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Australia's relationship with the US.

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Monday 26 April 2004

Michael Baume, former Australian Consul-General in New York


Australia's Relationship with the US  

When the New York Times recently ran a major article entitled 'The Aussie Allies: A Testing Time Coming', it questioned whether, with al-Qaeda threatening reprisals for Australia’s support of the US in Iraq, Australia is poised to become the next Spain — the next country to abandon President Bush. Its answer was 'probably not', but that Labor’s new leader, Mark Latham, had some people worried. 


If the US alliance does emerge as a major issue in this year’s Australian federal election, as it was in Spain, it will generate both political and physical risks. If the future of Australia’s engagement in Iraq were to depend on the election outcome, then the political success of the Madrid bomb massacre (resulting in the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq when they were most needed) provides a clear incentive for a pre-election terrorist attack in Australia from like-minded fundamentalists with a similar political objective. 


The significance of a lengthy article in the New York Times is not only in the recognition that Australia now has a substantive status in the US, but that there are concerns that John Howard’s pro-American government could be replaced by a far less friendly Latham one. 


In 1996,when the newly-elected Prime Minister John Howard sent two of his senior political colleagues, Andrew Peacock to Washington and me to New York, a key purpose was to remove the perception created, wittingly or otherwise, by the Keating government, that Australia’s thrust into Asia was at the expense of our relationship with our traditionally very close ally, the United States of America. 


The tactic has certainly worked. The US-Australia relationship is now so close that some, like Mark Latham, wrongly claim it is too close. Latham has brought about a radical change in Labor’s traditionally supportive approach to the US alliance. As the Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher recently wrote, 'Latham’s talk of greater engagement with Asia is code for greater distance from Washington.' 


There are those, like Paul Keating’s former principal adviser and subsequently Ambassador to the US Don Russell, who claim that Latham is simply returning to Labor’s traditional relationship with the US, involving a level of vigorous independence while being a loyal ally and good friend — and that a Latham government could successfully negotiate a return to this approach. 


The US itself, however, has a less sanguine view, with the Bush administration’s description of Latham’s criticism of Howard’s US policy as 'neither well-informed nor well-based.' The New York Times has reported that Secretary of State Colin Powell is 'disturbed' by Latham’s attitude to the US. 


But one of the most significant results of John Howard’s support for the US alliance is in the approach to multilateralism. After so many spectacular failures, the UN is no longer seen as the only effective instrument of international conflict resolution, requiring 'coalitions of the willing' to do the job. And in trade, both have agreed that the best way to force the Cancun recalcitrants to return to the free-trade negotiating table is to enter into a series of bilateral trade deals, like the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement (one of 37 the US is currently negotiating) that could leave the dissidents out in the cold unless they rejoin the Australian-supported push to free up international trade. 


That is why the US-Australia FTA is far more important than for its evident economic benefits or even for its role in providing extra substance to the US alliance. If the anti-FTA cabal of some unions, environmental, cultural and other activist and vested-interest groups convince the Labor Party there is electoral advantage in blocking it, this not only increases the threat Latham poses to the US alliance, but also damages the campaign for freer world trade. 


But there is more to the US alliance than simply the good sense, in security, commercial and diplomatic terms, of being close to the world’s richest and most powerful nation - and even of gaining access to its huge market place through an FTA.  


As John Howard recently said: 'I’m a great believer that you should have close relations with the countries whose way of life is closest to our own.' That means Australia’s Asian location should not prevent Australia having a proper role as an English-speaking, western-style democracy whose closest links are with nations like the US and Britain, many of whose traditions, values and attitudes we share. That is why the US alliance will survive Mark Latham — even if Mark Latham were to survive the next election.  


Guests on this program:

Michael Baume AO  

Australian Consul General in New York from October 1996 - July 2001. Former Liberal MP.