by Kim Beazley
by Kim Beazley
EVERYONE in the global democratic world wants to vote in US Presidential elections. For those Americans who bother to think about it, it must seem ironic that those who complain about the impact of American cultural, economic, military or political power on their domestic affairs should be so willing to offer advice on American domestic affairs.
While that propensity reflects the global electronic village that dominates political news and discourse, it also reflects a yearning that a nation which claims it aspires for the good of all should at least present a competent, universal, empathetic face to all. There is no doubt that a global vote last November would have produced an Obama majority at least double the one he obtained in the US. The irony is that the Australian vote would probably have been of the same dimension as the Iranian.
Temporarily, Obama’s image was separated from the American image. The latter was perceived as embattled, besieged, error-ridden, economically chaotic – a hyper-power on the road to great power. Obama on the other hand: new, transcendent, a cool lateral thinker capable perhaps of leaping out of a pool of despond into the sunny global uplands where diverse humanity could read into him someone with an understanding face on their dilemmas. Here was capacity and competence as well as understanding. No matter the analysis of American flaws and the common perception of America facing an accelerating recession from global hegemony, somehow a transcendent Obama could deliver outcomes only a vastly more hegemonic US could.
In the US, domestically, these perceptions are receding rapidly in the face of reality. They are also views which, outside the South East Asian archipelago, had least resonance in the nations to our north. These trendlines are well comprehended by Obama and his ministers. They are remarkably free of illusion. Nevertheless, that underpinning global hope is diplomatic ice to skate on.
Probably no American President since Woodrow Wilson has perceived the diplomatic mechanism of influence as so potent as Obama. He senses the power of his newness and otherness as exploitable for a time. Hopefully, when it wears off, the ways of doing things globally will have changed sufficiently for paradigm shifts to have occurred in the globe’s most intractable problems.
The first thing we Australians might note is that despite the fact that Obama’s presidency confronts the most horrendous domestic agenda since FDR, (and it must be said resolving its problems are almost as important to the rest of us as for those living it), he has so much time for the rest of us. Within two days of assuming office, he was presenting the second most powerful Democrat in person to the State Department and surrounding her with some of the US’s most successful global players.
In short order, Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were touting in detail the value of diplomacy – turning up, and with ideas, armed with patience and open minds, flexibility – extending ‘a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist’. So confident in diplomacy as a potent weapon that Hilary Clinton drew out of American national security processes that most powerful mechanism of American planning, the Quadrennial Defense Review, a matching Quadrennial Diplomatic Review.
Diplomacy is to replace geopolitics. According to Clinton, ‘smart power’ balances and to a degree supplants ‘hard power’. In the most important theoretical foreign policy speech to date, Hilary Clinton outlined the Obama Administration’s approach last week to the Council of Foreign Relations: ‘Our approach must reflect the world as it is, not as it used to be. It does not make sense to adopt a 19th century concert of powers, or a 20th century balance of power strategy. We cannot go back to Cold War containment or unilateralism.’
The new approach: ‘will advance our interests by uniting diverse partners around common concerns. It will make it more difficult for others to abdicate their responsibilities or abuse their power, but will offer a place at the table to any nation, group or citizen willing to shoulder a fair share of the burden. In short, we will lead by inducing greater cooperation among a greater number of actors and reducing competition, tilting the balance away from a multipolar world and towards a multi-partner world.’
Geopolitics represents reality. Competing power cannot rhetorically be wished away, particularly for a nation enmeshed in multiple military engagements and potential engagements. The rhetoric nevertheless forces other players to stop and ponder what all this means in practical terms. It certainly wrong-foots those whose directions are based on a calculation about their public’s and their neighbours’ previous appreciation of the character of the United States and its directions. That was reflected in Al Qaeda’s fierce reaction to Obama’s speech on Islam in Cairo and the confused initial Iranian response. At the very least, it gives breathing space to a power whose economic position and its consequent diminished hard power has not seemed so fraught in the modern era. This is a breathing space also for traditional American allies as well as a challenge.
For the Rudd government and Kevin Rudd in particular, this provides sizeable opportunities. By training, Rudd has absorbed this concept of diplomatic engagement. Further, his core assertion about the character of his government’s approach to foreign policy: that there is both room and a requirement for Australia to play a middle power role in global and regional diplomacy, appears to be mandated by Obama’s approach.
