(Australia Prime Minister Kevin Rudd speaking to New America Foundation foreign policy programs director Steve Clemons at Kirribilli House, Sydney, 16 August 2009; photo credit: Larry Irving)
I have just finished a few days of meetings in Melbourne and Sydney under the auspices of the annual Australian American Leadership Dialogue, a significant track 2 dialogue forum for leading Australians and Americans founded 17 years ago by entrepreneur Phil Scanlan — who was just recently appointed Australia’s new Consul General in New York.
There is no annual assembly I know of — short of perhaps Ditchley in the UK (which is not generally a consistent set of folks) — that brings together consistently a genuinely bipartisan set of national leaders from both countries.
This year and/or during years past, those participating have included diverse personalities ranging from World Bank President Robert Zoellick to former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice to the spousal power duo of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell and Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs Lael Brainard to Vice President Richard Cheney to Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed, to Republican foreign policy mavens Michael Green, Paula Dobriansky and Richard Armitage — to the three pals & policy musketeers of Thomas Mann of Brookings, Norman Ornstein of AEI, and EJ Dionne of Brookings and the Washington Post as well as ‘yours truly’ on the American side. The Australian roster has included founding Dialogue member and now Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, leading opposition figures Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop, former Labor Party Leader Kim Beazley, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard and former Midnight Oil lead singer and Environment Minister Peter Garrett, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter Hartcher, and The Australian Editor at Large Paul Kelly among others.
The content of the meetings is strictly off the record. We don’t even get away with Chatham House rules unless the speaker gives us permission to use the material we hear.
That said, this Dialogue framed for me why the United States needs Australia so badly — particularly under the current leadership of Kevin Rudd, who like our new US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is a fluent speaker of Mandarin.
Rudd and his government realize that China is the biggest “new” show
in town in the region and that the rise of China’s economic and military weight in global affairs will both reward and punish Australian interests. The United States will continue to be a globally “great power” but on a relative basis compared to China’s rise, the US is likely to see some of its influence contested and rolled back.
Australia is an important buffer, point of leverage, and institution builder that can actually preserve a significant degree of Western and American influence in the region — and buffer against China’s worst behaviors and try to encourage China’s better side.
Australia is wedged well between the realities of accepting China’s emergence and on the other hand knowing that America’s brand of geopolitical influence must be a key balancer against China’s missteps and over reach.
Sometimes China will beat up on Australia to send messages to America — or reward it and engage Australia as a proxy for its comfort with the West. Australia will need to pursue its basic national interests with China while still raising concerns about China’s adherence to rule of law both domestically and internationally and pushing China to accede to covenants recognizing universal human rights — which are part of the DNA of institutions like the United Nations.
The US needs independently minded allies that help counsel the behavior and course of major global players. Australia sits in nearly all of the regional multilateral structures in the Asia Pacific – but other key powers such as China, India, and the United States are themselves not parties to each and every one of these. This may be a good thing as the absence of some and presence of others creates a dynamic tension that raises the value of nations like Indonesia, Japan, and Australia in helping to broker stable and mutually constructive arrangements between status quo superpowers like the US and ascendant powers like China and India.
Australia talks quite a bit about trying to create a new multilateral structure that includes the US, China and India — but hopefully this will remain more talk than real, because the great and ascendant superpowers need the flexibility of not having all other great powers in the room to float proposals and to walk back unconstructive initiatives that may flop in one forum — but which can be recrafted in another.
Former Prime Minister John Howard’s government had a number of strengths — particularly on the economic front — but to some degree, Howard’s extremely close security cooperation with the United States both in Iraq and Afghanistan may have moved Australia into the position of being a “taken for granted” ally — rather than one that America worked hard to build a back-and-forth relationship that managed opportunities and problems alike.
America needs an ally like Australia that will be with the U.S. on some occasions and which will oppose it on others. America needs an ally with a foot in the West and a foot in Asia with close economic and political ties to China that nonetheless will speak up when China violates key international norms. The US needs an ally that will push genuinely multilateral efforts on climate change, managing the global economy, and in global institution building as a counterweight to America’s tendency to disguise unilateral intentions in a multilateral mask.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd effervesces effective multilateral thinking — which is a compliment in my book. Rudd is a serious strategist with an impressive progressive vision for his nation and the broader international community. He acknowledges great admiration for and respect for Barack Obama — but Rudd also won’t pull punches when it comes to telling the US and its new President things that America sometimes doesn’t want to hear.
Rudd exemplifies what the US needs in its key allies today.
— Steve Clemons