Everyone knows that in a few weeks’ time George W. Bush will lose his closest international ally when Tony Blair steps down as Britain’s prime minister. Less well known is that just behind Blair in the exit queue may be the foreign leader who is arguably a close second in the president’s affections—Prime Minister John Howard of Australia.
Howard, who has been in office since 1996, is already Australia’s second-longest-serving premier, having won four elections, the most recent in 2004. He has staged some remarkable come-from-behind wins in the past, but he will have to top them all if he is to prevail in this year’s balloting, probably in the fall. A recent Newspoll shows Howard’s Liberal party—the name, confusingly enough, of Australia’s conservatives—running well behind Labor, 59 percent to 41 percent. In the past, Howard has managed to win largely on the basis of his personal appeal, but now voters say by a 49-percent to 37-percent margin that they prefer his younger rival, Kevin Rudd, who took over leadership of the opposition this past December.
What accounts for Howard’s slide? And what are the implications for the America-Australia alliance? I asked those questions of a number of political observers and participants in Canberra and Sydney recently. The most widely cited answer to the former question is fatigue and complacency. After 11 years, and notwithstanding a strong economy and a popular new budget, voters are tired of Howard’s government. In a way, his success is his downfall. The economy is growing so strongly that many Australians seem willing to risk a change of government, especially when the alternative does not seem especially threatening.
Rudd is conservative for a Laborite, a nerdy former diplomat and management consultant in boxy spectacles who speaks Chinese fluently and goes to church regularly (he was brought up Catholic but now attends Anglican services). He has few ties to the unions which have traditionally been a dominant force mooring his party to the left. He is seen as a safe pair of hands to continue steering Australia ahead—a Tony Blair to Howard’s Margaret Thatcher.
For that reason few expect any change of government to much affect the close relationship between Australia and the United States. While Rudd has opposed the Iraq war, he has not made opposition to U.S. policy a theme of his campaign, the way previous Labor leader Mark Latham did in 2004. Latham promised to pull Aussie troops out of Iraq by Christmas if elected—a pledge he made without consulting Rudd, his shadow foreign minister.
That kind of tactic doesn’t play well in Australia; Latham wound up getting thumped at the polls. Rudd isn’t repeating that mistake. He is running as a pro-American (and pro-Israel) candidate. Although a Laborite, Rudd has arguably been less critical of the United States than the current Conservative leader in Britain, David Cameron.
Indeed, Rudd went out of his way to reassure Dick Cheney, during the vice president’s February visit to Oz, that even though he does plan to pull Australia’s 550 troops from southern Iraq, he will not necessarily do so immediately, and he will maintain another 1,000 Australian personnel in and around Iraq to support coalition operations. Rudd also has backed Howard’s plan to more than double, to almost 1,000, the number of Australian troops in Afghanistan.
From the White House perspective, it will still be a blow if Howard loses office. Along with his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, Howard has been one of the world’s most stalwart defenders of the global war on terror and most eloquent critics of trendy anti-Americanism. But Rudd’s accession would not occasion a crisis with one of America’s two closest Pacific allies (the other being Japan). Even with China now having become Australia’s second largest trading partner (after Japan), most folks Down Under, Labor or Liberal, know that, in the final analysis, their survival and safety rest with their American mates. Just as America came to the rescue in 1942, with Douglas MacArthur taking charge when Japanese invasion seemed imminent, so Australians count on America to bail them out of any future crisis.
They, in turn, are willing to help the United States carry out mutual foreign policy objectives. Australia is the only country to have fought alongside the United States in all of its major wars of the past 100 years; the Aussies, unlike the Brits, didn’t opt out of Vietnam.
The Australian military may be small—with 51,000 active-duty personnel, it is little more than one-fourth the size of the U.S. Marine Corps—but it is heavily deployed. The Australian Defense Forces talk of a punishing “operations tempo” just as do the American armed forces. And, like the U.S. military, the Australians are expanding to make up for post-Cold War downsizing—albeit on a much smaller scale. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps are adding more than 60,000 troops; the Australians 6,000.
The Australians were early supporters of the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing diplomatic cover against charges of unilateralism and sending their highly skilled SAS commandos to fight alongside American and British Special Forces. While the Aussies play only a small supporting role in the Middle East, they have taken the lead in managing crises closer to their shores. They led a United Nations force into East Timor in 1999 to stop attempts by pro-Indonesian militias to block that nation’s march to independence, and they have stuck around long enough to midwife a new democracy. There were some setbacks last year with riots and fighting in Dili, the capital, but order was restored by troops from Australia and other nations. Earlier this month, East Timor experienced a peaceful transition from the previous president to the newly elected JosÚ Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Australia also has committed troops and police officers to a peacekeeping mission in the Solomon Islands. And Australian diplomats, aid workers, and soldiers remain engaged in maintaining order in other tiny island states around the South Pacific, where military coups d’Útat are common.
Australians are also working to prevent the growth of radical Islam in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and other nearby states with large Muslim populations. Because of its proximity, Australia has more experts on many of those countries than the United States does, making the Aussies a valuable source of guidance and intelligence.
Delivering a speech in Sydney, I jokingly commended the audience, which included many Australian officers, for their success in establishing an Australian Empire. This was met with nervous laughter—an acknowledgment that, however politically incorrect, the jest contained some truth.
Without the old-fashioned imperial trappings, Australia is indeed playing the kind of stabilizing role that the British Empire once played and that the United States has now inherited. But not even the United States, with its 300 million people and defense spending greater than the rest of the planet combined, can handle every crisis everywhere. We may be the global sheriff, but we need a posse to be effective, and Australia has been a stalwart member of that self-selected assemblage. Other liberal democratic powers, ranging from Brazil to India, could usefully emulate its example by taking a more active role in policing their regions in cooperation with the United States and other foreign partners.
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