Jack Kennedy put it best. The 35th president of the United States once observed ruefully: “Too often we … enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
Lamentable, but true.
Washington DC is the place where policymakers are obliged to confront the discomfort of thought. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute Canberra is about to join them on the shores of the Potomac.
Almost lost in the backwash of the decision announcing the creation of AUKUS was a statement from Defence Minister Peter Dutton to the effect that ASPI was going to be enabled to open an office in the US capital. This is a very sound decision in our national interest and also as a unique contribution to American strategic debate (full disclosure: I was the chair of ASPI for 7½ years and have continued as a Senior Fellow over more recent times).
ASPI has come a long way since its foundation in 2001. Prime minister John Howard deserves marks for this forward-looking decision, which was supported by then opposition leader Kim Beazley, and served to make ASPI, by and large, a bipartisan concern from its inception.
Washington is a city of projected power and its axes reach globally. Its history can be instructive. Pierre L’Enfant designed the US capital to be a democratic citadel where the Capitol, home to the congress, dominated the skyline and was of greater significance than the White House.
Democratic aspirations still run through the lifeblood of Washington and an eloquent and active Australian democratic voice, seeking to influence the focus of American power, should be well placed to make an appreciable mark.
Washington may be a city of fiercely held views but those views are not always based on assessments of reality, as JFK understood. Nonetheless, there is a vigorous community of think tanks seeking to promote rational responses to the challenges confronting American policymakers.
In foreign affairs, defence, and national security, this has been recognised by US allies ranging from Britain to Japan. Australia now joins this select group, which has a bridgehead for establishing a presence in American debates of strategic significance. We may more readily seek not only to influence but to shape American perspectives. This is particularly valuable on Indo-Pacific issues.
As executive director of ASPI, Peter Jennings has pursued the objective of a Washington presence with a single-mindedness of purpose and a clear appreciation of the value of such an initiative. But until very recently, he was unable to persuade the Australian government of its virtue. Enter Peter Dutton.
The Defence Minister has been routinely dismissed over the years by opponents and, indeed, by people in his own party as being a very rough diamond unlikely ever to be polished. If this were ever true, it certainly is no longer.
As Defence Minister, Dutton has emerged as a much more thoughtful player and is far better focused on Australian national interest over the longer term than seeking an immediate electoral advantage through a political brawl. It is a welcome change but one not yet widely acknowledged in Canberra.
The timing of the ASPI Washington initiative could not be better. Australia rates well across a bipartisan board in DC, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit underlines. Washington is often bitterly divided along partisan lines, but there is a consensus in the congress about the importance of Australia as a reliable ally and the seriousness of the global strategic shifts that are occurring in our regions of the world.
Within the Biden administration, senior figures have made it clear that Australian interests will not be ignored by the US. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, definitively, Australia will not be left on the pitch. These are the words of a friend and ally, and have a particular resonance in Washington, where president Harry Truman once scathingly remarked: “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.”
Mateship implies stronger ties founded in over a century of mutual support in war beginning at Hamel in 1918 and continuing for more than 70 years upon the bedrock of the ANZUS alliance. ANZUS is now supplemented by the emerging Quad framework with the US, Japan and India. The salient feature of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is that it is based on four countries that have democratic imperatives in their political DNA. These complementary diplomatic structures see Australia in the foreground of Indo-Pacific relations designed to counterbalance the increasingly assertive and often aggressive behaviour of Beijing.
The reality of recent times is that the West has been involved in a second cold war but we are not prepared to admit it. Winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union was not only a question of military readiness and clear strategic goals, born of the “Long Telegram” from George Kennan in Moscow to Washington DC in 1946. It was fundamentally a battle of values.
Values must be based on universally accepted ideals that clearly reflect realities of democratic life. The challenge inherent in Beijing’s “Fourteen Points”, issued by the Chinese embassy in Canberra, can only be met comprehensively by adherence to norms that reinforce the foundations of liberty.
In Frank Capra’s magnificent 1939 film, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, the best lines are not necessarily to be found in James Stewart’s portrayal of Senator Jefferson Smith’s filibuster. The lecture delivered by his secretary, Clarissa Saunders (the superb Jean Arthur), is the inspirational core of the film. On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington’s evening air she replays to the despondent Senator Smith his own words emphasising that the immortalised 16th president of the United States simply waits for people who know they have a job to do and who sail into it.
ASPI undoubtedly has a job to do.
Peter Jennings will retire as executive director of ASPI early in 2022. He has been an extraordinary contributor as a writer and commentator on Australian national security. Hopefully, ASPI Washington DC will be an important part of his legacy.