The Magazine

Awesome Aussies

An extra-special relationship.

Sep 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 03 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Melbourne

THE New York Times and many Democrats put a spotlight on European critics of Bush's foreign policy, France and Germany especially, but ignore East Asian supporters, Japan and Australia among them. (The anti-Bush crowd do pay attention to ally Tony Blair--with suppressed fury that he backs Bush and constant prediction of his demise.) In fact, prime minister John Howard of Australia is a striking case of a faithful ally boosted by Bush's post-9/11 and post-Iraq stature, despite current frustrations in Iraq and fierce hostility from Australian academia and media.

An Iraq-induced machismo stiffens Australian foreign policy in anti-terror operations in Asia, Korea policy, and a bold step toward the Solomon Islands, a chaotic neighbor where Canberra is leading the biggest military intervention in the South Pacific since World War II. Inspired by Bush's assertiveness, Howard's conservative government attacks the fruitlessness of waiting on U.N. action that often does not come, and declares Australia's duty to "preempt" if necessary to forestall disorder bubbling up from another country.

Longer in office than Bush (by five years) and Blair (by one year), Howard, like those two, was elected not on foreign policy but domestic. Yet, with 9/11, Afghanistan (where Australian troops were the first to join U.S. and U.K. forces on the ground), and Iraq, Howard, like Bush and Blair, has staked his reputation on security policy. "The times will suit me," Howard once said presciently.

A "protector" image has helped Howard politically no less than Bush. As security issues became local issues for New Yorkers and Washingtonians, so they did for Australians when a nightclub half-full of Aussie youths was blown up on the nearby Indonesian island of Bali in October 2002. Foreign policy hit the kitchen table. Choice of vacation spot could be a matter of life or death.

Howard was in Washington on 9/11, driving across town to give a speech to a joint session of Congress as the hijacked airplane crashed into the Pentagon. "We have taken our place beside you in the war against terrorism," he told Congress nine months later in a rescheduled speech, "knowing beyond all doubt that it was an attack upon ourselves and our way of life as surely as it was upon your own."

Foreign minister Alexander Downer in a recent interview with me rejected a purely regional role for Australia and saw no contradiction between the alliance with Washington and a strong role in Asia. "Our interests are global and not defined solely by geography." Added to Canberra's willingness to act unilaterally on occasion, these positions amount to a new ambitiousness in Australia's foreign policy. Downer says: "Sovereignty in our view is not absolute. Acting for the benefit of humanity is more important."

He went on: "When [Kofi] Annan raises [the limitations of sovereignty], that's fine. When the center-left government of Canada does, fine. But when we do it, it's called a brutal attack on sovereignty."

Defense for Australia has always meant and will continue to mean a dualism of vigilance about the homeland plus joining with others to battle lawlessness, repression, and evil beyond Australian shores. It's not one or the other. The 1991-96 government of the left-of-center Labor party, prodded by trendy intellectuals, tried to find an essentially Asian role for the nation's diplomacy. This is limiting and quite difficult, since even East Asia lacks a region-wide security organization.

Howard understands that security must be both local and global. Half a century ago, General Douglas MacArthur based himself in Brisbane to repulse Japan. A few years later, Australian troops went 7,000 miles north to Korea. In the last four years, Australia has embarked on a close-to-home steadying mission in East Timor, and a far-flung operation against al Qaeda. Howard also understands that well-financed and equipped forces of disorder are a new enemy not summarily dispatched. "This war against terrorism is likely to go on for years," he said on the second anniversary of 9/11, "and nobody can regard themselves as beyond the reach of terrorism."

In the South Pacific, the challenge for the moment is modest, but the long-term agenda is formidable. This beautiful area of atolls and palm trees, like parts of Africa, has "states" so wracked with ethnic tension that disorder threatens neighbors. The Solomon Islands bears the extra burdens of communal ownership of land and debilitating dependence on foreign aid. Law of the jungle in islands like the Solomons (where American and Australian troops together fought the Japanese during World War II) is an invitation to drug traffickers, people smugglers, money launderers, and worse.

Australia's assertive post-Iraq stance gave it the initiative. Howard phoned New Zealand Labour party prime minister Helen Clark, who had not supported the Iraq War, and won her quick agreement to join an expeditionary force of 2,000 troops and 300 police to the Solomons. All other leading players in the South Pacific--Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa--also signed on to Howard's plan. The Solomons' parliament voted unanimously to ask the Australia-led security-enhancing mission to come. Canberra is paying the bill for what so far has been a highly successful intervention that has nabbed the major warlord, effected a weapons amnesty, and cut violence.

Howard and Downer seem to be combining preemption with a multilateralism that works. No U.N. resolutions were sought or obtained to authorize their action in the Solomons. Some of Bush's sense of destiny seems to have rubbed off on the Aussies. "I think Australia should lead," Downer said, "because our national interests demand no less."

Is the Solomon Islands Australia's Iraq? In most respects no. But the South Pacific, like the Middle East, resists quick, easy solutions. These isles of natural splendor and political squalor may need Australian muscle, money, and brain-power for decades. Mostly tiny, weak, and poor, they need some kind of unity, whether a common currency zone or ultimately a federation. Enforceable property rights, open trade, pro-market economic strategies--"nation building" of daunting scope lies ahead.

