The Lowy Interpreter

By James Curran

It's been a long time since an Australian foreign minister publicly pushed back against a US president. Julie Bishop did just that in her interview from New York last night on the ABC.

The last occasion when there was a serious public rupture in the alliance came with Bill Clinton's refusal to provide American ground troops in East Timor in 1999. Notwithstanding the fact that US logistical, intelligence and diplomatic muscle were crucial ingredients in the success of that mission, both John Howard and Alexander Downer made the point to American leaders at the time that, given Australia's support for the US in various wars over the previous half-century, Canberra could have reasonably expected the participation of a few Marines. Downer's remarks at the time on CNN invited a personal phone call of complaint from then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

But Bishop's language on ABC 7:30 was careful, moderate, and symptomatic of the approach the Abbott Government is taking in reaction to the President's speech in Brisbane. There's been no public retort from the Prime Minister. No fire-breathing fulmination from government ministers, though Joe Hockey and Jamie Briggs certainly let off some steam earlier in the week. And Bishop was quick to repudiate any link between the President's speech and the Government's decision not to increase its contribution in the Middle East. The optics of this were potentially awkward.

Bishop's cautious reminder of what state and federal governments have been doing to protect and preserve the Barrier Reef is probably as much as we will hear from the Government on how it really feels about Obama's remarks on climate change in Brisbane. The rest will no doubt be made clear behind closed doors.

For over a century, Australian governments of both political persuasions have mostly chosen not to air in public the dirty laundry of their differences with the great powers.

Nothing is to be gained from an open slanging match. Billy McMahon tried that in 1971 after President Nixon failed to consult him about his dramatic change on China policy. McMahon, enraged at being ignored by Washington and hopelessly flatfooted on account of Whitlam's successful visit to Beijing as opposition leader, resorted to ridiculing Nixon in a speech to an American–Australian Association Dinner in July that year. So shocking were the PM's public words about the President on that occasion that many in the audience thought McMahon was drunk.

Obama's words in Brisbane were certainly provocative. It is doubtful that either the State Department or the US Embassy in Canberra would have cleared them. This was a White House effort. It showed dramatically the difference between the US and Australian positions on climate change.

There are of course potential flaws in the US–China climate deal. A badly weakened president at home, Obama will struggle to gain congressional approval for his Green Climate Fund. And there is certainly no guarantee that next year's summit in Paris — the city of light, no less! — will produce a global deal that is either binding or enforceable. It is entirely conceivable that the Chinese will scupper that deal as they did Copenhagen. And in Australia, the domestic politics of climate change remain treacherous terrain for Labor. It would be utter folly for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to think that momentum is now swinging back Labor's way on this issue.

It is difficult, however, to think of a precedent where an American president has intervened in Australian domestic politics quite like this.

LBJ certainly made life uncomfortable for Labor Opposition leader Arthur Calwell during his visit here in October 1966, but Calwell had publicly provoked Johnson at the parliamentary welcome by reminding the President of those Democrats back in Washington — Morse, Mansfield and Bobby Kennedy — who opposed the Vietnam war. It didn't matter that Calwell finished his speech by reciting verbatim the Gettysburg address. Johnson duly poured a bucket of rhetorical grief all over Calwell. Recall too that George W Bush publicly referred to the 'disaster' of a possible Latham victory at the 2004 election, and that Howard believed Obama's win in 2008 would be a victory for the terrorists.

Imagine if Ronald Reagan had visited Australia in the mid 1980s and given a major speech on why US allies should support his SDI (or 'Star Wars') missile defence program, or indeed the testing of the MX Missile. On both issues the Hawke Government ultimately decided not to lend its support to Washington — though in the case of the MX Missile a rancorous Labor Left forced Hawke into backing down on his previous commitment to allow the use of Australian airfields by US aircraft to monitor the weapon's splashdown. But if Reagan had visited Australia and given such a speech, Hawke would have been justifiably furious, especially given that his political opponents, Andrew Peacock and John Howard, were strongly backing the US over its MX testing.

In private, however, American rebukes to Australia have been much sharper — and a good deal more significant — than Obama's comments last weekend.

The remarks in Brisbane were certainly not as embarrassing for Australia as when President Eisenhower took a different stance to Australia over the Suez crisis in 1956. Nor as ruthless as those by John F Kennedy to the Australian foreign minister in October 1963, when Kennedy told Garfield Barwick that the American people had 'forgotten ANZUS' and that US support for any Australian military action against the Indonesians in Borneo would be negligible.

Nor were they as infuriating to Australia as Nixon's decisions not to warn the governments of John Gorton and Billy McMahon about troop withdrawals from Vietnam and the enunciation of the Nixon doctrine in 1969. Or as stinging as Nixon and Kissinger's telephone conversation in late December 1972, when they dismissed Whitlam as a 'peacenik'.

But Obama's speech reminds us that, in an unprecedented era of bipartisan consensus on the alliance, the two countries cannot expect to see eye to eye on all issues. That is unrealistic. And, clearly, Australia's loyalty as an ally does not mean it will necessarily receive special treatment. That, perhaps, is the more salient lesson from this week. The President's speech in Brisbane shows that the alliance, strong as it is, will from time to time inevitably face the dilemmas of divergence. The test is how each side responds in these moments. The history shows that both countries have been able to manage those differences within the alliance.

This article was originally published at The Lowy Interpreter