The Buzz

Australia’s Turnbull Brings Nuance to the U.S. Alliance

The reaction to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's speech at CSIS this week revealed once again some of the fault lines in the debate over the Australian-American alliance.

Hugh White contended that Turnbull had failed to live up to some of his earlier pronouncements on the implications of China's rise for American power in Asia. Although White characterized this as a “missed opportunity,” he also conceded that it was no surprise that Turnbull did not choose his first visit to Washington to wade into the more provocative question of what growing Chinese muscle might mean for the coordinates of America's regional strategy.

Partly in response to White, Greg Sheridan labeled it “fatuous” to claim that Turnbull “changed in any manner…the tone” of the relationship with the United States.

Former ONA chief Allan Gyngell acutely characterized the speech as notable for its “absence of absolutes.” And Tom Switzer placed Turnbull in the camp of those Australian leaders who, while strongly committed to the Alliance, are “noticeably less idealistic” about the relationship. 

No one argues that the Prime Minister's speech in any way signals the start of a drift away from Australia's sturdy alliance moorings. But Turnbull is on record before he came to the top job of warning about the hollowness of “extravagant professions of loyalty and devotion” to the United States and the need not to get “doe eyed” in the presence of the American president. And he remained true to such statements in Washington.

In his prepared remarks Turnbull detailed a shared history of sacrifice, discussed the importance of common values and dismissed those who countenance American decline. But it would be difficult to find an Australian prime minister in the last 60 years not giving a version of this kind of language on visits to the U.S. capital. It is a virtual rite of rhetorical passage.

There was, however, a noticeable shift in tone and a welcome addition of nuance in his remarks. It contrasted sharply with the rhetoric of both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, whose words in Washington in recent years carried more than a faint whiff of uncritical subservience.

Recall that Gillard told Congress in March 2011 that “Americans can do anything” and that Australia will be “an ally for all the years to come.” Remember too Tony Abbott's speech to the Washington-based Heritage Foundation in July 2012 in which he said that few Australians would regard America as a “foreign country,” before going on to almost will the Americans to rediscover the belief in themselves. 

But it is not the job of Australian leaders to stoke the fires of triumphant American nationalism or pump-prime the U.S. exceptionalist impulse. Rather they should be taking every opportunity to offer the administration their independent judgement: to advise caution, prudence and restraint. Especially after recent Middle East wars that have cost America dearly in blood, treasure, credibility and prestige. This is why Turnbull's speech is worthy of reflection. What he most decidedly did not do this week was tell the Americans only what they wanted to hear.

Thus on the question of the threat of ISIS in the Middle East, Turnbull raised the question of partition as a possible solution to the crisis in Iraq and Syria; that is, the creation of an independent Sunni state encompassing parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Neither Abbott nor the Obama Administration has ever supported this proposal in public. Turnbull at least put it on the table for consideration.

And on the question of China's rise, and in particular freedom of navigation patrols through the contested reefs and shoals of the South China Sea, there is every possibility that American officials would like to have seen, and see, a more robust Australian response to recent Chinese activity there. But Turnbull was categorical in asserting that Australia would not support unilateral action, and that the question of competing claims to these outcrops should be secondary to holding China to account on its intentions. The pressure he placed on Washington to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was entirely in keeping with how a responsible ally should behave: namely advising the Americans about how and where their regional leadership might be diminished.