The Magazine

Awesome Aussies

An extra-special relationship.

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