As President Obama’s support wanes, midterm elections loom, and economic troubles persist, he barely heeds East Asia and the Pacific. Flourishing Australia is neglected because it causes Washington few problems. Twice this year Obama canceled a visit to Australia.

But this nation of 22 million—which has its own election August 21 —copes with a junior-partner role out of long experience and for good reason. The United States, despite being 8,000 miles away, is of the first importance to Aussies. They fought alongside the United States in all its major wars, from World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Australia changed prime ministers in June when Julia Gillard overthrew Kevin Rudd in an internal Labor party struggle. Rudd had become Labor leader in 2006 not because the party liked him but because he was their best chance to win. In 2007 he did beat John Howard, handsomely, ending an 11-year conservative reign. But Rudd was aloof from his own Labor party; its backroom figures, fearing defeat in the 2010 vote, knifed him and chose Gillard, a leftist trying to edge to the center. As happens under a Westminster-style parliamentary system, she became prime minister on the spot.

Gillard faces a thoughtful conservative, Tony Abbott of the Liberal-National party, in a close tussle, and the result is important to U.S. interests. Gillard would support Obama’s worst foreign policy instincts, while Abbott would resist them.

Howard resolved the warring currents of history (Western) and geography (Asian) that define Australia. The eight-year Bush-Howard axis was a golden age for relations between the United States and Australia; yet Howard also brought Japan, China, and Indonesia closer to Australia than ever before. So much for the Australian intellectual left’s cry that “we must choose between America and Asia” (they would choose Asia).

The Canberra-Washington connection has always been strong under the Liberal-Nationals. But Labor, especially since the Vietnam war, dislikes foreign entanglements and calls for “exit” from a war before victory is in sight.

In 1972, Henry Kissinger, as I entered his White House office for a chat about China, angrily waved a cable from Gough Whitlam, just elected Labor prime minister of Australia, protesting President Nixon’s “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi. “It’s unforgivable for this Australian government to put us on the same moral footing as North Vietnam!” said Kissinger. “You can’t apply ANZUS [a tripartite security pact also including New Zealand] on some points and not on others.” I crept out to phone Whitlam. It was a low point in relations between Washington and Canberra.

Another low came when Mark Latham, a Labor leader prior to Rudd, called President Bush “incompetent and dangerous” and declared, “The alliance with the United States is just another form of neocolonialism.”

Bob Hawke, a highly successful Labor prime minister (1983-91), had checked some of Labor’s anti-Americanism, declining to follow New Zealand’s wish for a South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone and thus saving ANZUS. Still, Hawke missed Reagan’s historical importance; he told me feebly in 1987, “The United States hasn’t had a decent president since Truman.” Hawke’s defense minister, Kim Beazley, also pro-American and now Australian ambassador in Washington, said in an email to me this week, “Australia is a solid, capable ally of the United States prepared to project itself forward in the East Asian region. Because the views we develop independently are rarely difficult for the United States, they are valuable to the United States.”

Since Howard’s long tenure as prime minister (1996-2007), the conservatives have had three leaders, and since their loss to Howard in 1996, Labor has changed leaders six times. So Abbott (52) and Gillard (48) are both new to party leadership. Gillard comes out of a Labor world in Melbourne rife with social engineering ideas and bitter factionalism. A pillar of EMILY’s List, with no husband or children, she takes Aneurin Bevan, the British Labor firebrand, born like Gillard in Wales, as her political hero.

Abbott is Howard’s spiritual heir, short on charisma but strong on character and not given to political fashion. A star boxer at college, he studied for the Catholic priesthood and later became a journalist. More cerebral than Howard, he has written three books, including a memoir, Battlelines, and an intelligent defense of Australia’s constitutional monarchy, The Minimal Monarchy.

I lunched with Rudd on his first visit to the United States as prime minister in 2008 and have never heard an Australian prime minister as good on China. His weak point was a party-mandated determination to rely on the United Nations, moral example, and transnational institutions, as Howard seldom did.

Such policies reinforce Obama’s worst instincts. North Korea is not shamed by the American president’s promotion of disarmament into taking its own disarmament steps. Nicolas Sarkozy rebuked Obama to his face in New York: “President Obama dreams of a world without weapons  .  .  .  but right in front of us two countries [Iran and North Korea] are doing the exact opposite. We live in the real world, not the virtual world.” Abbott inhabits the real world. Gillard has a background in the virtual world.

Rudd’s supranational thrusts came to little—climate change, fresh regional groupings, a fruitless International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament. With Rudd’s international experience absent, a Labor government under Gillard would resort to the party’s crown jewels of “idealism,” transnational fiddling, and faith in international covenants. Obama would encounter no correcting wind from Down Under.

Labor, like some Obama folk, sees national sovereignty as outmoded, taking a lead from European social democracy. But as the EU sails hopefully into transnationalism, East Asia is different. Beijing has an old-fashioned view of power that uses international institutions only to ward off difficulties for China. ASEAN is equally strict about “noninterference” in any nation’s internal affairs. Abbott knows this and would try to convince Obama that East Asia is not Europe.

Australia’s voice should count in Washington. The Aussies have one of the largest economies in East Asia: After the giants, Japan and China, Australia is neck and neck with South Korea and Indonesia. Solid institutions on the home front help when international economic crises hit. Australia is unique as a Western-derived nation that knows East Asia well.

Encouragingly, Abbott calls the United States “an immense force for good in the wider world.” In 2003, I helped arrange for Abbott, then a minister in Howard’s government, to speak to the academic association of specialists on Australian studies in North America. He shocked the meeting in Philadelphia by defending the Iraq war. The professors shifted their feet, and some walked out. Abbott’s position is unchanged. “The emergence of a pluralist and relatively liberal Iraq,” he told the Lowy Institute in Sydney in April, “would be a truly historic breakthrough with beneficial consequences right around the world.”

Many Australians ask whether China, a major economic partner for Australia, is merely “catching up” or seeking to replace the United States in Asia. Some see Beijing joining the “international community.” Others see China urging an East Asia community without the United States, embracing any country in Asia, Africa, or Latin America that has poor relations with Washington, and gaining missile and submarine capacity to deny the U.S. military access to the Asian seas. Gillard, bright as she is, shows no sign of grasping this latter pattern.

If the United States doesn’t lead in the Asia-Pacific region, who does? Here Abbott is staunch, Gillard less so. Abbott says, “America’s habitual critics should more often consider to which other country or body they would rather entrust a solution to the world’s troubles.” Abbott is no more experienced in foreign policy than Gillard, but he is hard-headed, and he talks interests, not wishful thinking. His idea of an association of democracies—not only Western countries, but India, Japan, and others—would make an excellent project to press on Obama.

Given current U.S. confusions, not only Australia but America would benefit from a prime minister who puts alliances first, understands that balance of power still operates in Asia, declines to mystify Asia, and believes deterrence keeps the peace.

Still, Abbott is capable of indiscretion. The left jumped on him in 2008 when he commented about Obama: “He sounds terrific, but I don’t know what’s really there.” If Abbott wins on Saturday, that statement may make the rounds in Washington.

Ross Terrill is associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and the author of The Australians and The New Chinese Empire.

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