However, Rudd does not share this reading of geopolitics out of the system. The Defence White Paper, a product in large part of his creation, is probably the most significant analysis of Australia’s geopolitical situation produced by an Australian government. In so far, however, as the Obama approach enhances American power and renders it effective, it underpins one of the core assumptions of the White Paper’s approach. That is, even if American power is declining as peer powers emerge, the US will retain a level of effectiveness and engagement necessary for it to continue to be a guarantor of last resort for Australian survival.
More broadly, however, Rudd’s major foreign policy initiatives and his approach to national security appear to align with Obama’s. On the role of the G20 in resolving international economic governance issues; the correct approach to climate change; nuclear disarmament; the centrality of West Asia in the struggle with fundamentalist terror; there is probably no government leader closer to Obama’s positions than Rudd.
One of the changes in the post-Cold War era in the Australian American relationship has been the importance attached to Prime Ministerial/Presidential relations. In the Cold War, institutions were emphasised, the struggle was to create Australian space – Keating then Howard, the focus was proximity.
Rudd cannot have an equivalent relationship with Obama. Firstly, Obama is reticent about personal relationships with national leaders. In part this can be seen as a reaction to the Bush style.
Secondly, he does not want relationships with individuals to get in the way of the detail of issues. He seeks partnerships but they are about issues and exclusivity with some risks alienating others.
Thirdly, while there may be mutual empathy on attitudes, there is a considerable divergence on priority of focus.
Rudd is heavily concentrated on the Asia/Pacific region. Australia is making a substantial claim for an influential role in the region’s affairs and is drawn in anyway by the centrality of the zone to Australia’s economic and security interests. Rudd is keen to patiently pursue his objective of an Asia/Pacific institutional community. As the State Department’s new point man for the region and Rudd intimate, Kurt Campbell, made clear at his confirmation hearings, this is a distant priority for the US.
More immediately, Rudd’s defence strategy, as revealed in the White Paper, claims a dominant role for Australia in the southern tier of the Asia/Pacific region. The principal determinant of the ADF’s force structure is the ability to dominate Australia’s maritime approaches and to lead independently in stabilisation activities in South East Asian and South Pacific archipelagos. The major difference with the 1987 White Paper is that this region is now the southern tier of the global system’s central dynamic – in 1987 it was a strategic backwater.
At one level this is precisely the type of burden sharing the Obama approach is seeking. It is very helpful when Obama seeks to bring Indonesia into focus, as he will, as an element of his approach to the Islamic world. Australia is particularly significant as it has been for some time, to his Pacific Command, whose mandate includes the archipelago and the eastern Indian Ocean.
We are important enough for the Administration to keep a weather eye out for possible troubles for us. The intervention of a senior US official in the Stern Hu case is one example of this – a reminder to China that the US has other friends no matter how vital the Sino-US relationship in the current climate. Likewise, when a US intelligence ship was harassed in the South China seas, the US augmented its presence with warships. Last week’s atrocity in Jakarta may also cause some adjustments in the heavily West Asian focus of the struggle with fundamentalist terror.
Obama clearly finds Rudd an easy person to deal with and useful in the positions he advocates when their trails or those of their officials intersect in global fora – such as with the G8 on climate change or NATO on Afghanistan.
However, our region does not play into the broader American agenda when Obama’s priorities and approaches are conflated with the intense immediate crises which Obama must manage. No matter how compatible our views on WMD, we are not a major player. Nor are we in the complex diplomacy around a settlement in the Middle East, and handling Iran’s potential nuclear power.
Events here can derail Obama’s agenda for relationships with the Islamic world; diminishing tensions with Russia; securing a peaceful transition in Iraq; getting some resolution of the problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Failure or success here will define his Presidency. The more so because he, at the outset of his Presidency, courageously claimed relations with the Islamic world for his primary initiative, relieving his Secretary of State of principal carriage.
Things can fall apart here. As part of seeking a more mature approach in American policy, he has stressed balance, patience and openness. He is also positioned to stress that, while the United States has an open mind and hand, if friendship is spurned the American position has been so calibrated that consequences not necessarily of American instigation will follow. For example, he has indicated to the Iranians that he is not after regime change and seeks their prosperity and incorporation into regional diplomacy. On the other hand, if that fails, then as Vice President Biden indicated, Israel as a sovereign state is entitled to pursue measures if it thinks its existence is threatened.
