By Paul Kelly.
The recurring idea at this week's United States Studies Centre conference on the post-9/11 era is that America misjudged the past decade and invested too much of its strategy, resources and military in two land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a faulty assessment of priorities.
The Sydney conference began with a bracing start when the head of Australia's Foreign Affairs and Trade Department, Dennis Richardson, said with deliberation: "I was having dinner with a group of friends and I proposed a toast to the killing of Osama bin Laden." Richardson said he had never done such a thing before but the killing meant "justice was done".
When challenged from the floor, Richardson reminded the audience that since 9/11 more Australian civilians had been killed than Americans. He said bin Laden had nominated civilians as "legitimate terrorist targets", that he had branded Australia as an "enemy" and called the Australian operation in East Timor a "crusader" force as a rationale for the October 2002 Bali attack that killed 88 Australians.
Reviewing the decade Richardson, our former ambassador to Washington, said it was vital to recall "the bullets we have dodged", notably the foiled plot to bring down 12 airlines over the Pacific. The only way to respond to the tiny minority of terrorist killers was to ensure such people were "lawfully imprisoned or lawfully killed".
This conference testified to the tricks of history and Richardson's remarks, from our top diplomat, are a brilliant insight into the mood 10 years later in our political culture. The 9/11 decade has seen a truly dramatic deepening of the Australian-American alliance and personal concord. The furious domestic splits over the Iraq war and public rage towards George W. Bush are washed away with little cultural or strategic downside while Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard compete to be as pro-American as John Howard. Who would have believed?
At home, the Left was the big political loser from this decade. With Barack Obama in the White House, Labor has rarely been more pro-American as Gillard helps with Obama's war in Afghanistan and tells America it can still be great. The once notorious anti-American Labor Left is broken and silent. Through the decade, Australia's institutional bonds with the US surged with a free trade agreement, closer intelligence links, tighter military ties and stronger private networks typified by the US Studies Centre, the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue and the Lowy Institute, let alone Rudd's addiction to kissing Hillary Clinton.
The decade's conundrum is that the US made a series of strategic mistakes but Australia, having gone for each and every ride, has emerged unscathed, trusted by a battered America and made even richer by China. Are our leaders pure genius or just eternally lucky?
What counts is the next decade. What counts now are the messages coming from US friends we like and trust. They know the US is wounded and they know more about Australia than before. It behoves us to listen because the next decade will be more difficult than the past decade.
Veteran US diplomat, former under secretary of state for political affairs and presidential adviser Nicholas Burns told the conference the US would not retreat to isolationism or unilateralism. His critical message, however, was that "the US is over-invested in the Middle East and under-invested in Asia" being "bogged down" in two land wars.
The implicit question at this 9/11 rethink was whether China had won the decade. Australian analyst Hugh White speculated that "in 50 years historians may conclude the legacy of 9/11 was to distract the US from its focus on China". White warned Australia faced a new world - the 40-year-old uncontested US primacy in Asia would now be challenged by China. It poses a challenge for Australia against which our Iraq war involvement seems both less complex and less consequential.
Burns said the past decade had been "very difficult" for America but talk of US decline at the conference was overdone. There was no sense of defeatism within America about its world role. None. Burns praised Obama as a leader for the times. He said, however, that "we will be asking more of our allies". In one sense, this was the most important message from the two-day meeting. What, pray, might it mean? Australia with its tradition of limited, niche military commitments that maximise political influence (witness John Howard) needs to think hard about how much the ball game it has mastered is about to change.
"The rise of China is the single most important issue facing the US for the next 50 years," Burns said. There was wide agreement, he argued, across the US political system on its approach to China - to engage with China but also to hedge by building a new strategic relationship with India and rely upon the US alliance system in Asia constituting Japan, South Korea and Australia.
"I hope that Australia will stick with the US," Burns said. "I'm betting on the American model, not the Chinese model." Who could disagree with that? But Burns shattered this Australian-American concord by putting the harsh reality on the table, hitting it around and striking, in turn, a formidable figure from the past, former Labor foreign minister, Gareth Evans.
"The surest way to peace with China is through strength," Burns said. This meant ongoing US "military dominance" in the Asian region with the alliance system of Japan, South Korea and Australia directed to this purpose.
"I was struck by the language you just used," Evans retorted. He told Burns US military dominance could not be maintained. The region, Evans argued, would be far more comfortable without such US rhetoric and claims to dominance. Evans told Burns former US president Bill Clinton had recognised this in his own language.
The real Australian alarm is obvious: being part of an alliance system now redirected towards China and whose purpose America explicitly defines as retaining military dominance over China. Here's a neat new mission for Australian foreign policy!
To be fair, it is where Rudd has been for some time. But how will this mission play out inside the Labor Party for the next decade? It is exactly the risk that White has been highlighting. As for the Liberals, opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop said the Coalition saw China as an opportunity, not a threat, and that she didn't agree with Rudd's tough line on China in his defence white paper.
Since the inception of the alliance in the early 1950s Australia, as junior partner, has brilliantly mobilised ANZUS for our national interests. Now the US is shaping to mobilise Australia via ANZUS for its strategic management of China. Once again, Australia must ride with the US but it needs to exercise some critical influence over this journey.