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Aussies Vote

And why Americans should care.

Aug 23, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 46 • By ROSS TERRILL
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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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