Address to the Heritage Foundation, Washington D.C.
Posted on Wednesday, 18 July 2012
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It was the US Information Agency that organised my first trip to America as a member of parliament. I’d just been elected as a Liberal Party MP and had previously been one of the leading opponents of Australia becoming a republic.
Something happened in translation, though, because my US hosts had been told that I was very liberal and strongly anti-republican so I spent most of my fortnight in America being introduced to virtual communists.
Perhaps this was an illustration of the capacity of government agencies to get things wrong, in this country as well as in my own.
In any event, it’s good, finally, to find myself amongst like-minded Americans.
As our former prime minister, John Howard, often pointed out, the Liberal Party is the custodian in Australia of both the classical liberal and the conservative tradition.
The Heritage Foundation’s support for free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional values and strong national defence; and its mission to promote freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society closely correspond with the objectives of my own party.
The quest for freedom is the defining characteristic of the story of England but it has arguably been taken to a new pitch on this side of the Atlantic.
In a few pithy lines, Tennyson encapsulated the marriage of liberalism and conservatism in our tradition when he spoke of: “a land of just and old renown where freedom broadens slowly down from precedent to precedent”.
This is the heritage of the Magna Carta, the Provisions of Oxford, and the Glorious Revolution which the minutemen asserted against King George and which this Foundation celebrates.
When the Royal Navy thwarted the ambitions of Napoleonic France, when Britain and her empire stood alone against Nazi Germany and when President Reagan urged Mr Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, world history was shaped for the better. Representative democracy, impartial courts, the liberty of the press, and freedom under the law now seem close-to-universal aspirations. Given America’s role, it can’t quite be said that the modern world has been made in England but it’s certainly been shaped in English.
English-speaking countries have beckoned to people everywhere, especially in troubled times, harkening to the immortal words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.
I don’t normally quote President Clinton but he was grasping at a deep truth when he observed of the United States, “We're not one race…We're not one ethnic group. We're not one religious group…But you read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and you'll find that this country is an idea”.
The idea that each person should be free to become his or her best self: that, I’m sure, is what the Founding Fathers were grasping towards when they declared these truths to be self-evident, life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The United States and Australia are separate legal entities but few Australians would regard America as a foreign country.
We are more than allies, we’re family. Around the world we seek no privileges, ask no favours, crave no territory.
Our objectives are to promote trade, prevent aggression and, where possible, to foster democracy based on the rule of law.
Narrow self-interest would have kept America out of Iraq, as it did the French and German governments of the time.
It would have kept Australia out of East Timor. Likewise, narrow self-interest would have kept America out of the toughest parts of Afghanistan, at least once the Taliban had been defeated.
Money, not military power, was enough to secure oil supplies.
Stand-off missiles, not boots on the ground, are normally enough to eliminate terrorists and degrade their bases.
America’s military expeditions may sometimes be mistaken but they’re always well-meaning; even if others are tempted to conclude, with Graham Greene of the Quiet American, that he’d never known a man with such good intentions for all the trouble he’d caused!
Australians are less self-consciously idealistic than Americans but Prime Minister Chifley’s “light on the hill…working for the betterment of mankind, not just here but wherever we can lend a helping hand” might be considered an antipodean version of Reagan’s “shining city on a hill”.
Australians have been proud to go into battle with Americans, starting at Le Hamel when Pershing’s doughboys fought under Australian command, and subsequently in the Pacific, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United States shouldn’t take Australia’s support entirely for granted.
Australia’s national interest might not always be identical with America’s.
Our values, though, invariably coincide and Australia’s foreign policy should be driven as much by our values as by our interests.
The United States has been responsible for the Marshall Plan, the Peace Corps and the Gates Foundation. Australia has to its credit the Colombo Plan and Australian Volunteers Abroad.
Not since the war with Mexico, has America used force to extend its territory.
An exasperated Winston Churchill, desperate for allies, might once have remarked that the “Americans can be trusted to do the right thing – but only once all other possibilities have been exhausted”; but the better view, it seems to me, is the one attributed to de Tocqueville that America is great because America is good and if America ever ceased to be good she would also cease to be great.
The question now being pondered right around the world and, especially in Washington, fuelled by the rise of China, an inconclusive and unpopular war, and congressional gridlock here is: Have we reaching a tipping point in history? Has the United States passed from being a dominant to a declining power?
Facts, as opposed to fears, support no such conclusion.
First, America remains by far the world’s largest economy and has no systems-shaking transitions to manage.
Second, the world instinctively looks to America and to like-minded countries whenever trouble looms or disaster strikes.
