The Magazine

Awesome Aussies

An extra-special relationship.

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