Friday, 18 November 2011
For a Prime Minister that started off by making such a virtue of not being interested in foreign affairs, Gillard certainly seems to be getting into it now. Having based her leadership on the John Howard Handbook for connecting to the “real” Australia, she now seems to have got to the second chapter that says there is no real basis for doing so anymore. So, like Howard and Rudd, she must look overseas for some source of authority; Rudd being the only one to get it from day one, with the other two needing to flounder about at home before reaching the same conclusion.
It is the far-reaching importance of international developments for political authority at home that has guided Australian foreign policy and required a very close adherence to whatever the global political power is up to around the world. It has required Australian troops to be involved in every major military venture of the UK, then the US, to a degree probably unmatched by any other nation on earth.
For a while now, this reliance has been something of a discreet embarrassment in Australian commentary; to the point where even the domestic impact of world-shattering international events can be airbrushed out of the political narrative. But what is becoming more awkward is the realisation that not only is the domestic agenda unlikely to provide much comfort, the international one is not exactly providing many solutions either.
For if Rudd was quick to pick up the importance of seeking an agenda overseas, he was also arguably the first to clearly face what the Australian political class has not faced since Federation, the premature political decline of the power around which that international agenda would revolve.
The decline of the US is happening in a highly unusual way. Britain held on to its pre-eminent political position decades after it lost its economic one. The US, on the other hand is losing global leadership while no other power comes even close to its economic weight.
The US has been struggling with this since the end of the Cold War took away its primary issue around which to organise international affairs. It tried to revive the international coalition with the first Gulf War in 1990, supposedly in defence of a non-existent Kuwaiti democracy and an evil tyrant who was so evil that as soon as the war was over, the UN Coalition left him in place and tooled up enough to deal with those of his countrymen who took the Coalition’s side. It was second time farce in 2003, with the US unable to even muster a UN Coalition this time outside the UK, and a few sundry hanger-ons. The resulting unilateralism only exposed the US’s loss of influence even more.
Obama’s election is recognition that the US can’t get away with straight-out unilateralism anymore, and that alliance building is a necessity. The problem is that it still leaves the question on what basis to build an alliance.
This is where China comes in. Commentary about China tends to be taken too much on its own terms rather than the prism through which US decline is discussed. As a result, the threat and power of China is exaggerated just like Japan in the 1980s and the clapped-out Soviet Union were both over-hyped for much the same reasons. Claims that China will be over-taking the US in a few decades are usually done by drawing a straight line up for China and a straight line down for the US, as though the economic progress of either country is going to happen that way.
Academics are claiming that Obama’s visit and announcements on troop deployments are “all about China”, but it’s not really. This is about the US, and it finding a new rationale for leadership in the region. That’s why the grounds for this strengthening of the alliance are so tenuous, with the US talking up the need to strengthen “cyber security” just before Obama’s visit, but, unsurprisingly, barely registering with commentary during it. The fact is that never has a troop deployment been announced for so little reason, other than a vague anti-China conern that can’t be expressed. It is just as well the anti-US left is so dead on its feet these days, otherwise … well, OK, not very much would have happened anyway.
The irony of all of this is that there is pretty well no two countries with less interest in breaking off with each other than the US and China. It is not just that China’s role in financing US debt exposes it to the future of what the US decides to do with that debt, nor poses a problem for the US on how to “deal toughly with your banker” as Clinton put it back in 2008. Since Tiananmen, when the Chinese bureaucracy turned decisively to foreign capital and the capital markets to privatise itself, it has hitched itself politically and economically to what happens in the international order. Rudd claims that the main problem is to integrate China into the international order. In reality, the main problem is managing the pivotal international role that China, with all its political and financial distortions, now already plays.
All this suggests that there is little ground for constructing a new Cold War against China given its already pivotal role. It doesn’t even sound like a basis for policy in the region, but a recipe for even more incoherence and instability from what is still the world’s leading economic and military power.
It also suggests that even if Gillard is looking overseas for some framework, she is unlikely to find one. Some are talking as though Australia has the luxury of choice between choosing between China and the US, but it doesn’t. The Australian political class is stuck with the US no matter how incoherent its foreign policy becomes. The contradictions of trying to isolate China and yet keeping it onside has already come up between the Prime Minister and her Foreign Minister on how close to be to India and was on display last night.
The political chit-chat is on how helpful the Obama visit will be for Gillard’s flagging popularity. Probably some, but that’s not really the point. Are there grounds for anything more lasting such as Howard received for a while from the War on Terror and Rudd from climate change? Unlikely.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 18 November 2011.Filed under International relations