Can Australia really rely on America?

By David Crowe

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The mayhem in American politics played havoc with Australian plans when Anthony Albanese tried to set an agenda for his visit to Washington DC this week.

While the Republicans struggled to choose a Speaker for the House of Representatives, there was nobody at the top to invite the Australian prime minister to address a joint meeting of the Congress, the honour given to John Howard in 2002 and Julia Gillard in 2011.

News that the Republicans had chosen a speaker broke as Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and US President Joe Biden addressed the media in the White House rose garden on Wednesday. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The address was part of the plan from the early stages – and strongly backed by leaders in Washington who want the Congress to demolish every obstacle to AUKUS – the pact that ties Australia to the United States and the United Kingdom for decades to come. The address might have helped President Joe Biden gain the approval he needs from lawmakers who are yet to be persuaded to back the plan for a new fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

Albanese and his team went through four drafts of the speech before shelving the address when it became clear the Republican drama would drag on for longer than first thought.

By the time the breaking news from the Congress came through to mobile phones in the White House Rose Garden on Wednesday morning that the Republicans had finally chosen a new speaker, Mike Johnson, after 22 days, the prime minister was into the third day of his trip, waiting to address the media at a joint press conference with Biden. More than half his state visit was spent in the US capital with a leaderless House.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shares his thoughts with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The shocking contrast in the week’s events should send a warning to anyone who talks glowingly of AUKUS as an iron-clad agreement to cement a lasting alliance.

In the past, Albanese has described American leadership as indispensable. In the past few weeks, however, parts of the Congress dispensed with leadership.

This left a growing doubt behind every careful step in the prime minister’s state visit, from his descent from the Royal Australian Air Force KC-30 at Andrews Air Force base on Sunday night to his walk with Biden along the colonnade of the White House before the meeting in the Oval Office.

All the imagery was about the permanence of American power. Albanese and Biden stood for a ceremonial welcome on the south lawn of the White House on Wednesday morning with the Washington monument in front of them, trumpets sounding from the White House steps behind them and hundreds of military personnel in the honour guard around them. The ceremony was drenched in history, not least when the Marine Band, still dressed as it looked in the early 1800s, played Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The pomp and circumstance of the arrival ceremony on Wednesday. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

But just how permanent is American power? This question hung over the state dinner on Wednesday night when Albanese quoted William Butler Yeats in his toast. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” he said, to make a point about the contest between democracy and autocracy.

But he did not quote the next line: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” That might have been too close to the bone in Washington this week. Nor did he choose other lines from the poem, such as: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” That could have upset Fox News.

The fact is that the United States are not as united as they used to be – and certainly not as stable as they were before Donald Trump brought a new toxicity to politics and automatic weapons turned America into a land of regular mass murder.

In choosing Johnson as Speaker, the Republicans selected a Trump supporter who sought to overturn the 2020 election. In Maine, meanwhile, a 40-year-old man killed at least 18 people and wounded dozens of others at a bowling alley and restaurant. The news was broken to Biden as he hosted Albanese at a state dinner.

The message from Biden is that Australia can depend upon the US in times of need. “The alliance between Australia and the United States is an anchor – and I believe this with every fibre of my being – an anchor to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and, quite frankly, around the world,” he said at the press conference.

Anthony Albanese was able to meet the Mike Johnson, the new Republican speaker of the House.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Albanese was especially effusive about Biden. This is a common pattern in prime ministerial visits to Washington, where Australian leaders want to nurture a personal bond with the president.

Albanese, who has met Biden nine times since the election last May, praised the president for his “moral clarity” on Israel and Gaza and for his support for AUKUS. In one of several pitch-perfect speeches, Albanese quoted Biden’s dead son, Beau, on the value of Australian friendship.

There was an element of doubt, however, in the prime minister’s address at his ceremonial welcome to the White House on Wednesday morning. “American leadership is indispensable – but it is not inevitable,” he said. “It takes a leader to deliver it.” If this was praise for Biden, it was also a concern for the future.

