Australian Financial Review

By Tom Switzer

In recent months, a new conventional wisdom about US foreign policy has emerged: that, with the end of what Barack Obama has called "a long season of war", America is retreating from the world. We are told that Washington's vacillating and inept responses to crises, from Syria's civil war to Russia's incursions in Ukraine, have hurt its credibility and prestige as well as its ability to lead and influence the world. So much so that the much-touted pivot to Asia is pivoting away.

Meanwhile, the war-weary public believes it's high time for the US to concentrate on its own neglected domestic problems. A clear majority of Americans still believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. And public opinion is at its most non-interventionist since the heyday of isolationism in the inter-war period.

Tony Abbott visits the US this week, and he has caught the significance of this crisis of confidence. When he addressed the Washington-based Heritage Foundation two years ago, he declared: "America needs to believe in itself the way others still believe in it." Other political and opinion leaders across the region reflect those sentiments.

This is a familiar tale. When the Americans started to downgrade their commitment in Vietnam and call on allies to take more responsibility for their security in the late 1960s, Australian government officials raised serious doubts about the US staying power in Asia. Peter Howson, the minister for air, lamented in his diaries: "There'll be no white faces on the Asian mainland", and "we shall be isolated and on our own". John Gorton, the prime minister, warned: "America is going to be less and less interested in this part of the world."

But just as talk of America's retreat was greatly exaggerated more than four decades ago, so it is today. Far from withdrawing from the world, the US will remain the world's largest economy and its predominant military superpower for the foreseeable future.

And as the international trendsetter in innovation, higher education and energy self-sufficiency, it has enormous capacity to bounce back from setbacks.

Enhancing security ties

As for Asia, the US military and diplomatic presence, including bases and other access agreements and up to 100,000 personnel in the Pacific Command, remains steadfast.

The Pentagon is on track to shift the 50-50 balance of forces between Europe and Asia to 40-60 in favour of the latter by 2020. Washington is enhancing security relationships with several states that are increasingly nervous about the rise of China.

Moreover, the US commitment to its allies — not least by shows of force last year around the Korean peninsula and East China Sea — sent the right signals that Pyongyang and Beijing could not intimidate South Korea and Japan without repercussions. The US-led recovery effort in the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan showcased US capability and presence.

The point here is that, although the US will cease to act like the almost indiscriminating global hegemon that marked the post-9/11 era, it will remain a formidable presence in the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. But it will increasingly define distinctions between the essential and the desirable, and recognise a sense of limits and restraint in foreign affairs.

That is essentially what Barack Obama was saying at his keynote West Point address a fortnight ago. It is what rising Republicans, such as likely presidential candidate Rand Paul, are also advocating. And it is what the Prime Minister will hear privately during his first formal bilateral meetings with the President in Washington this week. Still, leaving aside Malcolm Fraser's recent calls to jettison the alliance, it is widely believed the US–Australia relationship will remain the centrepiece of Canberra's strategic outlook. It is deeply embedded in our national psyche. And it includes favourable access to US technology, intelligence and a security insurance policy.

On the American side, the alliance is important because we remain a stable, reliable and significant presence. Australia is the 12th largest economy in the world and serves as a fast-expanding market for US goods and services. And because we export more to China than we do to the US by a ratio of more than 6 to 1, our leverage and credibility in Washington is enhanced, especially at a time when America is anxious about the rise of China.

Australia must be more diplomatic

Abbott has long been a great admirer of America. He once said: "Few Australians would regard America as a foreign country." On America's role in the world, "it is often thought . . . that its knowledge is scanty, its judgment flawed, and its actions frequently counter-productive", Abbott wrote in 2009. "What can't seriously be questioned is Americans' collective desire to be a force for good."

But there is a sense that Abbott, like Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard before him, recognises that Canberra must learn to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before: that Australia is not faced with a stark binary choice between Beijing and Washington.

This means that Australia, far from embracing the old traits of dependability and unconditional loyalty to any "special relationship", will need to be more qualified and ambiguous in its support for America.

Notwithstanding a few missteps, such as his unashamed advocacy of Japan as Australia's "closest friend in Asia" when the circumstances demand a more nuanced description, Abbott is striking the right balance.

This article was originally published at the Australian Financial Review