The Magazine

Howard's End

Australia's prime minister no longer connects with voters.

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By MAX BOOT
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The Australian military may be small--with 51,000 active-duty personnel, it is little more than one-fourth the size of the U.S. Marine Corps--but it is heavily deployed. The Australian Defense Forces talk of a punishing "operations tempo" just as do the American armed forces. And, like the U.S. military, the Australians are expanding to make up for post-Cold War downsizing--albeit on a much smaller scale. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are adding more than 60,000 troops; the Australians 6,000.

The Australians were early supporters of the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing diplomatic cover against charges of unilateralism and sending their highly skilled SAS commandos to fight alongside American and British Special Forces. While the Aussies play only a small supporting role in the Middle East, they have taken the lead in managing crises closer to their shores. They led a United Nations force into East Timor in 1999 to stop attempts by pro-Indonesian militias to block that nation's march to independence, and they have stuck around long enough to midwife a new democracy. There were some setbacks last year with riots and fighting in Dili, the capital, but order was restored by troops from Australia and other nations. Earlier this month, East Timor experienced a peaceful transition from the previous president to the newly elected José Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Australia also has committed troops and police officers to a peacekeeping mission in the Solomon Islands. And Australian diplomats, aid workers, and soldiers remain engaged in maintaining order in other tiny island states around the South Pacific, where military coups d'état are common.

Australians are also working to prevent the growth of radical Islam in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other nearby states with large Muslim populations. Because of its proximity, Australia has more experts on many of those countries than the United States does, making the Aussies a valuable source of guidance and intelligence.

Delivering a speech in Sydney, I jokingly commended the audience, which included many Australian officers, for their success in establishing an Australian Empire. This was met with nervous laughter--an acknowledgment that, however politically incorrect, the jest contained some truth.

Without the old-fashioned imperial trappings, Australia is indeed playing the kind of stabilizing role that the British Empire once played and that the United States has now inherited. But not even the United States, with its 300 million people and defense spending greater than the rest of the planet combined, can handle every crisis everywhere. We may be the global sheriff, but we need a posse to be effective, and Australia has been a stalwart member of that self-selected assemblage. Other liberal democratic powers, ranging from Brazil to India, could usefully emulate its example by taking a more active role in policing their regions in cooperation with the United States and other foreign partners.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and the author of War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.