Network Ten: Meet The Press

By Tom Krause.

The US Studies Centre was founded five years ago to increase understanding of the United States in Australia. This week, the USSC's national summit came up with some surprising conclusions on the 9/11 Decade.

I've always been a fan of the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University.

I must admit I was a bit sceptical at first when I heard of plans to establish an institution to study the US because like many journalists, especially one who was born in America, it seemed a bit unnecessary. America dominates our print and electronic media, television programs and culture, and we need to look more closely at our neighbours in Asia: Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Islands, and farther north, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, India and Japan.

So why a centre to study a nation that speaks the same language, plays the same music, and watches the same movies?

At the USSC national summit dinner on Monday, Malcolm Binks, the chairman of the Centre and the American Australian Association, provided the background. He said the Lowy Institute did a survey in 2006 in which the US came out badly. It showed two thirds of those polled felt that Australia took too much notice of the views of the United States in its foreign policies and that the US played the role of world policeman more than it should (here's a link to the poll). So Binks went to the government to do something about it and make Australians more informed about the United States. (I think one of the reasons Australians did not have a positive view of the US was its president at the time: George W. Bush!) The Howard government came up with a $25 million endowment to set up the centre.

That was five years ago, and under the founding CEO, Professor Geoffrey Garrett, the US Studies Centre has outgrown the John Woolley building and is moving to a larger edifice on the other side of the campus. The centre has established itself as one of the premier academic institutions outside America for the study of the United States (and is well on its way to achieving its goal of becoming the "leading" academic institution outside the US). If you wish, there's more about the USSC on its website.

A bit of disclosure here: I owe a debt of gratitude to Geoff Garrett, who often showed up at Sky News on Sunday mornings and weekday nights to appear on programs I produced to provide excellent analysis on American politics. Thanks are also due to the Centre's Director of Media, Nina Fudala, who arranged interviews for Sky with leading US academics and journalists visiting Australia, including James Fallows, the USSC Chair in US Media and National Correspondent for the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine. And Nina does not play favourites – all the media who want USSC interviews are accommodated as far as humanly possible.

So it was a case of mixing business with pleasure at the centre's national summit dinner at the Four Seasons hotel in Sydney. There was a bevy of diplomats, academics and media at the repast, including former NSW Supreme Court Chief Justice, James Spiegelman, the US ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, the presenter of ABC Radio National's Saturday Extra, Geraldine Doogue, and Paul Kelly, Editor-at-Large of The Australian, to name just a few.

The dinner pleased both the gustatory and cognitive senses. The moderator of the Roundtable on the 9/11 Decade was Professor Garrett with a distinguished panel: Nicholas Burns, former US Under Secretary of State, now professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard; Gareth Evans, former Labor Foreign Minister, now Chancellor of the ANU; and Robert Hill, former Liberal Defence Minister, now adjunct professor at the USSC.

The title of the two-day summit was The 9/11 Decade: How Everything Changed, and while I couldn't make it in person to the sessions, I did listen to six or seven of them on ABC Digital Radio. The lineup of guests both local and from overseas (including the above) was impressive: Dennis Richardson, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Director-General of ASIO in those dark days in 2001; Douglas Feith, Senior Fellow and Director, Centre for National Security Strategies, Hudson Institute, and former US Under Secretary of Defence; Julie Bishop, Shadow Foreign Minister; Anatol Lieven, Professor of War Studies, King's College London and Adam Garfinkle, former speechwriter for Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. (Sorry about the lists. That's the last one!)

Some highlights from the summit: Julie Bishop told a session called Rethinking American Power that Australia's role in Afghanistan is now all about trying to build a sustainable nation. (That comment came two days before a US Congressional investigation found nation-building had only limited success in Afghanistan.) She also took issue with Labor's Defence white paper that China was the most likely conventional military threat to Australia: "I don't think that is an assumption that bears out. And even if it were, you wouldn't put it in your white paper."

One of the stars of the summit, Harvard's Nicholas Burns, had some harsh criticisms of China. He said he didn't trust them as a great power, and repeatedly blasted Beijing for not contributing to the global good. He pointed out at one session that the last three US presidents had given China a chance to enter the global leadership stakes, but they had not risen to the challenge. And at the dinner, Burns, one of those mellifluously eloquent US diplomats who you could listen to all day, explained one major difference between China and America: "Millions of people are not lining up to get into China."

The summit dinner had a lovely couple of comments from Robert Hill and Gareth Evans, two old adversaries from the Australian Senate. When Geoff Garrett talked about the tactile and emotional politicians, Kevin Rudd, a hugger of Hillary Clinton, and Julia Gillard, a teary addresser of US Congress, Robert Hill responded: "Hillary's always liked Kevin; Kevin was looking for friends at the time (laughs) ... Julia wasn't going to hug him." (Nor any time soon, I respectfully submit.) This prompted Gareth Evans to muse: "I think mawkishness comes with the territory in terms of the Australia-US relationship. I mean, (Bob) Hawke used to tear up at every conceivable opportunity in the White House or anywhere else. For the rest of us who weren't so mawkishly inclined, this was a little bit tricksy." (And thanks to The Australian's James Jeffrey for quoting the above in his Strewth! column. I was drinking a glass of red at the time!)

In the interval between the sessions,John Barron of the ABC interviewed a few people who were in the US during 9/11. He asked Ed Blakely, an honorary USSC professor and disaster recovery expert (best known as the "recovery czar" of New Orleans), what it was like that day in New York City. Blakely saw the second plane hit, and said: "It got me right in the stomach." Working at the New School in NYC at the time, Professor Blakely and his team helped get the rubble out of Ground Zero and the recovery workers in. Fortunately, given the controversy about what to do with the site, they were able to concentrate less on the memorial and more on the future of New York City and its economy.

And one of the most frustrating journos' stories came from Nick Bryant, the BBC's Australia correspondent, who was on holidays in Seattle on September 11. Sleepless in Seattle, he was unable to get back to New York until the following week, due to the shutdown of airports, and did local reaction to the biggest story this century. But he now believes the collapse of the banks in 2008 had more impact on the US than the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Okay, after nearly 1400 words on the US Studies Centre's national summit on the 9/11 decade, you may well ask, what do people think about 9/11 ten years on?

The centre conducted a major survey last month, and found that many Australians and Americans think the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not worth the cost, and are not helping to win the war on terrorism. The survey showed 63% of Australians think the war on terrorism will never end, and only 30% of Americans and 20% of Australians believe the war is being won.

As we remember the dead in Ground Zero and Bali and Jakarta and elsewhere this September 11, the polls suggest it's time to ask our governments, now that Osama bin Laden is dead, should we continue to fight the war in Afghanistan?

As the famous British General, Lord Roberts of Kandahar told the British in 1880: "We have nothing to fear from Afghanistan, and the best thing to do is to leave it as much as possible to itself ... I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us."