The Sydney Morning Herald

By Brendon O'Connor

The outcomes of American presidential elections have not had that much of a direct impact on Australia in the past. But last year's increase in United States' troop numbers in Darwin makes the presidency of more immediate importance to Australia.

If George W. Bush or Mitt Romney rather than Barack Obama had talked tough on China in the Australian parliament in 2011 and then announced that more US troops would be rotating in and out of northern Australia every year, many more Australians would have been nervous.

Commentators would have asked harder questions about whether this was a good idea. Because Obama made these announcements they were treated far too uncritically. Indeed, during his visit, Obama was treated as a celebrity who we were lucky to have gracing our shores after two cancelled trips. The consensus seemed it would be rude to ask him any tough questions.

Bob Carr, in his pre-foreign minister days, was one of the few to question the wisdom of the new military arrangement by making the obvious point that a military commitment to America is made not just with the Obamas of today but also potentially the Romneys, Santorums and Palins of tomorrow.

Given the vast majority of Australians would prefer Obama's presidency to continue, is there any way for our government to express this or is old-school diplomatic silence the best policy? Expressing a preference has obvious risks, as of course does the decision to make military commitments with one type of American president forgetting that future presidents may be considerably different.

In 2004, John Howard was the first ever Australian prime minister to publicly express support for a particular US presidential candidate (I believe no British or Canadian prime minister has ever made such a public endorsement). This came on top of the Howard government's strong support for the war in Iraq and US policy at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility; and then of course, later, there was Howard's infamous pronouncement that Obama would go soft on Osama bin Laden.

These statements and positions were mistakes at the time and this is even more apparent with the benefits of hindsight. Given this record, silence from our politicians may well be the safest strategy when it comes to commenting on US elections, politics and foreign policy. However, I would argue we should resist public silence, but the challenge is knowing just when to speak out.

Recently Wayne Swan commented that: ''Let's be blunt and acknowledge the biggest threat to the world's biggest economy are the cranks and crazies that have taken over a part of the Republican Party.'' Most commentary I have seen on these remarks called them ''ill-advised''.

To me this is a problem. Swan's comments accurately highlight the Tea Party's ill-advised ideas on America's debt responsibilities. If put into practice, Republican ideas on debt, particularly those promoted by the strong block of Tea Party-aligned Republicans, would lead to a recession in the US and many other places.

Criticisms of the kind made by Swan should be our philosophy in general: We should be able to publicly and privately criticise the US, backed up by hard evidence. It is simply playing good ''defence'' as the Americans themselves say.

We should resist fearing to speak simply because it might be called undiplomatic. Just as importantly we should resist seeing any American attention as a good thing. Sometimes US engagement comes at too high a price: the Iraq War of 2003 and possibly our recent embrace of more US troops in Australia are examples of this. With these troops on our soil, Australia is no longer a strategic backwater and the American election has potentially more direct impact on Australia.

Regarding Romney, of most concern is the American exceptionalist foreign policy he promised in his 2010 campaign book No Apology. Of course, with Romney it is hard to know whether he is likely to be the second coming of George W. Bush or a more moderate incarnation in the mould of Bush senior.

However, a Romney presidency could well lead to Australia having to make difficult foreign policy choices with regard to China and the Middle East that the Gillard government and Australians in general would wish to avoid. On the other hand, Obama could win. Either way our government should have made decisions last year on the understanding that as Texans say: ''You got to dance with them what brung you.'' Right now Australia is dancing with President Obama but as a nation we have to be prepared for the fact that the next line dance - or the one after - may well be with a Republican president.

This article was originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald