentials’ while Hillary delivers a lesson in savvy statecraft: urging him not to accept Australian media reporting that the US marine deployment to Darwin is an ‘anti-China one.’ Hillary says ‘the Chinese practice gamesmanship in seeking advantage, but we would not let that change our own national interest.’

What a pity Carr didn’t follow this advice. In much of his diaries he worries about Australian defence cooperation with the US. ‘How does that get read in the Chinese embassy?’ he asks. When Carr meets Clinton for the 2012 AUSMIN meeting in Perth, he proudly goes out of his way to have ‘speed limits placed on the move towards a greater US military presence in Australia.’ Kim Beazley warns from Washington: ‘There is a hint that the Americans feel our strategic vision is being distorted by sensitivity to Chinese pressure on our political system.’

Bob Carr had a tin ear for alliance dynamics, but his description of Hillary at AUSMIN is wonderful:

‘She stepped off her big plane, eyes hidden behind large-framed oval sunglasses, her hair pulled back, an outsize light blue jacket and black slacks. She knew all our names, she didn’t complain about the fatigue, she said she was delighted to be here. For God’s sake, we’ve made her travel for thirty-five hours to reach Perth to give Stephen Smith another triumph for his home town – and even with touchdowns in Hawaii and Guam she projected freshness and charm.’

Hillary’s interest in Asia and engagement with Australia contrasts sharply with her successor at the State Department. Beazley wrote to Carr in February 2013: ‘[John Kerry] has been largely inaccessible to us. …unlike the situation with Clinton, Australia does not rank highly. Kerry wants big achievements. Erroneously Asia is not perceived as the locus of big achievements.’

Beazley’s view was spot on. Subsequent AUSMINs have been wooden affairs. Kerry has sought his own world-historical status in the Middle East largely by boosting Iran, ignoring Iraq and annoying Israel—an unusual American recipe. President Obama’s second-term engagement with Australia has been limited. In November last year Obama bypassed talks in Canberra preferring to lecture star-struck students in Brisbane about climate change and repeating the same jokes about Australian accents that he used on his 2011 visit. Of course, the Americans love us: in 2013 Obama told Abbott in Washington, ‘Aussies know how to fight. I like to have them in a foxhole when we are in trouble.’ But foxholes are cold places not designed for warm relationships.

Clinton has a long journey to reach the White House and she may not win the presidency if the Republicans field a credible candidate. But if she succeeds, it’s likely that US–Australia relations would warm and that the US would put yet more emphasis on the Asia–Pacific. It’s possible (Bob Carr certainly thinks so) that Clinton would make her close allies Kurt Campbell Secretary of State and Michèle Flournoy Secretary of Defence. In Obama’s first term Campbell and Flournoy were the architects of the pivot to Asia and the enhanced program of defence cooperation with Australia. This would be a formidable trio that knows Australia well and values the role we play in global security.

Clinton will look for ways to distance herself from Obama’s legacy. She will presumably concentrate on domestic affairs because that will determine the election. On foreign policy she will likely reposition the Democrats into a more traditional mode of engagement and supporting key allies. Her biggest immediate security challenge will be to shape a coherent response to instability in the Middle East. As a key defence adviser to the Hillary campaign its notable that Michèle Flournoy has been calling for increased defence spending and for more efforts to reassure Asian allies of US commitment to regional security.

Clinton offered some rather shrewd advice to Australia in mid-2014. According to journalist Paul McGeough:

‘Interviewed for Fairfax Media’s Good Weekend on the launch of her memoir Hard Choices, Clinton warned that the Abbott government’s drive for even more trade with China ‘makes you dependent, to an extent that can undermine your freedom of movement and your sovereignty, economic and political.’ … It’s a mistake whether you’re a country, or a company or an individual to put, as we say in the vernacular, all your eggs in the one basket. Just as it was a mistake for Europe to become so dependent on a single supplier. Starting in March 2009, I made that case to the Europeans, that they were increasingly dependent on gas from Russia.’’

If Hillary becomes President there will be a sharper US interest in the direction of our own foreign policy. The price of closer US engagement will be higher American expectations of Australia. That would be a welcome discipline.