The Age

by Tom Switzer

The PM needs a steady eye on reality amid the thrill of Washington.

This year marks the 60th anniversary in security ties between Australia and the United States. To mark the occasion this week, Julia Gillard is in Washington, where she will address Congress, following in the footsteps of only three Australian prime ministers - Robert Menzies in 1950 and 1955, Bob Hawke in 1988 and John Howard in 2002.*

Like all her predecessors since 1951, Gillard is acting out of sincerity as well as expediency. In international relations, the beliefs and interests of politicians are rarely allowed to collide.

But an awareness of the advantages of the alliance - which include favourable access to US technology and intelligence, as well as the all-important security insurance policy - has certainly shaped emotions on both sides of the political divide in Canberra.

All true. But it is also important to recognise we're not the only apple of America's eye. In January, Barack Obama said: "We don't have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people." In July, Obama hailed the "truly special relationship" between the US and Britain, telling David Cameron there was "no closer ally and no closer partner" than Britain. A few weeks earlier, Obama told the Indian people that "they have no better friend and partner than the people of the United States".

The point is clear: ours is one of many special relationships in Washington.

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister will be giddy with excitement in the US this week. She's hardly alone: Menzies used to get "sweaty palms" before he'd meet the US president in the Oval Office. In 1969, John Gorton promised a possibly bemused president that Australia would "go a-waltzing Matilda with you". In 1973, a nervous Gough Whitlam told Henry Kissinger he was worried that he'd "freeze up" in front of Richard Nixon.

In American calculations, Canberra ranks as an important strategic ally, but we are deluded if we think Australia is a major player in Washington policy circles. Australians of a certain vintage will recall with embarrassment Jimmy Carter's reference to "John" at a press conference with Malcolm Fraser. Harold Holt pledged Australia would go "all the way with LBJ", but Lyndon Johnson, who visited here twice during his five-year presidency, said virtually nothing about Holt in his memoirs.

In his book Lazarus, John Howard dedicates numerous pages of praise, including a chapter, to his good mate George Bush. In his Decision Points, however, the former president hardly mentions the "man of steel". Nor did Bill Clinton write much about Paul Keating.

As the distinguished conservative intellectual Owen Harries argued in the ABC Boyer lectures several years ago: "For extended periods of time in Washington, one needs very good peripheral vision to see Australia on the world map.''

History, moreover, is littered with examples of Australian and American interests colliding. Consider the different responses to the Chinese revolution of 1949: Washington pushed for an economic boycott of the mainland whereas Canberra supported trade with the new communist state.

Or take the Suez crisis of 1956: Dwight Eisenhower opposed military action against Egypt whereas Menzies sided with the British, French and Israelis.

Or take the Indonesian annexation of Dutch New Guinea (or West Papua) in 1962: John F. Kennedy placated the anti-Western Soekarno, whereas Menzies and the Labor opposition initially opposed Jakarta's aggression.

Add in the numerous trade disputes over the years and it is clear US-Australian relations have not always been smooth.

One can acknowledge all this and still strongly believe in the importance of the US alliance. It has, after all, been the sacred cow of Australian foreign policy since 1951. On most vital questions of the 20th century, Australian interests have coincided with those of what Menzies called "our great and powerful friend". There is no reason why this should cease to be the case.

It is just that, as Gillard meets Obama and senior US officials this week, she should remember that Canberra's support for Washington should not imply uncritical and unqualified agreement and support on all occasions. The point here is an old one, variously ascribed to Palmerston or de Gaulle, about minor allies, however loyal, not expecting inconvenient loyalty from a superpower.

*CORRECTION: In the original article, published in The Age on March 9, 2011, the author suggested Sir Robert Menzies also addressed a joint sitting of Congress in 1952. In fact, on August 1, 1950, Sir Robert addressed the US House of Representatives; later that day he addressed the US Senate; and on March 16, 1955 he addressed the United States Senate; later that day he addressed the US House of Representatives. The author regrets the mistakes.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of The Spectator Australia.