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So sentimental, not sentimental!*

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 15 March 2011

When recent Australian Prime Ministers have visited Washington DC and met with US Presidents, they have taken one of two approaches: the Howard/Gillard approach and the Keating/Rudd approach. Both Keating and Rudd saw their meetings with US leaders as rare opportunities on the highest stage – their chance to seize the moment and make grand proposals. In Keating's case it was the promotion of an Asia Pacific economic community that led to the formation of APEC. In Rudd's case it was the expansion of Keating's ambition and the idea of a combined US-Australia approach to climate change in the lead up to the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. In his policy oriented political memoir Engagement, Keating writes of his first meeting as Prime Minister with a US president: "The visit would provide the first chance for me to set out my views on foreign and defence policy…I was determined that the warm fog of sentimentality that swirls around the relationship between the United States and Australia so easily on these occasions shouldn't obscure the opportunity. I did not want the President to fly out of Australia having heard no more than rehashed policy positions and familiar catechisms of loyal friendship."

The problem with the Keating/Rudd approach is that the big idea can sometimes fall flat, its only enduring legacy being that of the Australian leader lecturing an American President. This was an image that John Howard was always keen to avoid. The Howard/Gillard approach is to focus heavily on the sentimental kinship between Australia and the US forged in wars. This approach places a premium on shared values and beliefs as the underpinning of alliances. Howard's speeches to US audiences or on the US-Australia alliance were always full of references to soldiers fighting shoulder to shoulder and lists of the commonalities shared by the two nations. This sentimentality was taken to a whole new level by Julia Gillard in her address to the US Congress last week. At one stage she choked up with emotion when she recalled her childhood viewing of the 1969 American moon landing. She said back then she thought "Americans can do anything", and she still does. Her emotiveness struck a chord within the audience with tears running down the cheeks of the Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner (although as vouched for by a Saturday Night Live skit and insiders, he cries at the drop of a hat). Oh the rivers of sentiment in nation to nation love!

However, the first lore of international relations passed down from Machiavelli is that nations are not like people: they are far more self-interested and they mate for convenience and protection not love. Under this lore, the Howard/Gillard approach misses the mark. Does this mean our Prime Ministers should focus more on interests and promoting Australian ideas than on back slapping and telling the Americans how great they are? Maybe not. Julia Gillard hardly mentioned Australian interests (or even Australia) in her address to Congress. Instead she offered fulsome praise for America and strongly encouraged America to have an expansive international role. This does not mean her approach lacks a strategic underpinning.


In an interview with a leading Australian official in Washington DC a few years ago, the argument was put to me that Americans are a particularly sentimental people and we need to play on that sentimentality in our diplomatic relations with them. The same claim has been put to me in subsequent interviews: namely nations support each other in wars not just because of interests but also because of sentimental attachments. Howard and Gillard put this theory into practice.

With Howard this idea was underpinned by a strong memory of the exposure of Australia's vulnerability in the 1999 East Timor intervention. Australia had sent troops to Dili and those troops rightly feared the consequences of engaging with Indonesian special forces. Howard asked the Clinton administration for military support and Clinton's initial response was sorry we can't help you. This was a nightmarish moment for Australia and one that led to a full diplomatic push by Australian officials in Washington to reverse the decision, which they were successful in doing. I have heard this story from Australians and Americans (including the senior Clinton official Thomas Pickering) and it should rightly be seen as a low point in Australia/US relations that was righted quickly and effectively.

So what was Clinton thinking in saying no? The Clinton administration was already engaged in relatively unpopular interventions in the former Yugoslavia, which were themselves restricted by the very negative public response to the loss of American lives in the Somalia intervention of 1992-1994. Clinton feared the reaction of Congress if American military forces were sent to East Timor. This meant that Australian officials at the Embassy in Washington had to work overtime on the relations they had established in the US Congress to gain support for US military back up in East Timor.

Those anxious days at the beginning of the East Timor intervention go some way toward explaining Howard's at times over the top support of George W. Bush and his enthusiasm for Australian involvement in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Gillard's speech yesterday to the US Congress also fits within this mindset of reminding American politicians what a loyal and supportive mate/buddy Australia is; the kind of mate/buddy you can not bear to let down. A BBC report on the speech summarised the approach very effectively with these words: "To Australian ears, the flattery seemed heavy-handed. A bit desperate. Aussies might have called it crawling, or sucking up - not a desirable trait. But to Americans, at this unpredictable moment in history, there are few things more welcome than an admiring ally. Or, as Ms Gillard termed it, a 'great mate'."

Ultimately it is hard to judge the fruits of the Howard/Gillard approach as they are attempts to protect Australia in worst case scenarios. However, two results of this approach are evident: Australia's overeagerness to support the US in a mistaken war in Iraq and its willingness to back America in the deeply problematic intervention in Afghanistan.

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*The title is borrowed from the opening line of the song "Lisztomania" by the French band Phoenix. Gillard's speech to the US Congress was not just heavy on sentimentality it recounted an almost liturgical list of reasons why Australia has a special relationship with America.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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