19 August 2006

Australia and the twilight of the Bush Administration

When George W Bush became US President in January 2001, John Howard was Prime Minister of Australia. Bush said recently that Howard would probably still hold his office once Bush's term expires in January 2009.

Australia's friendship with the United States is strong and long-standing, and has taken different forms over the turbulent past century. Within the next three years it will change again as we adapt to a post-Bush USA. What form will this relationship take, and how will events of the Howard-Bush era affect the future?

It takes two to tango, but Australia's interests will remain relatively constant. We will maintain a close political relationship. We will seek but not get greater access for our exports to the US. We will participate in US-led military expeditions with enthusiasm, but with limits imposed by the size of our military and by commitments in our region such as East Timor, the Solomon Islands and elsewhere which the US will largely leave to us. Even if Labor won government, the general tenor of the relationship from Australia's point of view wouldn't change much apart from political rhetoric, and even that would be a matter of degree rather than any shift in direction.

Any changes on trade will be incremental and we will continue to try to work both sides of the street in our relationships with China and the US. The spectre of American cultural imperialism is not what it was as the appeal of Chinese and Japanese films and games have diminished the power of Hollywood. American fast food companies used to loom large here but their brand powers have also waned despite Australia's obesity epidemic. For all the Howard Government's determination to be part of the "coalition of the willing" in Iraq and Afghanistan, our presence there is not large nor crucial nor hard to replace. These changes may signal shifts in Australia's attitudes toward the US over time, but it isn't clear yet what effects these changes might have.

The impetus for change over the next few years will come from the larger partner in this relationship, the US. It is possible that the next President will, as Bush urges, "stay the course" and elect someone like Condoleezza Rice or Virginia Senator George Allen who will perpetuate Bush's neo-regal policies and style of government. However, Bush has been consistently unpopular throughout this year, which will see elections for the US Congress in November.

Victories for the Democrats, vague and hesitant, cowed by Bush's weakness-is-strength electoral tactics, will encourage a change in political direction. The lack of connection between the war in Iraq and the effective control of fake militant Islam. It is likely that the Democrats will win control of the House of Representatives, and possible that they will win the Senate as well. This will certainly open Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld to greater scrutiny than they have experienced to date, which will set the stage for a Democrat response to America's political situation that will resonate with voters.

The failure of Bush's outlook on the world is not only confirmed by isolated incidents like this or the inadequacies of the Iraqi government, but by the failure of the Bush-Cheney end of an acquiescent world accepting of American leadership. Iran, North Korea and others flout pax Americana with impunity, and will increasingly do so as Bush enters his endgame. More time has now elapsed since 11 September 2001 than had elapsed between 7 December 1941 (when Japanese attacked the US at Pearl Harbour) and 9 August 1945 (when the Japanese surrendered and Hitler was dead). Bush was wrong to present the war against terror as a war that could be won under his leadership.

Democrats may be more likely to expand the lopsided Australia-US Free Trade Agreement in our favour, unless the Howard Government repulse them in their affection for Bush or if sucker Mark Vaile remains as Trade Minister. They are less likely to pander to rural states with their overprotected agriculture sectors, though they may pander to them in states like Florida, Montana or Idaho. Republicans tend to give ever-loyal Australia little more than patronising lip-service.

The future of the US-Australia relationship is really up to the Americans over the next few years - how far are they going to go with neoconservatism, and if they retreat from it will there be such a backlash that we are tainted by it? Once the Americans work out what their priorities really are and what lessons they have learned from the Bush years, this close relationship will adjust accordingly and go forward.

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