This had been made all the harder for Iran to handle as Obama has moved the US to a serious nuclear disarmament position, and is beginning to effectively engage the Russians. The situation in Iran has probably temporarily made the dialogue more difficult. However, in the immensely complicated political dynamic, Iranian domestic political turmoil has also at least introduced a possibility which did not seem to exist before. That is, should Israel successfully interdict Iran’s nuclear capacity, the Iranian regime might as likely see its domestic base collapse as it be reinforced. Hitherto, a reinforcement of the regime’s power has been seen to be the only likely outcome of a military clash. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see a consequence should this implode that would not derail important elements of other American objectives in the region.
While Australia can be generally helpful to Obama’s desire to advance the nuclear non-proliferation agenda and we will be well prepared for his conference in Washington next year, we do not play in this consuming crisis at all.
The nuclear disarmament component of this issue has resonance in one other immediate crisis confronting Obama. That is the rattling of the Northern Pacific cage by the North Korean regime. North Korea has not been as provocative for years as it has been in recent months. It has combined all the individual acts of provocation occasionally staged singularly.
In her speech last week, Hilary Clinton expressed pride in American diplomatic handling of the North Korean issue thus far. She claims a partial success for the new US diplomatic approach in the willingness of the UN’s P5, which includes North Korea’s traditional friends, to take a tough line against the regime’s shenanigans.
Her speech was interesting for what it implied as well as what it said. She made clear she understood the significance of events immediately for South Korean and Japanese security. She and others have also made clear the Administration understands what it means for Japan’s long term approach to how it should handle the US approach on matters nuclear.
Her remarks were mostly about diplomacy but she also used words that have a military meaning. In particular, she used the phrase ‘red lines’ in the context of making the Chinese, Russians, Japanese, South Koreans and via them presumably the North Koreans, aware of what the US considered important.
I can only speculate on what that phrase means but to me it indicates that the US hand on contingency planning has been refined sufficiently to indicate what particular elements of a North Korean mobilization might provoke a forceful US response. If the US contemplated a possible North Korean military adventure, a red line would indicate a response rather sooner than later. This is not a George Bush ‘extended preemption’ but possibly a more normal act in international law. As I said, I can only speculate on this, but it has the potential to engage Australia. When we signed off years ago on the Korean armistice we also agreed that if North Korea breached it with an armed attack, we would respond. Hopefully, clarity on red lines will prevent this from happening.
The record of this Administration at this early stage and Obama’s general approach suggest that this is a man and Administration that will never be so isolated globally that it comes to appreciate the steadfastness of Australia’s friendship and Kevin Rudd’s as George W Bush did so effusively with the Howard government.
On the other hand, the tightness of that embrace circumscribed as much as it enhanced independent Australian initiative. Though the Howard government did in the end intensively engage our immediate region, it never figured so prominently in its strategic plan as it does now with Rudd. Obama gives Rudd independent Australian initiatives space. This might have been uncomfortable for a re-elected Howard government. However, for Rudd it is grist to his mill.
Quietly this should enable Rudd to build carefully Australia’s value to the region around us. He will have seen enough in recent times to understand this is of value to our ally. On defence matters a refocusing on the maritime creates no problems for the alliance relationship. With Afghanistan and Iraq ultimately out of the way, the US will stress again its off-shore power. In the meantime, Australia has been one of the few allies to respond positively to Obama’s call for more help in Afghanistan.
More overtly, provided Obama can get his Islamic/Middle East policy into a position that enhances his presidency (about which Australia can do little), the other elements of his agenda, from climate change to economic recovery, will see Australia play a helpful role from Obama’s point of view.
Obama is striving very hard not to let his domestic problems overwhelm him. If they do, then the global long term trend to a re-balancing of power relationships will be accelerated in potentially unknowable directions. The Rudd government, so well positioned, will be hoping very much this does not happen, if for no other reason than our own domestic concerns, but mainly because some useful opportunities for Australian diplomacy will be lost.
"What the Obama Administration Means for Australia" - an address to the Murdoch University Banksia Association, 21 July 2009. Professor Beazley is in the Department of Political Science and International Relations, School of Social and Cultural Studies, at the University of Western Australia.