The Drum Unleashed (ABC online)

By Tom Switzer

Former ABC Boyer lecturer Owen Harries once said that "for extended periods of time in Washington one needs very good peripheral vision to see Australia on the world map". It's a point our prime ministers could recognise.

In his memoirs, John Howard dedicates numerous pages of praise, including a chapter, to his good mate George W Bush. In his own autobiography, however, the president hardly mentions the 'Man of Steel'.

During her Asia trip last week, Julia Gillard went to great lengths to commend an Australian cameraman for merely crying out "Thank you, Mr President" after a press conference. ("Good one, team!") For his part, Barack Obama was more focussed on creating jobs back home, potentially at the expense of Australian competition.

The Prime Minister gets all giddy when the president says: "The United States does not have a closer or better ally than Australia." She's hardly alone: Robert Menzies used to get "sweaty palms" before he'd meet the US president in the Oval Office. Harold Holt pledged to go "All the Way With LBJ" in 1966. John Gorton promised a possibly bemused president that Australia would "Go a-Waltzing Matilda With You" in 1969. A nervous Gough Whitlam told Henry Kissinger in 1973 he was worried that he'd "freeze up" in front of Richard Nixon.

To be fair, Australian prime ministers – on Labor and the Coalition sides – have usually acted out of sincerity as well as expediency. The beliefs and interests of politicians are rarely allowed to collide, and an awareness of the advantages of the alliance – which include favourable access to technology and intelligence, as well as the all-important security insurance policy – has certainly shaped Australian emotions.

But the point here is that we're hardly America's only special relationship. In July, Obama hailed the "truly special relationship" between the US and UK, telling David Cameron there was "no closer ally and no closer partner" than Britain. In March, vice president Joe Biden said: "The US has no better friend in the community of nations than Israel." Last July, Obama told the Indian people that "they have no better friend and partner than the people of the United States". One could provide more such quotes, but you get the point: we're not so special after all.

It is easy enough to see why Jimmy Carter once called prime minister Malcolm Fraser "John" at a press conference. Howard himself boasts that he elevated the alliance to a new level in Washington, but the distinguished Los Angeles Times still repeatedly referred to him as "Mr Hunt" in its editorial during his September 2001 US trip. Lyndon Johnson, who visited Australia twice during his five-year presidency, said virtually nothing about Harold Holt in his memoirs. Nor did Bill Clinton write much about Paul Keating in his autobiography a few years ago.

Don't get me wrong: I am a great believer in the US alliance, which has been the centrepiece of Australian foreign policy since 1951. On most vital questions of the 20th century, Australian interests have coincided with those of what Sir Robert called "our great and powerful friend". I see no reason why this should cease to be the case.

All I am saying is that Canberra's support for Washington should not imply uncritical and unqualified agreement and support on all occasions. Minor allies, however loyal, should not expect inconvenient loyalty from a superpower. As Charles de Gaulle once remarked, great powers are "cold monsters", and gratitude is not one of their stronger motivations.

Or as Harries put it in his Boyer lectures several years ago: "However sweet the rhetoric and however warm the hugging, the priorities of the two countries are likely to differ at least as often as they coincide." Somebody should tell Julia Gillard.

Tom Switzer is a a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne, and editor of The Spectator Australia.