What happens with the next president? Could Australia depend on Trump in the event of his restoration to the White House? How real is the prospect of Trumpist presidents at some point during the decades of the AUKUS pact? Or is this venal populism only a passing phase?

Some practical progress was made this week. On foreign policy, Australia and the US will spend tens of millions of dollars on undersea cables for internet connections to Pacific islands, fending off overtures from China. On climate, Albanese is giving the US priority for the export of Australian critical minerals that are essential to renewable technologies like batteries and wind turbines. On space, the two leaders cleared the way for American spacecraft to launch from Australian sites.

But there was no business delegation of the scale of the visit by Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister in early 2018, when he was joined by company chiefs and state premiers including Daniel Andrews, Gladys Berejiklian, Annastacia Palaszczuk and Mark McGowan. The Albanese agenda was higher in status, as a state visit, but lower in energy.

“The timing of the Congressional debacle was frustrating,” says Innes Willox, the chief executive of the Australian Industry Group and one of the guests at the state dinner on Wednesday night.

“There’s been incremental but important progress made this week,” he says. “The message from this visit on AUKUS is that speed is of the essence and there can’t be foot-dragging. More than ever after this week, we need urgent, coherent and clear policy settings and objectives to help industry take advantage of the many opportunities AUKUS presents.”

Biden is committed to clearing the obstacles to the AUKUS submarine project, but this week’s visit did not make that outcome any more certain. Nobody can be sure of the support in Congress until legislators approve changes to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, to allow the export of US knowledge and technology on nuclear submarines.

Albanese made headway with some members of Congress on the morning after the state dinner. He shook hands with Johnson during a brief talk and congratulated him on becoming Speaker. “It might be too late for me to address Congress,” the prime minister quipped. “Unfortunately,” Johnson replied.

Albanese also met Senate leaders including New York Democrat Chuck Schumer and Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell and perhaps 60 members of Congress during meetings on Capitol Hill that ran for about two and a half hours. This is important headway in a Congress of 535 members.

One of the themes of the week was the warning from Biden that Australia cannot really trust China despite the easing of tensions and the imminent visit by Albanese to Beijing from November 4. “Trust but verify,” Biden said about China. In other words, do not trust them much at all. This is a lesson Australians have already learned.

But the necessary question is whether Australia can fully rely on America – this great and powerful friend that also happens to have a serious weakness in its political heart. While the ceremonies of the week made the US seem utterly dependable, nobody could ignore the chaotic Congress in the background.

Biden told guests that Australia and the US “stand as close as we have ever been”.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove makes an essential point about this question: the US is a better ally than others. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reminded everyone of the need for free countries to work together. Democracies are joining alliances, he says, not leaving them.

“The United States remains the central mover in the international system – the only country with a truly global foreign policy, the only nation that can deploy power anywhere on earth,” says Fullilove. “It is also the leading democracy in the world – a messy democracy, certainly, but also a strong and resilient one.”

Fullilove, who was at the state dinner, says Albanese handled the week well and has hit it off with the president.

“Biden has been persistently underestimated by commentators,” he says. “In fact, he is a formidable foreign-policy president. His national-security team is first-rate. Over the past three years he has strengthened all of America’s key Indo-Pacific alliances and stabilised the US-China relationship.

“The Biden administration has made a huge effort for Albanese this week – and paid Australia a big compliment. It is no small thing for the President and his key advisers to devote several days to us when they are knee-deep in conflicts in both the Middle East and Europe.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese assured US President Joe Biden repeatedly that the alliance was strong. Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

This could be reason for confidence about the future of the alliance under Albanese and Biden – and perhaps under their successors. The test remains for Congress, however, to show that it supports the alliance as soundly as the administration does.

So the story of this week was about an Australian mission that was full of ambition – on AUKUS, climate, the economy – coming into contact with an American political system with sand in its gears. This was a state visit where the hopeful met the dysfunctional.

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