Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 09:41 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 09:41 | SYDNEY

Obama in Australia: Could do better


Rory Medcalf


18 November 2011 16:37

So Obama has left his mark on the Australia-US alliance: a whirlwind visit, an historic speech on Asia strategy, an important shift towards US military access, and a genuine message of thanks and support for Australia's men and women in uniform. But as a major public diplomacy opportunity to consolidate America's closest Asia Pacific alliance, it could have been done considerably better. 

I have argued in favour of the strategic logic behind Obama's Canberra address and I believe it will be remembered as an historic speech – the clearest presidential articulation yet of America's pivot to Indo-Pacific Asia, and its commitment to stay engaged in the region despite its economic troubles at home.

But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the Obama Administration and the Australian government failed fully to exploit the chance to give the Australian public a sense of ownership and identification with the big policy messages of this visit. Australia's reaction to the changing power balance in the region, especially the rise of China and India, is a complex one covering economic, strategic and societal dimensions. To adjust the US alliance to this new reality, Washington really needs to engage Australians beyond traditional policy elites.

As I hinted at in this piece today for Foreign Policy, it was a shame – and a public diplomacy error – that Obama stayed in the country for just over 24 hours and did not visit a single one of the big, striving, multicultural cities where most Australians labour and live.

Where was the big economic conversation with the business community? Where was the street-level encounter with the true diversity – much of it Asian, and increasingly Chinese and Indian – of our self-made society of immigrants? If it was good enough for Oprah Winfrey to dazzle Melbourne and Sydney (even Hillary Clinton managed a walk by the Yarra) and it should have been good enough for Obama. It wouldn't have been all that hard: after all, his popularity has endured here far longer than in the US.

A whistle-stop tour of Canberra and Darwin was not enough. Most Australians do not identify with Canberra and nor do they wish to, whatever its quiet charms of bushland and bureaucracy. And most of us have little familiarity with Darwin and the frontier spirit of the Northern Territory, even if we know we should.

Normally it might not matter that a US president had chosen to confine his visit to two of Australia's smallest and most isolated cities, mingling mostly with politicians and military personnel. This is not at all to begrudge our troops the deserved attention they got from the leader of the ally they have lost comrades fighting alongside in Afghanistan.

But this visit was special – it was about sending a message to Australians, to Asia and to the world about America's strategic priorities and its antipodean ally's place in that framework. So the maximum effort should have been made to cultivate and, frankly, charm the wider Australian public, in whose name, security interests and democratic values this is being done.

It is true that the Gillard Government has done a year's worth of rudimentary due diligence in warning Australians that alliance was going to get closer, beginning with the 2010 AUSMIN declaration. Defence Minister Stephen Smith especially has spoken of more US ships, troops and planes visiting Australia.

Yet there is still a sense of surprise in large parts of an Australian public unaccustomed to seeing grand strategy on the front pages of their newspapers. To be sure, most Australians support the alliance, and most will be able to live with the closer military partnership now being forged. Many will rightly welcome and value it. But the Greens and the wider anti-American Left probably now have a richer vein of public cynicism to tap than need have been the case.

Photo courtesy of the White House.