When America sees Australia
12 May 2014|

Foreign Minister Bob Carr and  US Senator Ben Cardin meet on Capitol Hill in Washington on 21 March 2013.

When American thinkers turn their eyes to Australia they can describe sharp shapes and strange colours that surprise the citizens of Oz. Sometimes the view offered in an American accent is just a bit of fun, especially that habit of imagining Oz as Texas with kangaroos.

Mark Twain founded the genre with his boisterous book on his 1895 tour. The great man thought our dust-storms outdid Nevada’s but avoided the Texas trap by dwelling on all the things he found ‘so strange, so weird, so uncommonplace … the phenomenon of an almost empty hot wilderness half as big as the US’.

Twain is the perky side of the tradition. When the subject is grand strategy done in an American accent, however, the sharp shapes can turn ominous. The discomfort of seeing ourselves as others see us becomes confronting.

A classic moment, two decades ago, was Samuel Huntington in Clash of Civilisations describing Australia as a ‘torn country’—a Western civilisation trying to turn itself into an Asian nation. That American view of Australia’s tattered future was rejected by everyone from the Prime Minister down; the Oz polity recoiled in unison.

A recent example that didn’t stir up anywhere near the same angst was last year’s effort from Washington by the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments that saw Australia as a geographic ‘sweet spot’, ideally placed to act as the gatekeeper to the Indo-Pacific commons: ‘Australia has moved from “down under” to “top centre” in terms of geopolitical import’. It’s not Texas with kangaroos, but a continent-sized sweet spot is a thing of wonder.

I was reminded of being torn by Huntington when contemplating the shocked response of Australia’s previous Foreign Minister to another vision of Oz presented by an eminent US strategic thinker.

In his work on Asia’s response to the rise of China, Edward Luttwak credits Australia with being well out ahead of the US in starting ‘assiduous coalition-building’, from 2008, to shore up Asia’s defences against ‘the great state autism’ of China: ‘Australia has been the first country to clearly express resistance to China’s power, and to initiate the coalition-building against it that is mandated by the logic of strategy’.

Luttwak builds his analysis around Kevin Rudd’s now unloved baby—the 2009 Defence White Paper—and links it to the way Australia has reached out bilaterally to Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Luttwak credits those wily Australians for being willing to take ‘the initiative in building a structure of collective security piece by piece, and not just leave it all to the Americans’. The arrival of the US marines in Darwin is a key element in this Oz masterplan.

As Luttwak describes these eager Australians, they are determined to retain their status as the US’ second best ally; yet, equally, these shrewd Oz strategists aren’t too sure about American competence, worried that ‘the US will act too soon or too late, too vigorously or not strongly enough should there be a crisis’.

After I read Luttwak’s book last year I put it on the shelf next to Hugh White’s China Choice, so the two works could debate the wonderfully different interpretations they give to the same big question. And, what luck, when I opened Bob Carr’s diary there were the same two books having a noisy argument. As this column and Peter Jennings can attest, the Carr diary is a cornucopia of pleasures. The great theme running through the memoir is the continuous seminar-cum-monologue Carr conducts on China and the US. And in the final stages of the diary, Luttwak keeps leaping to the front of Carr’s lobes—‘he astonishes me’—to give the Foreign Minister a big fright with the claim that Australia started the process of Asian coalition building against China. On June 25, 2013, Carr writes: ‘I said to [Defence Minister] Stephen Smith as we went into cabinet yesterday, “Do you know about this book by Luttwak? He says we initiated resistance to China’s assertiveness since 2009. He’s got a whole chapter on it. He says we got there first, we put it together.” Stephen wasn’t aware of it’.

This is priceless. Australia had a grand strategy so grand that neither the Foreign Minister nor the Defence Minister knew about it. No wonder those Americans can shock us when they describe what they see in Oz.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of DFAT.