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November 21st 2015 print

Michael Warren Davis

Turnbull Among the Mighty

Now that our latest PM has canoodled with Obama can any observer doubt that he regards himself -- official, at last! -- as a fresh landmark on the high plains of statesmanship? Should he gaze beyond the mirror, he will see that Australia is now among the first order of nations and act accordingly

stairway to heavin'In an April, 2012, interview with Robert Manne for The Monthly, Malcolm Turnbull gave his most definitive foreign policy statements thus far. When asked about the United States, he called her politics “profoundly dysfunctional.” (Well, yes.) The state of the Beltway led him to conclude that the US is “like a country that is barely governed.” (Also true.) He decried the invasion of Afghanistan and the faulty intel that spurred the invasion of Iraq. Make no mistake, Manne tells us, Turnbull is “a friend of the United States and a supporter of the alliance.” He’s just not a sycophant. That’s fair enough: as an American, I’ve always thought we were Britain’s favorite child because we moved out of the house and got a job at such a young age. No one likes a bum-kisser.

Australia’s political class seems to have a difficult time defining itself except in terms of international relationships, be it an Anglophile like Abbott or a Sinophile like Rudd. But their pervasive Yankeephilia tends to be less pronounced. Sure, that’s not always the case: I spoke a senior member of the Right recently who confided, after a few glasses of chardonnay, that he would gladly dump the monarchy if Australia could become the 51st state in the Union. But for the most part, since WWII the Australian-American friendship has just been a given. And that’s a good thing. Our relationship isn’t complicated—we’re just mates. We vacation in each other’s countries, make fun of each other’s disgusting local swill, and try (and fail) to understand each other’s favorite sports. Most importantly, if one of us gets into a pinch, like assembling an Ikea bookshelf or being attacked by the Japanese, the other is going to turn up and help out, no questions asked.

That also means we get away with more. Not to stretch the metaphor too far, but you cop more from your friends than you do from randoms. KRudd did less to maintain our alliance than any Australian PM, and as soon as he was booted from the Lodge he was offered (and accepted) a job at America’s best university. So Turnbull has a great deal of room to redefine our friendship, and he knows it. And, really, it might not be such a bad idea.

Australia has quietly slipped into the top tier of world powers. She was the third-largest contributor of troops to the Invasion of Iraq, and is currently the second-largest non-regional combatant in Syria. Tony Abbott was also the first Western leader to declare that his country would cease attacking Syrian government forces and concentrate on destroying ISIS. This didn’t get much media attention, but it was an incredibly significant event: the first major step toward Putin’s grand coalition. The second was French President Francoise Hollande’s request that, following the Paris attacks, America and her allies take Russia up on its offer for a single, coordinated effort to wipe out the would-be Caliphate; Julie Bishop quickly announced that Australia would support that effort if the United States did. (As an aside, John Howard also has come out in support of striking a deal with Assad, which will have more than a little significance for Liberal policy-making.)

Obama will pay attention to Bishop’s suggestion (if his golf schedule is not too pressing), and well he should. Australia has certainly earned a seat at the grown-ups’ table. No country except the US and Russia has proven itself so willing to exercise strong power on the world stage. Australia’s relationship with China is also highly nuanced, balancing the ratification of a free trade agreement with standing firm against encroachment in the South China Sea. It really can’t be said, not anymore, that Australia is a backwater. She’s a serious player on the world stage in her own right. So if she’s still beholden to the United States on matters of foreign policy, that’s either voluntary or a force of habit. Turnbull, the outspoken republican and anti-neoconservative, is more likely to demand Australia’s voice be heard than any PM in recent memory. She has a great deal to say.

So Turnbull has the opportunity to continue Abbott’s great work of advancing Australia’s considerable presence in the international community. The Liberal government’s restrained, realist approach to foreign policy would be warmly welcomed in an age of reckless interventionism. He could help usher in a new age of deliberate and decisive attacks on immediate threats to Western civilization, while placing a moratorium on the disastrous nation-building enterprises that have defined the 21st century so far. Anyway, being the first PM to fully realize Australia as a leading world power would be a heck of a legacy, which might be incentive enough in itself for Malcolm.