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The United States and the ties that bind

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Thursday, 9 April 2009

Since World War II many nations have sought special relations with the United States. The list of nations claiming to have a special relationship with America is long and includes Britain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, Poland, South Korea, and most nations in the Americas (in short almost anywhere that has a defence or trading relationship with the US or is the source of large numbers of immigrants to the US).

In recent years Australia has also been talked about as having a special relationship with the US - at least this was the verdict of a group of alliance experts in a 2006 book entitled The Other Special Relationship. Achieving this special connection was obviously one of John Howard's key foreign policy objectives, and it is a goal shared by Kevin Rudd.

Great Britain is generally considered to have the special relationship with the US, although some would say Israel beats even the UK in the intensity and closeness of its relationship. Others would contend that the only special relationship the US really has is with itself and further that talk of special relationships is sentimental and deluded.


According to this line of thinking we should not anthropomorphise the nation-state, as Machiavelli counselled long ago. In other words, don't treat countries like people. Nietzsche characteristically sharpened this case with his assertion that “the state is a cold monster”. De Gaulle, possibly with memories of the 1956 Suez Crisis in mind, asserted that “great powers are cold monsters”.

More recently, Michael Howard wrote: “States are cold monsters that mate for convenience and self-protection, not love.” Although this realist worldview is often correct it overstates the case. It is too dismissive of the role of human emotions as well as shared cultures and shared experiences as determinants of foreign relations.

John Howard never let a speech about US-Australian relations pass without reference to Australia's shared values and shared war experiences with the US. While such rhetoric made some cringe, it played well with a sentimental president from Texas. The Bush years were somewhat of an exception to the general rule of nations continually vying for Washington's affection.

Undoubtedly the Howard government seized the opportunity to have stronger relations with the US government at a time when the US decision to go to war against Iraq had made America as unpopular as any time in its history. In other words when the US was more in need of support and allies, the Howard government took the opportunity to increase the intimacy of Australia's relationship with the US.

Maintaining this closeness once Bush left office was always going to be challenging and the fear of being forgotten is now in full display in the national media in Australia (and the UK).

The search for special relations with the US leads to much anxiety within Australia and the UK with every interaction with a US president analysed in minute detail by the national press in both countries. In 2008 The Age newspaper called upon a body language expert to comment on the chemistry between Kevin Rudd and George W Bush at the G20 summit and to analyse whether Bush had given Rudd a "dead fish handshake".


More recently Gordon Brown's visit to the White House has been pored over by the British press and declared a disaster because of the lack of time and respect Obama gave him. One much commented on titbit was that the British PM showered the Obama family with presents including an ornamental pen holder made from the wood of the anti-slave ship HMS Gannet.

In return the US president gave Brown a box set of 25 classic Hollywood films (this has been seen as the equivalent of taking someone to a five-star restaurant for dinner and them returning the favour by driving you through McDonald's for dessert on the way home).

Rudd's first meeting with Obama has been compared with Brown's to see who came out ahead. Obama offered up a better present to Rudd but some worried that Obama's cancellation of his planned lunch with Rudd was a sign of a downgraded bi-lateral relationship. All of this sounds trivial and ultimately it is, but the press attention it receives shows our national anxieties about wanting to be close to the most powerful nation in the world.

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First published in ABC's Unleashed as "Desperately Seeking Sam" on April 1, 2009.

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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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