For Australia and the Asia Pacific, President Barack Obama’s message is “we’re back”. The US is refocused on this region. For Americans his message is that this China-dominated region of economic growth can be a vehicle for America’s economic recovery, rather than a threat to it.
“I have made a deliberate and strategic decision, as a Pacific nation the United States will play a larger and stronger role in shaping this region,” he said.
The White House had billed it as the “anchor speech” for the President’s trip, and as Australian MPs and Senators sat jammed together in one chamber in respectful, if slightly squashed, silence Obama nailed down his two key points.
He spelled out why this is a “pivot point” in American foreign policy, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called it.
The “pivot” is America’s re-orientation towards Asia as it extricates itself from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost it 6000 lives and more than a trillion dollars, and finally gives its full attention to the economic and strategic shifts that are re-aligning global power.
Obama said America’s new regional focus had three threads. First, security. Despite the dire budgetary constraints at home, defence spending cuts would spare this region because the US was “here to stay”. Second “prosperity” because free markets were “the greatest force the world has ever known for creating wealth” and third upholding fundamental human rights.
For Australia the “pivot” is good news. Both sides of politics believe it is firmly in Australian interests for America to be a strong economic and security power fully engaged in our region. As Prime Minister Julia Gillard put it as she welcomed the President yesterday, Australia sees the alliance as a “stabilising influence” in a region of change. Or as Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said “what’s good for America is likely to be good for the world”.
It is also clearly in Australia’s interests for China to maintain its voracious appetite for our raw materials, but the friction over the announcement of an increased US military presence in Darwin is not going to change that.
For an increasingly inward-looking and crisis-weary American domestic audience, President Obama explained why he was spending such a long time on the other side of the world — being engaged in the world’s fastest growing region is an important way to protect American jobs.
With the joint select committee back in Washington still struggling to deliver a plan for a mind-boggling $1.2 trillion in savings over the next 10 years, economic growth and job creation are understandably front of mind.
In fact, US presidential speeches to joint sittings of Australia’s parliament provide a handy historical snapshot of exactly where US foreign policy is “pivoted” at a particular point in time.
President Bill Clinton presided over the post-Cold War era of peace and prosperity, when America was focused on the rapid change in Europe, the emerging of democracy across the former eastern bloc, the growth in NATO and the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
When he addressed a joint sitting on November 20, 1996 it was a speech full of optimism, steeped in the end-of-history idea that western values — democracy, freedom and open trading markets — looked like becoming the ideals of the world.
Clinton acknowledged concern at the time that America was so worried about Europe that it was disengaging with the Asia Pacific, but insisted “we need not choose . . . in a global economy with global security challenges, America must look to the east no less than the west.”
But that era of optimism came to a crashing end five years later with the attacks of September 11. They dictated President George W. Bush’s foreign policy and his very strong relationship with John Howard — dubbed by Bush a “man of steel” — who he had met in Washington just the day before.
Bush’s speech to a joint sitting two years after the attacks on October 23, 2003 was almost entirely about the war against terrorism, the shared values that dictated both US and Australian support for it.
In that speech China was mentioned only because the President was “encouraged by China’s co-operation in the war on terror”.
Now, eight years on, their focus has turned again.