What lies ahead for US policies affecting Australia? Paradoxically, the greatest doubt about America’s strength in the world comes from within the US itself. Obama’s second term foreign policy will probably resemble his 2008 campaign and the early part of his first term. In other words, Obama will mainly focus on domestic policy. His vision as a student, law scholar and politician in Chicago was about transforming America, not about the world. He believes the American people favour that priority. His first term frustrations in foreign policy will hardly change his view. In four years, Obama soothed international perceptions of the US in some international quarters and entered no major wars. Give him credit for that. But he transformed no world hotspots. A handicap is his worldview that sidesteps the notion of clashes of interest among nations, and encourages a multipolar world in which Washington talks with everybody about whatever, hoping that if big powers disarm, rogue states will be inspired to follow. This view is decidedly not shared by Beijing, the major world capital of most concern to many Australians and most Americans. Moreover, Sudan, Iran, North Korea and others have been slow to heed Obama’s call to rectitude. Yet he’s extremely unlikely to return to Bush’s big stick approach and pro-democracy sermons.
Obama is content to sit at the table of world politics, listen to all, and pluck harmony (he hopes) from a cacophony of voices; a light American footprint will be available but only a last resort. China, though authoritarian, seems more realistic and focused on its goals, and the difference between the two powers’ mindsets should worry Canberra. Obama wants to be universally liked, but that never happens with a US president. He seeks multilateral solutions in a world that seldom delivers them. His idealism ebbs into wishful thinking. Accordingly, one of his aide’s characterised his style as ‘leading from behind’.
Australian social democrats rightly sense a fellow feeling with Obama. In his multilateral rationality he resembles Whitlam and other Labor figures. Grand gestures are irresistible to such leaders; Whitlam freed New Guinea, recognised an unwitting North Korea, wanted to start a government newspaper and carved up the pie as if the Australian purse was limitless. Obama has said his cause is to bring the Kingdom of God on earth, lower the sea levels, and ‘spread the wealth around’. His second inaugural speech emphasised gay rights and climate change more than national security. Only the pressure of events is likely to constrain Obama to resolutely safeguard sea lanes and free trade, protect integrity of the Internet and buoy Washington’s true friends.
Ross Terrill of Harvard’s Centre for Chinese Studies is a visiting international senior fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user The White House.