The Lowy Interpreter

By Malcolm Jorgensen

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shares the determination of his predecessor Tony Abbott that the US alliance remains the cornerstone of Australian foreign policy. However, the divergent worldviews of the two men suggest that Turnbull will have a greater capacity to respond flexibly to shifting power balances.

An oft cited foundation of the alliance is 'shared values and priorities — our commitment to freedom and democracy, peace and prosperity, and a rules-based international order.' Both prime ministers have accepted this formula, but there is a distinction between Abbott's culturally particularistic sensibilities, tied to tradition and heritage, and Turnbull's decidedly more cosmopolitan view of Australia's place in the world. The distinction has manifested domestically, such as in disagreement over the place of British monarchy in Australian constitutional government, but equally has implications when projected outward.

In a speech on the alliance delivered in Washington, Abbott emphasised the shared heritage and global outlook of English-speaking countries, concluding that 'few Australians would regard America as a foreign country. We are more than allies. We're family.' Abbott reassured the US that it was 'an exceptional nation' in its commitment to bringing its values to bear on global politics. 

Turnbull doubts the value of such dutiful praise, since 'great powers regard deference as their due.' His emphasis is different, arguing that, 'Like Americans, Australians do not define national identity by reference to race, religion or a particular culture. Rather, our identity is grounded in a shared commitment to common civic values.' In a 2012 lecture at the US Studies Centre, Turnbull answered a question about the relative importance of China and the US by citing his son's marriage to a Chinese national as an example of evolving cultural identity. For him 'China and the Chinese people are part of the Australian story.'

Turnbull's more cosmopolitan conception of Australia and his scepticism about the centrality of shared cultural identity is matched by his view that belief in American exceptionalism could be a liability, likely to cloud US strategic thinking. Turnbull recognises China as having an equivalent, albeit inwardly focused, sense of exceptionalism, with its rise to great power status being a return to historical trend. Insistence that American leadership in the Asia Pacific is inherently more legitimate will ultimately conflict with China's claims to leadership commensurate to its power, Turnbull argues.

Turnbull's attitude toward the alliance is pragmatic: he has a strong preference for deep US commitment to the region, but is concerned about whether the US will realistically appraise its evolving position in the region and forgo temptations to contain China. The 'pivot' to Asia is welcomed as 'a vitally important, stabilising, reassuring factor in the peaceful development of our region.' Yet the preoccupation with conflicts in distant parts of the globe has compelled Turnbull to remind US leaders to remain 'engaged, aware, committed to the Asia Pacific.'

Turnbull has demonstrated a genuine and long held commitment to engaging in the debate over the shifting Sino-American power balance. He specifically accepts Hugh White's thesis that the trajectory of growing Chinese power makes a rebalance in the Asia Pacific unavoidable. In Washington, the cross-party consensus remains that US primacy must continue as the guiding principle in the region. Turnbull, however, openly contemplates whether Western nations are ready 'to adapt to a very different distribution of global power than that which they've been used to'.

Where Turnbull seeks to distinguish himself from White is in arguing that the situation will not require a formal agreement to share power, but rather will be largely self-correcting. In this, Turnbull turns to Henry Kissinger to assert that China's rising power 'will inevitably, but almost unconsciously, evolve into a new order, without either side having to make concessions to the other.' Yet that sanguine view contrasts with Turnbull's fondness for quoting Thucydides' fatalistic aphorism that in global affairs 'the strong do as they will and the weak suffer as they must.'

The discrepancy may well stem from Turnbull's stated belief that openly preparing for conflict against a 'Manichean foe' creates dangerous cycles of misunderstanding and is therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy. In this he must have been dismayed at Abbott's statement that Australian policy toward China is driven by 'fear and greed.' As a careful student of history, Turnbull surely recognises that a strategy based on calculations that America will act differently than Sparta did in the face of rising Athenian power sets hope before experience. The discordant positions set out by Turnbull suggest he may understand that only too well.

This article was originally published at the The Lowy Interpreter