Third, other countries’ success largely depends upon and substantially vindicates American traits such as intellectual curiosity, economic innovation, and political liberalisation.
And finally, the more other countries come to resemble America, the more likely they are to be forces-for-good in the wider world.
What’s remarkable is that right now, perhaps for the first time, the world appears to have more confidence in America than America has in itself.
America does have to beat its dependency on other countries’ savings.
Over time, America’s economic preponderance is likely to diminish.
These are new and testing circumstances; perhaps more testing than any since the end of the Cold War but that just makes despondency, let alone defeatism, more corrosive than usual.
It’s possible to see the fall of autocratic regimes such as Egypt’s Mubarak government as the replacement of the West’s friends by its enemies.
On the other hand, it’s also possible to see the Arab Spring as the first expression of an incipient movement towards greater democratic accountability.
Wherever they are, Egypt, Libya, Syria or Burma, to name just a few recent examples, oppressed peoples invariably appeal to America and its allies for help.
They may not like all aspects of Western democracy but they appreciate its singular benevolence.
It would be altogether premature to declare victory in the campaign against Islamist terrorism.
Still, the death of Bin Laden and the killing or capture of most of his principal lieutenants is a historic achievement.
Islamist fundamentalism will only be defeated when the Muslim world more fully comes to terms with pluralism.
Still, the fact that terrorists now find their fellow Muslims much easier to attack than Westerners should hasten the day when Islamist terror will be seen as a fratricidal aberration.
Nuclear proliferation remains a huge challenge. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed failing state.
Iran is resolved to acquire nuclear weapons.
Still, accidents seem to have befallen potentially hostile programmes and no one seems to be in any doubt about the consequences of nuclear delinquency.
Over time, security agencies seem to have become better at distinguishing between those who would make peace and those who would make war and at suitably dealing with them.
Industrial-scale terrorism is an ever-present possibility in the contemporary world.
The nightmare scenario is ideological fanatics acquiring a nuclear weapon and detonating it in a major city.
Nothing would more test the magnanimity and judgment of the world and its leaders.
Still, security agencies’ decade-long ability to prevent a September 11 scale atrocity, or worse, suggests that relentless, painstaking, cooperative effort can pay off.
As major war between nation states becomes less likely (at least between states that are not apocalyptic theocracies), this is the unthinkable disaster to be avoided at any cost and which the world’s energies must be dedicated to avert.
Recurrent Euro bail-outs and America’s perennial budget deficits are serious economic and political failures but don’t constitute a crisis of capitalism.
As long as economic jitters send the world’s money into the US dollar, it’s hard to see tough times as markers in the decline of the West.
For most of the world, the whole point of growing richer is to be able to enjoy more of the movies, music, fashion, pastimes and consumer goods of America and Britain and to adopt the kind of lifestyle enjoyed by the residents of Western cities.
Despite any entitlement mindset, it is possible to get debt and deficits under control.
The Howard government, for instance, turned an inherited 1 per cent of GDP deficit into consistent 1 per cent of GDP surpluses and net debt of 10 per cent into net assets of 5 per cent of GDP.
With remarkably little fuss, the Key government in New Zealand is on track to reduce government spending from 35 to just 30 per cent of GDP in the five years from 2009 by cutting or eliminating some programmes and reducing the rate of increase of others but above all by boosting economic growth.
It’s now conventional wisdom to speak of the coming Asian century.
The Asian century will be an Indian century and a Japanese century as well as a Chinese one.
It will be an American century because the United States is an Asia-Pacific power as well as an Atlantic one.
The economic empowerment of billions of people in China, India and Indonesia on top of the hundreds of millions in Japan, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia who have already joined the middle class is one of the great watersheds of human history.
This has taken place because scientific knowledge, market freedoms and, over time, elements of political reform have come to the Asia Pacific.
In other words, the Asian century, to the extent that it comes to pass, will be less a repudiation of Western values than a vindication of them.
China’s contemporary economic advance, for instance, began with Deng Xiaoping’s repudiation of central control of the economy and embrace of significant private ownership.
While so far maintaining its monopoly of political power, the Chinese Communist Party (unlike its former Soviet counter-part) doesn’t seek to export its system and faces constant pressure to allow more internal democracy.
A China that was freer as well as richer would be the best guarantee of peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region.
Real democracies, after all, have never gone to war with each other.
Between democracies, common interests might wax or wane and irritants might fester but we have much the same ways of thinking about problems and much the same means of resolving them.
Democracies have different histories but in important ways they inhabit the same mental universe and speak the same language.