Australia, empowered by its part in the overthrow of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, enjoys the spectacle not only of New Zealand backing its expedition in the Solomon Islands, but also France. And Germany and France are backing the Korea-related, U.S.-planned Proliferation Security Initiative, born in Poland and Spain, two more Bush allies, whose latest steps were taken at a meeting in Brisbane in July. Last week, in the Coral Sea off the Australian coast, France and Japan, alongside the United States and Australia, with others observing, mounted the first exercises of naval interdiction planned under the Proliferation Security Initiative. How quickly wounds can heal when the sunshine of success bursts through the clouds!

Currently, helped by a strong economy, Howard enjoys a huge lead as preferred prime minister over his Labor party rival. Yet professors, columnists, and Labor's left wing accuse Howard of "military adventurism" and "slavishness" toward Uncle Sam. They say his closeness to Washington "cuts Australia off" from Asia, which is the opposite of the truth. These angry scribes disliked Howard before Iraq, and now they hate him, above all because he is close to Bush. "The anti-American mob were a little quieter during the Clinton administration than they are during the Bush administration," remarked Downer in our interview.

A reporter for the Australian Financial Review sees Canberra in the grip of "a repressive national-security state." (I'm serious, he doesn't mean Myanmar, but his own laid-back Australia.) Watching the Labor party say "No" to the Iraq war, listening to academics and the government broadcaster, the ABC (proud younger brother of the BBC), lambaste Howard, noting that conservatives are in power nationally and Labor in all the states, you might get the impression Australia was an open democracy. But not in the eyes of the "left cultural gatekeepers," as I called them in my book "The Australians." Anything less ethereal than a U.N. resolution smacks to them of fascism.

Isolationism takes two forms. In the United States we sometimes see an isolationism of self-ascribed superiority that says, "We're above the rest of the world, let's not bother with them." In Australia there appears on the left an isolation of inferiority that thinks Australia is not worthy of a leadership role. Make every Aborigine content, say the gatekeepers, or keep our mouth shut in international affairs. Ditch the British constitutional link, or crawl in shame before Asians.

Ordinary Australians are another matter. It is they, politically, who have enabled Australia to be the only country in the world that has fought with the United States in all the major 20th-century wars (the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War) and the two wars of the 21st century (Afghanistan, Iraq).

Both kinds of isolationism recoil from leadership in international relations. But the lengthy list of countries in the coalition to liberate Afghanistan and Iraq did take a lead. Bush (and Blair) resisted "superiority" isolationism. Howard resisted "inferiority" isolationism.

Downer answered the left-wing intellectuals: "They're obsessed with anti-Americanism," he told me. "It doesn't worry me, to tell you the truth. If that makes them feel good, so be it. But if you're a policymaker, you have to think about consequences. What sort of world would we live in if the United States took the advice of the gratuitous left and said it would wash its hands and go back to an earlier tradition of isolation? What would happen to nuclear proliferation? Everyone agrees we have to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But who is actually going to do these things? People say through the U.N.: I have no problem with that as long as it is done! What do we do when the U.N. can't agree? Should we then leave the issue unaddressed? Would it have been right to allow Saddam Hussein to continue to defy international law? The anti-American mob are emotionally driven, not intellectually driven."

The Australian not-so-very-intelligentsia is in the grip of an illusion. The Labor party opposed the Iraq war because it said one more U.N. resolution was needed to give a green light. The head of the Centre for International and Public Law at a leading university with a straight face equates domestic law (of a democracy) with international law (presumably enforced by the U.N.). Such people would have Australia march down the impeccably multilateral path of the "no more war" Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, whose futility led directly to the failure to deter Japan and Germany and hence to World War II.

The elite anti-Americanism is abstract, a wild anger at the state of the world, indeed at life itself. The left gatekeepers cannot reverse Howard's three electoral victories (1996, 1998, 2001), so they rail against the vast hovering cloud of American power and influence and denigrate Howard for being caught up in it. The environment is going to hell, the multinationals are everywhere, Africa writhes, war clouds terrify the kids, love and harmony are in short supply--Bush must be to blame! Call it foreign policy as psychology.

A disrespect for the views of ordinary Australian people is more serious. The alienated left has nearly given up on the democratic process. They "know" Howard is illegitimate just as they "know"--emails from American academic friends!--that Bush's victory over Gore was illegitimate. When the journalist for the Financial Review doubts that Australia any longer has a "fully functional liberal democracy," what he means is that the Labor party has lost three elections in a row.

For us in the United States, one lesson of Howard's eight-year ascendancy is that, vacuous as Blair's New Labour may be, Australia's Old Labor, trade union-based and mesmerized by an out-of-date academic left, is much worse. Another is that nothing Bush could ever do would sway Australian academics and the ABC (and others like them in Europe), so why not forge ahead with what he believes is right.

Finally, the democratic process faces real danger, in more than one country, from a stratum of left gatekeepers who simply don't believe in the legitimacy of a period of conservative rule. If any threat of a "repressive state" is on the horizon in Western democracies, it comes from the self-righteous left rather than from Bush, Blair, and Howard, who have reinvented themselves by responding to the common-sense instincts of their people.

Meanwhile the New York Times, which gave front-page coverage to anti-Howard protests over Iraq in Melbourne and Sydney, has never published an in-depth profile of Howard (compare its attention to Chirac, Schröder, de Villepin, and Joschka Fischer) or an examination of his three electoral triumphs.

Ross Terrill's new book is "The New Chinese Empire" (Basic Books). His "The Australians: The Way We Live Now" was published in Sydney in 2000 (Random House).