Occasionally the mask of American officialdom drops to reveal what it really thinks of Australia.
During a discussion in Washington some years ago with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security Adviser to president Jimmy Carter, Brzezinski said the Australians and British were the kinds of alliance partners who, like his native Poland, thrived on the very status of being a US ally: chests puffed out for ceremonies on the White House South Lawn, glorying in "access".
Brzezinski was talking in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a war he opposed. He was in no mood for honeyed rhetoric about allies that had encouraged Washington to compound its Middle East folly.
Yet only two years ago a senior staffer to vice president Joe Biden made the pointed remark that Australia was a "great ally of the US everywhere in the world, except Asia".
That reflected growing frustration among some in the Obama administration that Australia was not muscling up to a rising China in the way Washington believed it should. Around the same time, a former senior official in the Howard government lamented that "no one in Washington says Australia punches above its weight anymore".
How times change. In a recent analysis of likely American foreign policy trends after the coming election, the Brookings Institution's Tom Wright suggests a Biden administration would feel there is much to learn from Canberra when it comes to tackling political interference. Australia’s alliance credibility is likely to become increasingly measured through the prism of its stance on China.
As a Biden presidency becomes more likely, it is worth asking what those around him might expect of Australia and whether the alliance is heading into a new phase in its history.
The common assumption is that a Biden win will represent an American course-correction. Such a view sees Trump as an aberration, a chaotic flirtation with populist demagoguery. This abstract view of how the American people ought to have voted in 2016 holds that the true custodians of America are about to parade in triumph down Pennsylvania Avenue, the banner of Wilsonian liberal internationalism fluttering above the ticker tape.
Biden would restore, in an instant, the dignity of the American presidency.
If he recommits Washington to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accords, much of the catastrophising over the fate of the rules-based order would quickly fade. Biden’s first task, to convince allies that the US is committed to this order, will have been achieved.
It will be another matter entirely, however, for Biden to sell a global foreign policy to the average American voter. COVID-19 has sapped an American morale already drained after long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global financial crisis and belated recognition in Washington that it has a rival in China unlike any other it has faced before.
Still, American society has, when looking across the broad sweep of the country, kept its balance amid the turmoil unleashed by the forces which brought Trump to power.
Some will point to polls showing a majority of Americans favour continued global engagement. But this ignores the socio-cultural dimension of US foreign policy. Nearly one-third of Americans live in lower-class households. That poses a challenge to the kind of active international posture that a Biden administration will want to reinvigorate.
And this administration, more than most, will hurry to restore American global prestige. Because what allies have taken from Trump is the message of their disposability, a legacy that will complicate the work of American diplomats for some time.
Biden will rush to coordinate allies, whether that be in a mooted "summit of democracies" or on climate change. Some who worked for Biden have in the past talked about his White House firing on all cylinders in Asia. That won’t mean an ideological crusade aimed at containing China. But it may well mean the application of a coherent China policy from the president down — a stark difference to the current administration.
Australia has felt heavy alliance pressure before. But it might be in for a new kind of pressure – dealing with an America on the backfoot but one pulling Canberra in directions that might not always be commensurate with distinctively Australian national interests.
Kurt Campbell, an architect of Obama’s pivot to Asia and likely key player again, once said that Democrats always needed to wear Cold War warriors Harry Truman and John F Kennedy on their ties and not the humility or modesty of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. He was reflecting the desire of every Democratic administration to prove their toughness on national security.
In this case, it is likely to mean any appetite in Washington to reach some kind of geopolitical modus vivendi in the Pacific with China will be distinctly limited. A Biden administration is unlikely to countenance such a process. It rubs against the very grain of American exceptionalism.
The US retains advantages in its strategic competition with China, among them a younger population and access to low-cost energy. Even so, it will continue to be primarily turned inwards, for if the American dream is to be revived the country’s heartland needs to be rebuilt.
Australian governments over the next administration would be wise to grapple more with what a changing America means, especially for this region. The alternative is the hallucinatory delirium that comes from repeated injections of "mateship" into Australia’s strategic bloodstream.