Sharing liberal democratic values is akin to sharing a culture, a political culture at least, providing a common set of ideas and a common framework of thinking and mutual understanding.
In the meantime, admittedly, Asia has numerous strategic flashpoints.
These include North Korea’s nuclear programme, territorial disputes in the seas off China and, of course, any attempt to enforce China’s claim to Taiwan; as well as the perennial tension between India and Pakistan that terrorism could inflame.
A web of alliances means that serious military conflict in the region has the potential to draw in America and its partners.
Obviously, China’s increasing economic strength is being matched by increased military capability.
Still, the richer and more sophisticated a people become and the more access they have to information, the less likely they are to be impressed by militarism.
Stronger countries have more and more capacity to make trouble but they also have less and less incentive to do so.
The stronger they are, the more they have to lose, especially in conflict with other major powers.
Invariably, economic success means more integration with other countries as well as more competition with them.
The challenge is to keep the competition economic so that it benefits the world, rather than strategic where it might threaten it.
Tension between China and Taiwan, for instance, seems to be abating thanks to greater economic integration between mainland and overseas Chinese.
Economic competition, after all, is not a zero-sum game.
This is a practical demonstration of the potential for economic and political liberalisation to create a more benign world.
The right response to the rise of China is not to begrudge its growing economic strength but to welcome it and even to foster it.
As Mitt Romney declared in 2008, a strong China is not just a billion competitors but a billion customers.
That, in any event, was the response of the Howard government which famously declared that Australia had no need to choose between its history and its geography.
This point was illustrated in 2003 when President Bush and President Hu addressed the Australian parliament on successive days.
Australia doesn’t have to choose between our neighbours and our friends because our neighbours are also our friends and because our best friends are increasingly at home in our neighbourhood.
America is boosting its involvement in the Asia Pacific, not scaling it back.
The US is supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership to reduce trade barriers and has joined the annual East Asia Summit.
The decision to rotate a marine brigade through Darwin is part of America’s bid to improve security ties with the wider region.
Eventually, the Darwin facility could be an opportunity for multi-lateral as well as for bi-lateral defence training and exercise.
The conservative side of Australian politics has long supported closer links with Asia as well as stronger ties with our traditional friends and allies.
It was Prime Minister Menzies, after all, who first referred to South East Asia as the “near north” rather than the “far east”.
The Menzies government launched the Colombo Plan for the potential future leaders of our region to study in Australia and signed the Australia-Japan trade deal.
The Holt government ended the White Australia policy.
The Fraser government began large scale Asian immigration. The Howard government dramatically boosted trade with China.
The Liberal and National parties have just committed to a new version of the Colombo Plan that would send young Australian leaders to study in Asia as well as vice versa and to have at least 40 per cent of school leavers studying a foreign language.
Should the Coalition be elected, Jakarta would be my first overseas visit.
Of course, the next Coalition government would stand up for Australia’s interests and values but it would appreciate that this is best done by engaging with the region.
It should go without saying that geography won’t keep Australia economically strong even in an Asian century.
Australia’s moment in the Asian century could be missed through complacency.
To this end, the next Coalition government will remove unnecessary new taxes, cut $1 billion a year from business compliance costs and boost workplace productivity.
We will cut unnecessary government spending and get debt down.
We will seek efficiencies in defence spending but never at the expense of defence capability.
Australia’s relationship with America does not isolate us from our neighbours.
It makes us a better neighbour.
Our ties with the US give Australia more standing in the region.
Conversely, our standing in the region makes us a more valuable ally for the United States.
Australia will continue to respect China’s economic achievement and to strive to improve the relationship on everything where we can sensibly work together.
We will try to avoid indulgent gestures over, for instance, live cattle sales to Indonesia or uranium sales to India where our friends want us to be a secure source of supply.
We intend to play our part in the wider world through contributing to humanitarian relief and fully participating in the security partnership with our principal allies.
Over the past decade, there’s been much “expert” advice that Australia would be a better ally by ostentatiously refusing to participate in America’s so-called follies, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
To their credit, both the Howard government and the Rudd/Gillard government have refused to carp from the sidelines.
These days, America does not need to be told where it is going wrong but where it is going right.
By a large margin, the United States has the best universities, the most creative research, the most sophisticated intellectual property and the most accomplished high-end manufacturing.
America needs to believe in itself the way others still believe in it.
It needs once more to take to heart President Roosevelt’s advice that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
America is exceptional so exceptionalism has its place.
American world leadership might only truly be appreciated were it to disappear.
None of us should want to find out the hard way what a shrunken America might mean.
Australia wills America to succeed because a strong America means a safer world.