Election Interpreter 2013
Michael Green is Senior Vice President for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, a Professor at Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.
It is always reassuring to see the protagonists in Australian federal elections stand united in their support of the US alliance, despite their readiness to spray each other with invective and innuendo on every other topic under the sun. The one exception to that bipartisanship was Mark Latham in 2004, and he paid a heavy political price.
So one might conclude that Saturday's poll will have negligible impact on the US. I disagree. In one very important respect, I hope the election will have a big impact.
For the past three years, Labor's minority government has been hanging by a thread: afraid of big foreign policy decisions, distracted by minor domestic scandals, and ready to slash defense spending for tactical political gain without strategic context or rationale. This is not to downgrade the foreign policy talent on the field in Canberra and Washington, but it has been the political reality.
Unfortunately, similar things might be said of the Obama Administration, which turned smartly to Asia with the so-called 'pivot' in 2010 but now finds itself unable to articulate a national defense strategy because of sequestration, and backed into a desperate gamble with Congress on intervention in Syria (where, for the record, I support the President).
David Cameron's humiliating defeat on Syria in the House of Commons means that the US now turns to France for steadfastness on the Middle East. And in Asia, while Obama can count on Japan's Abe and Korea's Park to remain pro-US, the President has an uneasy relationship with Abe and Park is preoccupied with the economy and managing North Korea. Neither is guiding American strategic thought.
In short, the US needs confident Australian leadership. While Labor may be running on fumes as a political party, Kevin Rudd exudes precisely the kind of confidence in US global leadership and enthusiasm for Asia strategy that would resonate with the right people in Washington. In his previous run as prime minister, Rudd was not afraid to tell Obama how to run the G20 or to pick up his game in Asia, and while that chafed with some in the administration, the President generally listened.
Tony Abbott's conservative politics would probably have fit a McCain or Romney administration better than Obama, but the bottom line is that Abbott is a conviction politician in a world that needs more leaders with conviction. Moreover, while both ALP and the Coalition have left some mystery around their defense budgeting, it looks from Washington like the Coalition is much more likely to put its money where its mouth is on national security. That will be noticed.
The next prime minister may see Obama at the UN General Assembly in late September and certainly will have a lengthy bilateral on the margins of APEC in Bali in early October. Then the foreign and defense ministers will meet with the secretaries of state and defense for AUSMIN in November.
Washington is strategically adrift right now. An Australian prime minister with a fresh win, a clear foreign policy vision, and robust defense spending will not only get a hearing, he could help to right the list in American leadership globally.