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National Affairs

The intellectual American alliance

1 April 2009

For the American president and the Australian prime minister this week’s G20 meeting is a vital test, writes Bruce Grant

Right:

Barack Obama escorts Kevin Rudd to his car after the two met in the Oval Office on 24 March 2009. Kate Hannon/AAP Image

Barack Obama escorts Kevin Rudd to his car after the two met in the Oval Office on 24 March 2009. Kate Hannon/AAP Image



IT’S ANYBODY’S GUESS what President Obama meant when he described his meeting with Australia’s prime minister as “a great meeting of the minds.” But it’s the first time, I think, that our close relationship with the United States has been given an intellectual imprimatur, so it’s worth pursuing.

Usually, the language of friendship between Canberra and Washington – and, by democratic extension, between the peoples of Australia and the United States – has deferred to lower, physical parts of the body. “Shoulder to shoulder” has been popular, and our previous prime minister, George Bush’s “man of steel,” frequently referred to Australia’s steadfast stance, our refusal to cut and run.

A meeting of minds suggests something less martial and more political, more flexible, perhaps even deft. There are some clues. On Iraq and Afghanistan, both men accept that the first war was mistaken and the second needs to be conducted differently, understanding that terrorists thrive on the presence of foreign soldiers. What might have been possible in Afghanistan if Iraq had not been invaded (putting resources in the wrong place and giving terrorism a just cause) is possible no longer. Pakistan, always vulnerable, is now part of the problem and Obama is taking a regional approach. Iran, once part of Washington’s “axis of evil,” is now seen as a potential ally. Rudd appears to be with him on diagnosis; on the question of commitment, he is waiting to see what Europe has to offer.

On the global financial crisis, the two men are agreed on the need for fiscal stimulus. It’s not clear from their public statements whether they are convinced regulators, at least to the same degree as the Europeans. Obama, in the great American tradition of private enterprise, seems less so than Rudd, who is himself ambivalent, veering between what he calls fiscal conservatism and a desire to clamp down on the excesses and moral lapses of the capitalist system.

The strongest clue may be Rudd’s reference to the failure of the London conference of 1933, which was intended to attack global depression, stimulate trade and stabilise currencies. Rudd has pointed out that the failure led to the rise of extremism in Europe and preparation for war. What the Australian prime minister did not say was that the failure was mainly due to the behaviour of one of Obama’s heroes, the then new American president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Like Obama, FDR had just been elected. He inherited the conference, an idea that his predecessor Herbert Hoover had worked on for two years. Unlike Obama, FDR did not attend, preferring to holiday on his yacht in the north Pacific, and sent his secretary of state Cordell Hull, who he gave little room to negotiate. The collapse of the conference, and at least some of its consequences, intended and unintended, is generally attributed to FDR’s lack of support for the international cooperation the conference was intended to kick start.

FDR’s insouciance was an example of the “exceptionalism” that has made the United States a reluctant partner in multilateral diplomacy. It has been tagged “isolationism,” but this is a misnomer. The United States is actually highly interventionist, but on its own terms. It has such a strong belief in its own way of doing things that any president who seems to be courting international opinion soon finds himself under attack at home.

President Woodrow Wilson was a champion of the League of Nations, but the Senate scuttled it. The United States has not ratified several important international agreements because of the political hurdle of a two-thirds majority in the Senate. On some issues, such as capital punishment, the individual states make the decision. The Supreme Court sits above all in defence of the Constitution. You might say, as former secretary of state George Schultz once did, that the US system of government is so susceptible to checks and balances that no decision in Washington is ever final.

This time, the “meeting of minds” between Rudd and Obama suggests that the United States will be both an active and a constructive member of the G20 conference in London this week. The conference is important for both men, but no less for the rest of the world. The street opposition outside is not as significant as the opposition inside, especially from the mainland Europeans. But this conference is crucially different from the one three-quarters of a century ago. The global depression then was centred, as now, in the advanced industrial world, especially the United States, but this time other significant global economies will have a voice. I need mention only Indonesia, India, China, Brazil and South Africa for the point to be made.

The old tension between Europe and the United States over who has the most sustainable combination of capitalism and democracy will drift into background as these states raise their voices. China, in particular, seems prepared to provide more funds to the International Monetary Fund if it is given a more influential role.

There is another difference from the 1933 conference. Germany was by then determined to upset the status quo in Europe. This was H.G. Wells’ theme in his book of the same year, The Shape of Things to Come , in which he blamed the failure of the conference for the spread of “dictatorship and fascism.” There is no similar candidate on the horizon, although Russia sometimes behaves as if it would like to be. China, the old adversary of the United States, has become committed through market forces to its success.

The failure and success of international conferences is often left to hindsight. But for the American president and the Australian prime minister this G20 meeting is an early test of how they can be expected to work together. They have different styles. Obama is charismatic, Rudd is programmatic. The Australian prime minister has the unusual ability to keep several levels of policy, domestic and foreign, in mind at the same time and to know how they are connected. Obama has authority. Rudd can connect the dots.

With luck they could be a useful combination in the complex negotiations that lie ahead. •

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Preferred ground: Kevin Rudd during a visit to the Royal Brisbane Hospital on Monday, where he announced a $739 million plan for a federal takeover of aged care.
AAP Image/ Patrick Hamilton

Preferred ground: Kevin Rudd during a visit to the Royal Brisbane Hospital on Monday, where he announced a $739 million plan for a federal takeover of aged care.
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