The Drum (ABC Online)

By Tom Switzer

The first time I turned out for a US president was two decades ago when George H.W. Bush came to town.

He drove through Sydney and I ran cheering behind the motorcade. I was only 20 and, like most yanko-philes, I was panting just to get a glimpse of the man who had kicked the Vietnam Syndrome in the Gulf.

Those were the days. The US had just emerged the victor from the Cold War without a shot being fired or blood being shed. It achieved global superpower status, not by assertive or ambitious action on its own part, but by the self-induced collapse of its rival. It had no plan in place to exploit its unexpected dominance, nor did it formalise and adopt one. The US military seemed more concerned with having effective exit strategies in place than with implementing ambitious, open-ended projects.

It pains me to say this, but this week's presidential visit seems very different. Don't get me wrong: the Australian people still greatly admire the US president, clearly a man of great wit and intellect. The 60-year-old alliance remains the sacred cow of Australian diplomacy. And the US remains the world's largest economy and its lone superpower. All true. But serious doubts dog what Sir Robert Menzies called "our great and powerful friend".

Once universally considered to be awesome in its scope, today the world is much more aware of the limitations and costs of US military power. When it comes to defeating tribal warlords in medieval societies, America finds itself wrong-footed and outwitted, not so much as an eagle as elephant.

Add to this the plethora of problems that afflict the US - stubbornly high unemployment, consistently lacklustre growth, skyrocketing debt and rising budget deficits, increase numbers for home foreclosures, badly damaged credibility and prestige after Iraq and the GFC, what neoconservative founding father Irving Kristol once identified as "clear signs of rot and decay germinating in American society" - and it is no wonder smart people question whether the US can sustain the burdens of global hegemony.

As US scholars and former office holders as ideologically diverse as Richard Haass, Brent Scowcroft, Joe Stiglitz and Paul Kennedy have recognised in recent years, America's serious fiscal crisis will eventually erode its economic power, which is the foundation of military power; and as the relative gap between Washington and other rising powers diminishes, the costs of challenging American hegemony will decrease and the payoff for doing so will increase.

That is what in essence the authors of our Government's Defence white paper appeared to recognise two years ago. We are witnessing, they identified, "the beginning of the end of the unipolar moment – the two-decade era of American pre-eminence in the region." Translation: taken together with the dramatic rise of China and the emergence of India, US decline presages a shifting balance of power in east Asia.

It has been said that post-9/11 US foreign policy is a work in progress, and that those who get too close run the risk of being hit by a piece of falling scaffolding. It's not clear whether the decision, formally announced in yesterday's joint press conference, to allow US forces to use Darwin for forward positioning will hurt Australia's standing in Beijing. But it is surely the case that although the US alliance will endure, it should also change in the new era.

How so? Well, instead of the sturdy, straightforward virtues of unconditional loyalty, we'll need to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before. Instead of going "all the way" on the American bandwagon, we'll need to cultivate some of the skills of the helpful passenger – which include some careful steering, timely map reading, a judicious use of the brakes and, not least, better road manners - lest we crash into our largest trading partner.

Which perhaps makes it surprising that Julia Gillard has marched in lockstep with the president on two key issues that could have unintended consequences for Australian foreign policy: the deal to enhance military cooperation with Washington as well as her strong support for the depressing and endless war in Afghanistan.

(Incidentally, it is striking that the usual suspects have not treated Gillard as they did John Howard: where are Mungo MacCallum's taunts of "Little Julia"? Or Humphrey McQueen's rants about the "American lickspittle"? Or Alison Broinowski's lament about the "Deputy Sheriff"? More to the point, the PM's stance on the rotations of US forces and the Afghanistan war mark a far cry from her calls in 2005 for an "independent foreign policy", which is left-wing code for snubbing Uncle Sam at every opportunity.)

The elephant in the room during Wednesday's press conference, as well as in Parliament House today, was unquestionably China. Although they express themselves in different ways, both Obama and Gillard seem oblivious to the emerging geopolitical reality that distinguished Harvard Professor Steve Walt has recently identified.

Writing in the Washington-based National Interest, Walt argues: "If China is like all previous great powers – including the US – its definition of vital interests will grow as its power increases; and it will try to use its growing muscle to protect an expanding sphere of influence," he argues. Given its dependence on energy imports and export-led growth, Beijing might want to make clear that no other state deny it access to the resources and markets, on which China's future prosperity and stability rely. Such a situation, warns Walt, would encourage Beijing to challenge the current US presence in Asia.

Now, people of good faith will fret and wail about an expansionist dragon; and this is understandable at face value. But they should also recognise that the US, since it rose to great-power status, has also sought to exclude outside powers from its neighbourhood. It is one thing to say the enhanced military coordination that Obama and Gillard announced this week won't amount to containment, but China will probably think differently. Look at it from another perspective: how would the US feel if the Chinese maintained a network of alliances and a sizable military presence in the east Pacific?

As Walt concludes:

Over time, Beijing will try to convince other states in the region to abandon ties with America, and Washington will almost certainly resist those efforts. An intense security competition will follow.

How would Gillard, for instance, respond to a Sino-American spat over Taiwan or the South China Sea?

The other key issue, of course, is Afghanistan, a war without purpose and which has lasted more than ten years, longer than the combined length of our participation in the first and second world wars. (In his 3,000-word address to Parliament today, Obama dedicated only one paragraph to the war while Gillard skipped it altogether.) It is not clear to what extent Obama's withdrawal of one third of the 100,000 US troops from Afghanistan in mid-2012 will expose our Diggers to even greater risk in a quagmire where Australian casualties have nearly tripled in the past 18 months. But it's a question that neither the president nor Prime Minister satisfactorily explained.

Don't get me wrong: it was imperative to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his cohorts as well as topple the black-turbaned tyrants who gave Al Qaeda shelter and support. But that mission has mainly been accomplished. Other issues - the routing of the Taliban and the building a democratic state - are simply beyond our reach. Our war aims are incoherent and our presence is exacerbating the problems we went in to solve, serving to destabilise Pakistan rather than to stabilise Afghanistan. We are spending more blood and treasure in a misbegotten adventure in the graveyard of empires.

No-one wants Afghanistan to once again become a Club Med for terrorists. But as the distinguished US conservative columnist George Will asks:

If US forces are there to prevent reestablishment of Al Qaeda bases - evidently there are none now - must there be nation-building invasions of Somalia, Yemen and other sovereignty vacuums?

Would Canberra precipitate a crisis in US-Australia relations by pulling out of the war? Hardly. Most Nato leaders have rejected Obama's appeals for extra troops and many - Canada, the Dutch - have pulled out. Look, too, at history: Menzies and Eisenhower bitterly clashed over the Suez crisis in 1956; Whitlam's ministers called Nixon and Kissinger "maniacs" and "murderers" for the Christmas bombing in 1972; Hawke's Labor comrades rejected Reagan's MX Missiles in 1985. None of these episodes damaged the alliance.

The US alliance should remain the centrepiece of Australian foreign policy, under a Labor or Coalition government. But one can agree with that assessment and still believe that there is no silver lining to the war.

So for what it's worth, here's my tip for the Prime Minister as she waves Obama goodbye today. Leave Afghanistan to the drones and the US Special Forces, withdraw from this odd, irrelevant place and save our diplomatic resources for what really matters: ride two horses simultaneously in our own region. Washington won't be thrilled, but it would serve the Australian national interest.

Tom Switzer is editor of Spectator Australia and a research associate at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney.