By Mungo MacCallum
Malcolm Turnbull’s ritual pilgrimage to his great and powerful friend went very much according to plan.
Some worried that the handshakes were not quite as effusive that they might have been, but there was no doubting the mutual protestations of undying loyalty.
Our Prime Minister acclaimed America as powerful, effective, a leader in every sphere; he was every bit as compliant and indeed subservient as even his sternest critic (Greg Sheridan, The Australian’s Yankophile foreign editor) expected and demanded.
There had been the merest whisper that Turnbull might be (shock, horror) a touch bolshie – he might display as modicum of independence. After all, his Defence Minister Marise Payne had actually knocked back, in the politest possible way, a suggestion by her American counterpart Ash Carter that Australia might actually increase its grounds forces in Iraq and Syria.
But it turned out that there was no problem at all: Carter, Barack Obama and indeed everyone anyone who could get a word in assured Turnbull that all was well; Australia was doing just as required by the alliance (well, hegemony actually, but we don’t call it that) and was in fact contributing to the cause second only to the United States itself – what could be fairer than that?
It turned out that the Carter request had not been a personal plea, but more in the nature of a form letter to whom it may concern. The Pentagon was keen for everyone, but more particularly the Europeans and the Middle Eastern nations, to lift their game – be in it, you slackers. The exhortation was not aimed at Canberra — heaven forbid. In the circumstances it might have been more tactful to have said so earlier, but no real harm done. The relationship, the partnership as we call it for reasons of diplomacy, was as sound as ever.
And of course, when Liberal Prime Ministers have been involved, it was ever thus. From the days when Robert Menzies sent an urgent telegram to Washington, imploring that someone be found to get the venal and corrupt government in Saigon to transmit a formal request to Canberra so that Australia might take part in the disastrous American adventure in Vietnam, the parade of what Mark Latham described as a conga line of suckholes has never really abated.
Harold Holt enthused that he was all the way with LBJ; John Gorton echoed that he would go a-waltzing Matilda in the cause. When Billy McMahon made his fulsome obeisance to Richard Nixon, one Australian reporter at the scene was heard to groan, ‘I wish I was Italian’. Malcolm Fraser belatedly recanted his support for the Vietnam morass, but in his time as Defence Minister there was no fiercer hawk.
And more recently John Howard and Tony Abbott just couldn’t wait to throw themselves into Afghanistan, Iraq – wherever America led. Even before Washington gave the order, they were pawing at the ground, panting and slavering to unleash their own pups of war.
Labor leaders have been a little more circumspect – well, some of them. Kim Beazley, for instance, was always firmly on side with whatever Washington required of him, and even Latham, despite his early rhetoric, warped himself in the stars and stripes when it appeared politic.
The great recalcitrant was of course Gough Whitlam, loathed and feared by Nixon to the extent that the Australian government was constantly chided and threatened, if not in fact destabilised. Bob Hawke learned the lesson and constantly boasted of his friendship with Secretary of State George Schultz. But even he was forced, to his huge embarrassment, to be overruledd by his caucus to cancel a proposed MX missile test in the area.
Paul Keating fell back on the formula: ‘We are friends, but friends can disagree’. But in fact he seldom if ever did. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard seldom had time to disagree about anything much, and Bill Shorten is clearly disinclined to. And so we muddle on.
But although everything was rosy enough last week, there are signs of tension: a cloud no bigger than China is looming across the northern horizon. Howard once averred famously: ‘We do not need to choose between our history and our geography’, by which he meant that we could accommodate all our interests both in the West and in Asia.
And when it was just a matter of keeping on side with America in our defence alliance and with China when it came to trade, he was probably right. But it is no longer as simple as that. China is now a major military power in its own right, and has started to flex its considerable muscle, first in the South China Sea, and then – well, who knows?
Washington is nervous, and is responding, initially with naval patrols through the region. Australia has so far declined to join in the show of force, but there is increasing pressure to do more than utter mild remonstrances against its giant neighbour. Sure, we would much prefer the solve the dispute – indeed, to solve all disputes – through diplomacy, but if that doesn’t work, what then?
It has been reported (by Greg Sheridan — who else?) that Washington is preparing to lean on Canberra to allow what it calls a sanctuary – by which it means a fully operational military base – on Australian territory, with the aim of launching incursions into the South China Sea and any other convenient targets. This would obviously be extremely controversial within the electorate, to the extent that it could provoke divisions along the lines we once saw in Vietnam.
Turnbull, ever the temporiser, would much prefer to avoid such a showdown, but he may not be able to. His pronouncements to date have been moving more towards Washington, and although he is desperately keen to keep Beijing on side – for purely commercial reasons, if nothing else – eventually he may be compelled to make the choice: history or geography? Then where is the overriding national interest?
It may be that there isn’t one: Turnbull will be caught in zugswang, the position in chess in which any move makes the position worse. Like it or not, the world has changed, and it will take an exceptional agile leader, with a very determined handshake or two, to manage the outcome.